At 9:30 p.m. on a Friday, Donna Vasquez called me from her cluttered office in the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho (HCCI). Despite the terrifying number of hours she had already been flexing her administrative bicep, the new executive director was immediately warm, funny and focused, relating a long day's itinerary that included giving tours, meeting with board members and weaving last-minute details of the upcoming Mexican Independence Day celebration.
When asked how she came to be at the helm of one of the largest Hispanic cultural facilities in the country, Vasquez explained her passion for the rich heritage of her people from the ancient Aztecs to her own biracial daughters.
"I know the center and its mission, and I'm passionate about it," she said. "This is somewhere I can bring my daughters and have them be surrounded by the traditions that I grew up with--that flavor, that pride."
Long before moving to Idaho and becoming involved in the HCCI, Vasquez worked as a corporate trainer in Southern California. After starting a family, she and her husband decided to move somewhere better suited to raising kids. Utah was the first stop, but a visit to Boise convinced the pair that they wanted to settle down somewhere in the Treasure Valley.
"Neither of us had jobs, we just went on faith," Vasquez said, adding that when her husband found a position, she filled her days with caring for her daughters and working part-time. Then she saw Governor Kempthorne's State of the State address and heard his proposal to build a three million dollar Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa. The very next day, she called the statehouse and talked to one of HCCI's board members. He was interested in her volunteering and fund-raising experience (which includes various youth outreach programs, elementary education and even a celebrity fashion show) and invited her to get involved in planning the Center's Gala Opening. Vasquez soon became an active volunteer, and though she left for a time to work and go back to school, her fate was sealed.
"When the director's position came open, I started thinking about it, and then five of my friends called the same day urging me to do it," Vasquez said.
Up against 40 other qualified applicants, Vasquez doubted her chances. But after a panel interview, the board was convinced that she was the woman for the job.
"They said I was a natural fit. Others had more experience, but they were looking for people skills," she said. Called the "super volunteer" by friends and colleagues, Vasquez was no stranger to long hours and the frustrating task of trying to nurture a nonprofit that cannot live on hope alone.
"This job is so many different things--decorating, financial planning--I'm still creating it," she said. "Any new business takes three to five years to really establish a pattern, and as much as I would like to focus on community events and charities, we have to be self-sustaining, too."
Working toward success both financially and socially has demanded Vasquez's ceaseless dedication to welcoming all comers, be they potential investors or curious individuals looking for a way to immerse themselves in Hispanic culture.
"I've been contacted by everyone from the director of the National Migrant Farm-Worker's Network to tourists from Minnesota. People walk in off the street, they talk and I listen. My approach is a little bit of rock 'n' roll mixed with Donnie and Marie, and I act as a conduit, connecting people who need each other," she said. And with an overworked yet spirited crew of three (including herself), Vasquez opens the Center each day with the renewed promise of education, friendship and a sense of cultural identity. She admits it can be overwhelming, but her enthusiasm runs deep. "Every day there are moments that make it all worth it," she said. "Blessings come my way--but not just to me, to this living museum."