Index Tribune: "First Latino director hired at La Luz"
After securing the annual $100,000, Impact100 grant, and celebrating the most successful fundraiser in its history, La Luz Center has been on an upswing this summer. The Valley nonprofit marked another milestone by installing the first Hispanic executive director in the organization’s 27-year history when it hired Juan Hernandez III in August.
“He is the very first Latino to work as the director,” beamed Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, president of the La Luz board of directors. She added that the change was important as the organization largely serves the immigrant population, most of whom are Hispanic.
“Our clients can look up to him and their children can see what he is doing and know that they can do it too. Their parents can say, ‘Look, look who you can become.’ That’s one thing we don’t have in Sonoma Valley, those types of role models,” Mendoza-Carruth said. “That’s one of the most powerful things we can give our community and the clients we serve.”
Hernandez brings with him a vast array of experience, which Mendoza-Carruth said made him an ideal leader for La Luz. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Hernandez grew up with a minister father, and working with the community played a significant role in his childhood. He earned a bachelor’s degree at UC Riverside, and then was one of a handful of fellows selected for the Management Leadership for Tomorrow program in New York City, a specialized training aimed at getting minorities into advanced business degrees. He went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology, with an emphasis on organizational development, from Sonoma State University. Most recently, he served as the director of educational programs at the Calistoga Family Center, an organization similar to La Luz providing resources and information to the immigrant community.
“It’s not just my time in Calistoga, but my life experience and my education that I’ll bring to La Luz,” Hernandez said. “When I first came to La Luz, I said, ‘This is exactly the type of organization I want to work in.’”
Hernandez explained that he briefly volunteered at La Luz while he was attending Sonoma State, but the commute proved difficult for a fulltime student. He also applied for the position of executive director two years ago, but the board ultimately selected Yvonne Hall.
“It was a time of administrative turmoil at La Luz. (Hall) came to fill the desk for almost no pay,” Mendoza-Carruth said, adding that Hall had always said she’d give La Luz two years before she wanted to go back into retirement. During her tenure, Hall brought financial stability to the organization, even convincing all staff members to take a pay cut so no one would get laid off. As the two years drew to a close, the 22 members of La Luz’s board of directors formed a search committee and reviewed 40 applicants before selecting Hernandez for his ambition, experience and education.
“She (Hall) is now happy in retirement again. We’ve invited her to be a permanent advisor to the La Luz board,” Mendoza-Carruth said.
Hernandez began in August, just as La Luz was working on plans to expand its physical space, thanks to the $100,000 grant from Impact100. “Juan basically arrived and on the first day was looking over financials and budgets for the project,” Mendoza-Carruth said.
While he spent the first month working closely with the staff to understand how the organization functions, Hernandez is now interested in strengthening La Luz’s outreach in the community by collaborating with other groups and organizations. He said he plans to review the programs and services to find opportunities to better serve clients. He also plans to work more closely with the county, especially when it comes to grants.
“We don’t receive any money from the county, which has grants for the exact services we offer. I want to know why,” he said.
He said he was most excited to get involved with the Sonoma Valley community. “I see me in our clients and I am able to connect, it is a unique thing,” he said. “They kind of look at me like, ‘Wow, there’s a Latino here now.’ It changes the dynamics.”
But he said he doesn’t want the fact that he’s Latino to define his role or the organization. “One of the things I want people to know is that La Luz doesn’t only serve Latinos. We’re an organization that helps people in need,” he said. “I want our organization to be nimble enough where we can focus on the needs of Sonoma Valley.”
Hernandez is married and his wife, Veronica Ortiz-Hernandez, is a high school Spanish teacher. In addition to his work and family, Hernandez is a passionate sports fan, especially when it comes to USC football.
“I am an excellent football coach, so maybe Sonoma Valley High School will let me come and coach one of their young teams,” he laughed.