Describe your career journey and how you found yourself the founder and CEO of La Maestra? How did La Maestra go from being only a thought many years ago to the vast organization it is today?

Zara: From necessity, I started working at an early age and found myself drawn to teaching and social services. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration and Reform Act which allowed me and a group of teachers to form La Maestra Amnesty Center in 1986. We developed curriculum and taught 12,000 students in English, History, Civics, Job Training, Computer Literacy, and Youth Development, along with assisting eligible students to apply for residency and other immigration related programs. We held monthly student council meetings and it quickly became apparent that our student body was lacking access to numerous social services, with healthcare at the top of the list.  I developed a strategic plan for the formation of a non-profit health clinic and presented it to the Board of Directors, which they readily approved.  In 1990, La Maestra Community Health Centers was formed to bring much needed culturally competent medical services to the community.  While the focus shifted to healthcare, the organization continued to develop the other existing social determinant programs. I never imagined how large the organization would become, and I really believe that it is a miracle.

In your opinion, what are the most important challenges facing families in City Heights today and how do you see La Maestra’s role in the future concerning these challenges? 

Z: A few of the challenges families in City Heights face today would include: access to quality healthcare integrated with social services; safe and affordable housing; food scarcity; economic development; mental health; behavioral health (including substance use disorder treatment, counseling through a trauma-informed model); and youth development. The La Maestra Circle of Care® has been developed over the course of 35 years to address these areas of need. It spans across sectors of health, housing, economic development, food scarcity, immigration, legal issues, human trafficking, and many more supportive services.  While each of these programs are valuable, the culmination of the programs forms a supportive system for the participants, especially during times of crisis.  The recent pandemic has contributed to challenges for those in our community who were already feeling disconnected and marginalized, enhancing isolation and fear.  Connectedness to a supportive system, such as La Maestra’s Circle of Care®, provides the resources needed to address the negative consequences of the COVID19 pandemic. Patients and clients align with our culturally competent staff which builds trust and increases access to care, directly through La Maestra’s programs as well as through the vast network La Maestra has built across many sectors of society, bringing needed resources into our community.

What are you most proud of in your work at La Maestra and in the City Heights community?

Z: The ability to continuously respond to the needs of the community through innovative and creative programs, models, and initiatives, and staying focused on our mission.  The organization of La Maestra is very entrepreneurial and attracts like-minded, passionate and caring Board members and staff. 

The Board of Directors and staff are representative of the patients and clients served by La Maestra.  Alignment of patients/clients with staff through shared cultures, values, and belief systems is extremely important. Shared backgrounds and life experiences has facilitated trusting relationships with the community and greatly enhances the continuity of care. I am very proud of the grassroots Circle of Care model we have developed and have remained true to over the last 35 years. It works and is sustainable.  Aside from the comprehensive and integrated services La Maestra offers, I feel blessed that the delivery model brings much needed resources which contributes to healing and a better quality of life for our patients and clients. Currently, La Maestra has over 634 full-time employees.  I am proud that the organization hires and develops future leaders from within the communities we serve.