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The Making of an Advocate

Christina Vela escaped the fate of many inner-city teen moms with education. Now she's determined to help others overcome their obstacles.
People  |  Jul 8, 2013  |  By Kate Stowell
Christina Vela, chief program officer at St. Jude's Ranch for Children (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

It was Wednesday afternoon, and I was running behind. I shot off a quick email saying I'd be five minutes late. A message immediately popped back from Christina Vela, chief program officer at St. Jude's Ranch for Children. But this was no ordinary auto-reply: "Hello! Our agency is taking time to reconnect on a more personal level. Every Wednesday from 12-5 p.m. has been designated as 'no-email afternoons.' During this time we are still conducting business as usual but not through email. Please call me so we can discuss the matter via phone."

Vela later explained she started the no-email initiative just three weeks before in St. Jude Ranch's Nevada and Texas offices.

"Maybe we'll only do it for a little while, but it's good to shake things up a bit every once in awhile."

That willingness to risk change has helped Vela get where she is today. "(Christina) came to us with years of experience in programs for abused, abandoned, neglected, and homeless children," said Christine Spadafor, chief executive officer of St. Jude's. "Her passion for the work is so obvious, and it is constantly driving her to come up with new ideas."

Vela has worked at all levels of government. She was assistant manager of the Clark County Department of Family Services; statewide independent living coordinator and foster care specialist for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services; and child welfare program specialist of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. At St. Jude's Ranch, she develops new programs for pregnant and parenting teens, homeless young adults, and youth living in foster care.

'Where I Belong'

Hearing the stories of abandonment, abuse, and neglect can be wrenching. "When I'm having a bad day or things seem really tough, I might go hold a baby, or I can go play with some little kids or talk to teenagers at our Boulder City campus," she said. "It puts everything back into perspective. It helps me reset."

It also reminds her of her own upbringing. She was once a teen mom living in an inner-city neighborhood in Southern California. "I saw so many girls in my neighborhood become teen moms and just stay home," Vela said. "I knew I wanted more.

Vela graduated from high school and enrolled at California State University, Northridge, where her social work courses shed light on her own upbringing.

"My mom was in foster care as a youth," Vela explained. "As a child, I didn't really understand what that meant, and it never seemed to have any impact on my mom other than it made her and my father give so much to me and my brothers.

"But as I started learning more (through my courses) about social work and the system, I couldn't believe my mom could have gone through these situations. I didn't think I was interested in this field because of my upbringing or heritage, but the more I realized my connection to it, the more I realized that this is where I belonged."

An Advocate for Children

Vela finished her bachelor's degree and worked her way up in the social services field. As assistant manager of the Clark County Department of Family Services, she decided to go back to school. It was a balancing act between work, school, and family (she now has three children), but she knew having creative ideas is just not enough; executing them "has to be done more systemically." She enrolled in the public administration certificate program at UNLV to broaden her skills as a public servant. Her professors, Jessica Word and Christopher Stream, encouraged her to reach higher and pursue a master's degree.

"Christina has always been one of those students who stands out in terms of her dedication to her work and her desire to do the best job she can do," Word said. "She's an outstanding example of someone who's very dedicated to their community, making a difference here in Southern Nevada."

Her more recent accomplishments include developing the strategy and programs for Crossings, a housing and services program for homeless people aged 18-25. Its first residents moved in less than a year ago. "Watching these previously homeless residents get registered in school and get jobs and hold their heads high because they feel a sense of worth has been just amazing," Vela said.

She is developing her government advocacy skills, too, most recently to establish a Sibling Bill of Rights to legally preserve family relationships in Nevada. St. Jude's partnered with Child Focus to bring the bill to the state Legislature. Vela drafted the proposal and found a legislative sponsor. "Whether this gets passed as law or not, it's just so cool to be a part of this advocacy and to try to make a difference in this community," she said. "I want to make it the best community I can."