Maria Elena De La Garza, the Executive Director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, has been working in the nonprofit sector for over 29 years. Her expertise and generosity in building and supporting community networks, implementing solution-based strategies, and demonstrating leadership in action, has earned her the 2023 NEXTies Lifetime Achievement award.

With her extensive experience, De La Garza brings a valuable perspective to her organization’s efforts to address the needs of the Santa Cruz community. She has served on several boards for both local and statewide nonprofits and has developed a reputation for her ability to implement effective strategies that result in positive change.

De La Garza’s work at the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County has been exemplary. Under her leadership, the organization has developed innovative programs and initiatives that have helped the community, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Her focus on building community networks has helped to create a more cohesive and supportive community in Santa Cruz.

Her dedication to the nonprofit sector and her ability to implement effective solutions has made her a valuable asset to the Santa Cruz community.

Get to know Maria Elena below and be sure to join the NEXTies award show happening at Woodhouse Brewing on March 31. Get your tickets here.

Describe what you do in two sentences.

Maria Elena De La Garza
Maria Elena de la Garza due to her work with Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County is the 2023 NEXTie Lifetime Achievement honoree. Credit: Maria Elena De La Garza

Maria Elena De La Garza: Executive Director of CAB that exists to eliminate poverty and create social change;I am a part of an incredible agency trusted by the community for over 57 years to provide safety net services for individuals and families who are impacted by the conditions of poverty including low wages, unsheltered/homelessness, violence, barriers due to immigration status, and high cost of living. I hold the mission, vision and values of the agency and ensure alignment with all of our services, programs, and partnerships.

What inspired you to pursue your current path, and how did you get started?

Maria Elena: I was called to be of service because of the loss of a good friend due to violence one week before our high school graduation. I knew I wanted to help youth. I started in nonprofit work by teaching job readiness to high school youth who were impacted by violence.

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What do you consider to be your biggest achievement so far in your career, and why?

Maria Elena: I think that I have had some amazing opportunities that I would name as significant achievements:

  • Have been hired as the Executive Director for the Community Action Board 10 years ago and hold a leadership position in my hometown/county!
  • Helping operationalize what EQUITY means for CAB agency including ensuring that our board, admin and staff reflect the community that we serve.
  • National Speaker for the National Community Action Partnership, Martin Luther King Event 2023.
  • Speaker as part of the Santa Cruz County’s Women’s March in front of 16k people 2017.

What are you most looking forward to in 2023?

Maria Elena: Strengthening CAB’s work with the indigenous speaking community; Continuing to elevate south county voices and strategically working together to help the community THRIVE.

What are your future career goals and aspirations?

Maria Elena de la Garza
Maria Elena’s dedication to the nonprofit sector and her ability to implement effective solutions has made her a valuable asset to the Santa Cruz community. Credit: Maria Elena de la Garza

Maria Elena: Future career goals is to continue supporting CAB to be a strong agency that is responsive to community needs; Supporting emerging leaders of color in the nonprofit sector, elevating the voices of those in our community who are most invisible including indigenous language speaking community, and continuing to advocate for south county needs.

What role do you believe mentorship and networking have played in your success?

Maria Elena: Mentorship and relationship building has completely fueled my success and the growth of the agency. I have had the privilege of learning from amazing mentors who taught me the importance of keeping connected to the community while developing a business skill set; I learned that the best way of keeping an agency vibrant and relevant is to invest in the professional development of the team.

How do you stay connected with your community?

Maria Elena: I live in the community where I was born and raised; I walk to work whenever possible, I shop in my neighborhood, I attend my local gym—these are some examples of strategies to help me to see what is happening on the ground level.

What does being a NEXTie honoree mean to you?

Maria Elena: It highlights the importance of supporting emerging and young leaders by listening to their stories, elevating their experiences and sharing what I have learned, so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Who will be joining you at this year’s NEXTies award show on March 31?

Maria Elena: Hubby, Marc Sander, Pops in law Paul Sander, my auntie Lola Sander, CAB Board and team, mentors from past nonprofit jobs, family and friends including some college girlfriends.

Anything else you would like to share?

Maria Elena: I am profoundly grateful for this honor.

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