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Community Conversations with Steve Ortiz

Steve Ortiz is the President & CEO of the United Way of Santa Barbara County.

Since 1923, the United Way of Santa Barbara County (UWSBC) has served our region through funding, volunteer development and community partnerships. Their focus is on helping children and youth achieve their potential, promoting financial stability and independence, and improving people’s health. Santa Barbara Foundation Communications Manager Jordan Killebrew spoke to UWSBC President & CEO Steve Ortiz to see how he works with our communities to provide services, address needs, and help residents thrive.

Jordan Killebrew: Why are you passionate about what you do?

Steve Ortiz: I am passionate about the work we do at United Way because I am a product of what a community can achieve together. Growing up in a suburb of south Los Angeles, I was classified by some as a low-income, disadvantaged student. I was not born to a financially affluent family, but I grew up in a home that was rich in love and values. And as with many of the students we serve through Fun in the Sun, the Kindergarten Success Institutes, and other United Way programs, the care of my parents coupled with the support of teachers, program leaders, and community members opened the doors to opportunities that allowed me to thrive.

Working at United Way, I have realized that potential is universal, but opportunity is not. This is why our collaboration with hundreds of community partners is so important. Together, we create local opportunities that maximize every child’s potential.

JK: What are the top three most pressing issues that you see in Santa Barbara County?

SO: My view of the most pressing issues we face in Santa Barbara County is influenced by the community initiatives and partnerships I have been engaged with through United Way:

Education – Success in life begins with a quality education. And yet, hundreds of children and young people lack the support they need to strengthen their literacy, stay on track in school, graduate high school and find a career.

Financial Literacy – Financial illiteracy, unemployment, access to tools and homelessness. In our local community, individuals and families are facing financial obstacles that prevent a good quality of life.

Health Care Access – Whether it is an individual without health insurance, a victim of abuse, or someone struggling with mental illness or addiction, we need to ensure that every local resident has access to affordable and quality care.

JK: What impact would you say those issues have on our community at large?

SO: United Way of Santa Barbara County is committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunities for a good life: a quality education that leads to sustaining job opportunities, enough income to support a family, and a good, healthy lifestyle that increases life expectancy. The reality is that education, financial empowerment, and health are all interconnected issues. When a child succeeds in school, they are more likely to secure a job that will help them provide for themselves and their family, and are more likely to have better health and live longer. We are all connected and interdependent. As a community, we all win when a child succeeds in school, when families are financially stable and when people are healthy.

On the other side of the coin, our communities, our neighborhoods, our friends and our families suffer when we don’t invest efforts and resources into improving outcomes in education, financial stability, and health. When children aren’t able to read at grade level, they struggle to keep up in school and are less likely to graduate from high school on time – or at all. According to the California Dropout Research Project, once students do drop out, they are more likely to struggle with higher rates of unemployment, lower annual and lifetime earnings, poor health (including higher mortality rates), crime and incarceration, as well as increased dependence on public assistance.

Steve Ortiz (back right) at UWSBC’s annual Fun in the Sun summer program.

JK: What was one of your most rewarding moments or memories?

SO: A few years back now, a former participant of Fun in the Sun, United Way’s award-winning summer learning program, returned to Santa Barbara during summer break. She had been attending UC Berkeley as a first generation college student. She came to visit me at the United Way office which gave me the opportunity to introduce her to new colleagues – after all, she was a super star who had been named Santa Barbara’s Youth Leader of the Year during high school. As we gathered in our conference room she began to cry, but then she smiled as tears continued to flow down her face. Through the emotions she whispered “Thank you – thank you to United Way and all the volunteers who supported me through many years at Fun in the Sun. Because of this program, I am who I am.”

I will never forget that moment. I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the room. That personal experience made me realize that our organization and our network of community partners were significantly changing lives. At a minimum, we had helped one child turn her potential into success. From that point forward, this work transformed from being my selected profession to my passion.

Over the years, I saw this young woman move from being an underperforming student in Santa Barbara to benefiting from the program’s enrichment, literacy improvement, and STEAM activities. Then, I witnessed as she earned an A.A. at Santa Barbara City College, a B.A. at UC Berkeley and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Northeastern Illinois University. Next up, Harvard.

JK: How can our community better address the needs of the issues you mentioned?

SO: Increased collaboration as well as new and deeper partnerships are needed to fully address these issues. It takes everyone in the community working together to create a brighter future. Working together, we can accomplish so much more than any single organization or person can do on their own.

JK: How do you think UWSBC can better address these needs?

SO: Our goal is to continuously enhance our community programs and partnerships to be more comprehensive and impactful. Each of our partnerships incorporates an annual evaluation process to collect feedback from our clients, partners, volunteers, and staff. These responses are used to determine each program’s top three to five priorities for program improvement. Down the road, given funding availability, we would like to expand our programs to reach more of the many Santa Barbara County residents who could benefit.

In addition, we would like to expand current advocacy efforts (delivered in partnership with local and regional agencies) to create long-lasting changes by better addressing the underlying causes of these community issues.

JK: How do you think the Santa Barbara Foundation can better address these needs?

SO: The Santa Barbara Foundation should keep funding local agencies and community collaboratives working to address local issues. Philanthropy plays a major role in advancing long-term community change. With your broad exposure to so many different agencies, the Santa Barbara Foundation is in an ideal position to continue gathering and coordinating a variety of different community partnerships and collaboratives to build better futures in Santa Barbara County. Keep inviting more people from many different community sectors to the table.

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