21 for ’21: MariaElena De La Garza isn’t interested in going backward

MariaElena De La Garza, executive director of Watsonville-based Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Her mother used to tell her, Cada quien pone su granito de arena — “Everyone puts in their grain of sand.”

As MariaElena De La Garza remembers it, that was her mother’s way to evoke collective action, to illustrate the individual’s responsibility to her community.

After nearly 30 years in the non-profit sector helping others out of poverty, De La Garza has put in more than her fair share of sand. And that’s a good thing, given that 2020 was a year for the sandbags.

As the executive director of the Watsonville-based Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, overseeing 40 employees and more than 500 volunteers who serve thousands across the county, De La Garza faces daunting challenges in normal times. But 2020 was definitely not normal.

“The need was off the charts,” she said, reflecting on a year during which her organization’s typical caseload more than tripled. “But the response was off the charts too.”

CAB’s mission includes job placement, rental assistance, help for immigrants, and other services for low-income families and individuals. When statewide shelter-in-place orders were issued in mid-March, almost overnight the agency faced a tidal wave in demand for its services, including critical requests from vulnerable day workers who were suddenly without access to an income.

De La Garza put her team on an emergency footing and was pleasantly surprised at the immediate community response.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

“Thirty years I’ve been doing this work,” she said, “and, until then, I had never seen the elimination of barriers by people in power who make decisions to get support to families who most need it. Never seen it. I mean, it filled my heart. It really gave me hope during dark times.”

A few weeks later, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $75 million program to help undocumented workers who were not eligible for other government assistance. To implement the program, Newsom turned to the non-profit sector, specifically 12 agencies in California. One of them was the Community Action Board.

De La Garza and her staff were given the responsibility to administer the program in a vast Central Coast region that covered from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo. Soon, they were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. “We had to find a team, hire a team, train a team, and develop a service delivery model that we didn’t have before,” she said. “We had to create a call center. The first hour of the program we had 30,000 calls on the 1-800 number. We had project managers, five of my directors, all available on the weekends, approving applications, processing requests. It was all hands on deck.”

As she contemplates 2021, the lessons of the past year are, for De La Garza, clear. “The systems that were created to be accessible and supportive (for people in need) are neither. In the best of times, they struggle. But in a crisis, they are just not flexible enough to meet the needs of the community.”

In her view, the fact that the emergency process worked so well in getting help to people quickly by overriding established systems is a reflection that those systems need to change. The needs continue to be urgent. But, she said, the community response has been up to the task so far.

“We’re going to turn the corner on this,” said De La Garza. “We have to. But I think there’s some fundamental threads that have been exposed. Light fell on some really important issues that can’t be ignored: the issues of equity, of racial justice, the issues of systems that we need to re-evaluate and change. We have to go forward with these. There’s no going back.”

Santa Cruz Salutes: Shoutout someone doing good things for the community


The Santa Cruz community comes together in hard times, which was especially evident in 2020. Do you know of someone who volunteered, donated, or helped the community in some way this year? To give someone a Santa Cruz Salute, fill out the form below with a photo of them and a short description to describe how they are trying to make the community better.