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Determined to make a difference

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By Anita Mabante Leach

Luz Sarmina Gutierrez

Luz Sarmina Gutierrez was born to lead – and to do it with confidence.

The oldest of five children, Luz learned to be responsible at an early age. She and her sisters were often asked to keep watch on each other.

Two horses, a palomino and a quarter horse, were also part of her Ohio family upbringing. Her parents had moved there from Mexico when Luz was six. When they arrived, she had to learn English.

“My bigger sense of responsibility was built in two ways: I was the oldest of five children and there were seven years between myself and my youngest brother. You know how Latino families are: ‘Keep an eye on your brother,’ ” she recalls. “My parents very much stressed responsibility. Having a horse, you have to be thorough. You can’t put the saddle on halfway because you’re going to end up on the ground.”

Having to learn a new language was not really difficult for the young girl, either.

“When you’re six, your family is your home,” the CEO and president of Valle del Sol explains. “I wasn’t so much afraid of being in a new country as not being able to speak the language. Within three to four months I was able to speak pretty well. I could get by.”

It was during her teen years that she witnessed a scene that changed her life. Sarmina was a teacher’s aide in an Ohio summer school program for migrant children.

“I was stunned that people lived in such poverty and had so little,” she recalls. “So many kids, this little tiny one-room thing, and lucky if they had running water.”

The experience set her on a path of social service and she graduated from ASU with a master’s degree in social work. In 1995 she assumed leadership of one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the Valley. Sarmina oversees about 200 employees and an estimated $13 million budget to help families and individuals in need of counseling and treatment for behavioral problems.

REWARDING CAREER

Social work does not have the glamor some professions have, but Sarmina says the tradeoff is knowing you are making a difference.

“It’s a hard field, but it’s a very rewarding field. There will always be a job because there will always be people who need it.”

She adds there is a misperception that Valle del Sol accepts only Latino clients: “We serve anyone who comes to our door and needs help.”

While there are many poor families and individuals in need of help, more Latinos (as well as other minorities) are needed in the field. A random survey of 10,000 licensed social workers taken in 2004, found they were less ethnically diverse than the U.S. population. According to survey findings, 86 percent of social workers were non-Hispanic White, compared to 68 percent of the U.S. population. African Americans (seven percent), Latinos (four percent) and Asian/Pacific Islanders (one percent) were all underrepresented in social work.

Long hours and grim situations can be daunting, but Sarmina says young professionals must look beyond that.

“The things they don’t like about this part of the professional world, they need to work to change it,” she says. “Because imagine what this country would be without the not-for-profits. The not-for-profit world is a very good way to go. You learn a lot and get promoted faster because you’re exposed to more things and if you are working hard people notice.”

Changes in the social fabric of the nation also affect the ability of nonprofit organizations such as Valle del Sol to make an impact. That includes making affluent Latinos aware of their responsibility to those less fortunate.

“Certainly there are a lot more Latinos who are middle class now, who are more educated, who have many more opportunities,” she says.

BEING A ‘GOOD STEWARD’

Valle del Sol’s clients often learn of  the organization’s services by word of mouth. Most of its programs fall into three categories: family services, behaviorial health and Latino leadership. Under Sarmina’s guidance the 37-year-old nonprofit has thrived, but not without an occasional downsizing, as happened earlier this year.

“We are finding you have to take some risks and at the same time you have to mind the store,” Sarmina admits. “Number one, the people who come to us for help deserve to be helped and be treated respectfully,” she adds. “I also believe we receive public monies and we have to be good stewards of public monies.”

The organization also embarked on a $2.45 million capital campaign to rebuild Valle’s original 1209 S. 1st Ave. site.

“Asking people for $100,000 seemed like so much money. I’m really proud and proud of the community that they stepped up to the plate.”

The money will go Last October Sarmina was inducted into the ASU College of Programs Alumni Hall of Fame. On the heels of that honor came news from Valley Leadership that she had been chosen as its Woman of the Year 2006.

“All the awards have their own special meanings for different reasons. This one is  really thrilling because there haven’t been a lot of Latinos named to this,” she says. “I was in the first class of Valley Leadership, so it was especially nice to receive recognition because I had been involved with them for so many years.”

The stream of clients at Valle del Sol makes her wonder about her own health and well-being. Looking for balance, she enjoys horseback rides and time with husband Rosendo Gutierrez and their grown children. Twin grandbabies are expected in the fall, joining their little granddaughter.

Still, Sarmina has more goals.

“This is the top of a hill; there’s mountains out there,” she says. “Latinos are very generous people. I would like to develop that more in the community, as more of us become middle class. And it doesn’t have to be for Valle del Sol, although I would love it. Those of us who are middle class just don’t even know how lucky we are.”

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