We had the good fortune of connecting with Maria Valenzuela and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Maria, what do you want your legacy to be?
On a personal level I hope that I am remembered as someone who was always willing to help in any way that I could. Oftentimes help is offered with strings attached or expectations and I hope that I am seen as transparent in my genuine willingness to help others tackle problems.

In the community I hope to leave a legacy as someone with the tenacity to work against a system that was not designed to lift up the population I come from and now serve. I have worked hard to make Esperança a trustworthy, reliable, good-intentioned name in the community and I aim to instill these community-centered beliefs in our young staff members to carry on that good name. I feel the same passion and heart for this work today as I did when I helped our first program participant 22 years ago and I hope that is reflected each day in my service.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Since I was a girl freshly immigrated to the United States, I have had a drive that longed for justice. From firsthand experience I have lived and understand many of the injustices that take place in minority communities. I found an outlet for that desire in the work of Esperança, a global health organization that serves the most under-resourced communities in Arizona and around the world.

I take great pride in the fact that when I first walked into the doors of Esperança I was told that I was being hired for a two-year pilot program. 22 years later I have transitioned from a community health educator, to director of our Arizona programs, to now overseeing Esperança’s programs in seven different countries as the Senior Program Director. But no matter my title, I love to stay connected to my roots. Whenever I return to the community, the schools and community centers that I grew up in myself, I reflect on how far I’ve come. When I can share my story and community members say that they feel hope for themselves and their children because this journey is possible for them too…that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Though I don’t see myself as an activist in the traditional sense, I am an advocate for each individual member in our community that needs our help or guidance.

Though I’ve overcome many challenges in my life to get to this point, I never gave up. Not having a degree, many along my journey have viewed me as uncapable or unworthy of leadership. I used to feel that I was incapable of achieving what I have since I didn’t have a degree. But I never lost my ganas (desire) to make change. Once I allowed myself to believe in my ambitions and educated myself through the power of experience and the personal traits that I bring to the table, I overcame that hurdle for the betterment of our programs and communities.

These challenges taught me important lessons on the way, which is why I always seek guidance from those that have lived the experience and learn from them. It is important for me to understand and gravitate toward people that have complimentary skills and not see them as competition. I focus on the big picture, be a lifetime learner, and make no assumptions.

I hope that because of this the world can see that I gave it my all and I lived with purpose. I don’t have all the answers and I have made mistakes, but I have also learned from them. Above all, I hope to be seen as a good human being.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
First off, I would invite them to my house! It is small and humble, but also colorful and welcoming. Outside of work, I love to tap into my creative side and have put time and effort in to make my home a place of safety and security. Of course, they need to say hi to Papi Chullo (my rescue Chihuahua).

The next day we would go somewhere we can be out in nature. Heading toward Globe is Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a beautiful trail to hike along and admire the diverse plants that call Arizona home. I love being in a space where we can admire the beauty that we live in – a space that allows us to clear our minds.

After that we would eat at a local spot or go back to my house and have a potluck for some of my homemade sour cream chicken enchiladas with beans and salsa. My guest would be in charge of the rice because I have never been able to perfect that one!

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I want to give a shoutout to the community for believing in me, to my hardworking team because they support me and they put in the work every single day, to our partners because it’s crucial to work together to best support the community, and of course to Jeri (Esperança’s President & CEO) because she is our first female CEO. She understands the detriment to under-resourced families when they are suffering from a system that wasn’t created to serve them. She has had faith in me and given me the opportunities I needed to grow to my full potential, guiding me as a supervisor and mentor. And lastly, I of course want to acknowledge my daughters for being supportive and some of my favorite volunteers throughout my nonprofit career!

Website: www.esperanca.org

Instagram: www.instagram.com/esperancainc/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maria-valenzuela-29334055/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Esperanca_Inc

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/esperancainc/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/esperanca1970

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