La Luz Center for family resources in Boyes Hot Springs is active, colorful and crowded. It exudes a feeling of warmth, safety and hope, and its new executive director, Juan Hernandez, radiates those same qualities, along with a healthy dose of confidence.
“Juan has brought an intuitive understanding of the culture and needs of the community we serve,” said Board Chair Claudia Mendoza-Carruth. “When our clients see a Latino in a position of leadership who serves as a role model, there is a sense of pride… of ‘si se puede’.
Hernandez is the first Chicano executive director of La Luz, a position he has been training for since he was a boy in the Pico Rivera area of East Los Angeles. The son of a minister, he “grew up in non-profit, in the trenches of community issues,” he says.
“This is my first time being executive director, but I don’t feel like it. In non-profit I went from administrative assistant to program coordinator to program director, so I know what’s needed,” says Hernandez. Most recently, he was director of educational programs at Calistoga Family Center.
His education began when people in his neighborhood mobilized to install a stop sign at a dangerous intersection; He saw how everyone could make a difference at a community level. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside and a master’s degree in psychology from Sonoma State, with an emphasis in organizational development, and work in all aspects of non-profit service.
A large white board with the heading, “Executive Director’s 2013 Focus,” stands out against a burgundy wall in Hernandez’s office. Just five months on the job, he is already reaching his initial goals.
He spent his first 30 days on the job getting to know his staff and what they needed in order to be an effective team. The next 30 days were dedicated to meeting with each of La Luz’s 22 board members. He says is in awe of the people on the board and the contributions they bring to the table, and attributes his early success to their vision, decisions, strategy and fundraising efforts.
“If those things hadn’t been in place, coming in would have been more difficult. Because of them, I get to focus on what I need to do.” During the subsequent 30 days he developed relationships with partnering agencies, and connected La Luz with county services.
On Friday mornings, between 9 and 11, St. Joseph’s mobile health van and the Redwood Empire Food Bank set up at Booker Hall. He enjoys using that time to make personal connections with the people in the community.
“One of the things I respect about him is that he’s hands-on and down to earth. You’ll see him talking with clients and volunteers, getting to know them while they’re waiting,” says office manager, Sharon Somogyi.
For Hernandez, it’s all about impacting in people’s lives. “I can go out into The Springs and find somebody who, in some way, has a connection with La Luz,” he said.
The services La Luz provides are numerous: Classes in everything from childhood development and General Equivalency Diploma (GED) to computer training; help with translations and forms for benefit programs like Cal Fresh and MediCal; and tax help, legal referrals, emergency food resources, rental assistance and vineyard worker services.
La Luz is not here to solve everybody’s problems, because that is impossible, Hernandez says. “But if you come to La Luz, you will find hope. If you follow up on the information we give you, you will get the help you need.
Hernandez is, in essence, a minister to the expanding Sonoma Valley community, always honoring La Luz founder Ligia Booker and her mission of giving hope to the people who come through the door. “We’re about creating self-advocacy,” he says. “We don’t want to be enablers.”