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Continuing the Legacy

An Interview with ECMHSP’s New CEO, Maria Garza


Left to right: Sandra Carton, Regional Manager, Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Region XII – Office of Head Start, Dr. Villa, CEO Emeritus, and Maria Garza, new ECMHSP Chief Executive Officer.

Maria Garza has recently joined East Coast Migrant Head Start Project as its Chief Executive Officer. Garza, a longtime farmworker advocate and experienced government and non-profit leader, assumed day-to-day leadership of the organization on March 2, 2020.

How was your first week as ECMHSP’s new Chief Executive Officer?

Fantastic.  I was overwhelmed by the great wishes and by the incredible welcoming reception from everybody.  Balloons, chocolates, flowers, and cards all were in my office when I came in.  Totally touched and overwhelmed.

Why do you understand ECMHSP’s mission on a personal level?

In many ways, I’ve been familiar and engaged with ECMHSP for more than a decade.  My husband, Cipriano Garza, sat on the Board of Directors.  So, as a result of that, I was intimately involved in the mission.  In my professional career, I have been involved with Head Start in several capacities, especially at the county level.  And now, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start brings a special focus. I grew up as a migrant child.  My family and I migrated through multiple states as I grew up following the crops.  Although I never participated in a Head Start center, I am familiar with the plight of the population that we serve.  Intimately, my background aligns perfectly with ECMHSP’s mission that is to empower children and parents to have a better life and be successful.  I’m passionate about our mission.  I’m passionate about advocacy for our migrant and seasonal farmworkers.  Not that somebody must be from a farmworker background in order to understand the farmworker plight, but in my case, I feel it enhances the overall mission of our institution.

How does your story with ECMHSP begin?

Over a decade ago when my husband started serving on the Board of Directors.  Everything that we do, we do it as a family.  We’ve decided that everything that we do as terms of volunteering time, we do it together as a family.  It has to be a project or cause that we all feel strongly about in order for us to be committed.  There’s no need for us to be part of something that we’re not going to give 100% of ourselves.

What do you think was the main professional experience that prepared you to become our CEO?

I’m always reminded of a great painter when we try to understand this type of question.  A great artist starts slowly painting, for example, then he becomes good at it.  During the course of 30 years, it becomes simple.  Not necessarily less difficult, but it’s that combination of 30 years’ experience or practice the artist has been using this talent on a canvas.  People will say sometimes that they did it so easily.  How was it possible?  And it’s not easy.  I have been in management since I was very young.  I’ve been leading projects, organizations, and departments.  Those opportunities allowed me to become engaged with budgets, staff development, and opening opportunities for others.  It’s a combination of many things.  I always see life from a point of gratefulness.  There have been so many individuals in my life that by the grace of God have opened doors for me.  Maybe I wasn’t hitting the mark and they mentored me to accomplish what was at stake.  They taught me how to approach difficult situations.  All those experiences and individuals prepared me for the challenges that we will be facing at ECMHSP.

What is going to be your biggest challenge at ECMHSP?

I’m not coming in to replace a CEO that is being dismissed.  I’m not coming to fix a problem.  I’m coming in to stand on a very solid, successful platform that our departing CEO is leaving behind for me.  The challenges are always there whenever you have to lead an institution.  However small, however large.  The challenges may present themselves a little bit differently.  We have a great team.  Senior staff is phenomenal.  All the other individuals I’ve met so far are committed and passionate about serving our children.  I’m sure I’m going to face challenges such as budgets and other external factors.  In the last few days since I came on board, we’ve been working on how to convey messages to our staff about the Coronavirus.  We want them to make sure they know we have their best interest in mind.  We want to make sure our message to them is precise about the precautions we’re taking.  For example, implementing our emergency preparedness plan.  We’re ready for any challenge that comes our way.

What direction do you see ECMHSP going in the next five years?

We have an incredibly bright future ahead of us.  The direction we’re going to take has already been charted for us by our Board of Directors.  The mission that we have by our senior staff working with our Board Members to create and polish our five-year strategic plan.  Our direction is clear.  We’re just going to have to adjust our goals as we move forward.  We’re very good at preparing kids for when they go to public school.  I’m excited that we’re on the right track with school readiness.  The team that we have is excellent.

What are you passionate about during your downtime?

Family is what I’m passionate about.  I’ve been married to my husband for over 38 years.  I have three incredible sons and a beautiful daughter-in-law.  When we have peace and harmony in our house, we can give peace and harmony to others.  I enjoy reading.  I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of the staff at ECMHSP.  I just want to add that I want staff to feel free to reach out to me.  My doors are always open.  This also goes out to our stakeholders as well.  I’m always just a phone call away.  I’m very excited about our future.  I’m grateful to Dr. Villa for his kindness and willingness to stay with us to have a smooth transition.  

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