Everyday People, Make the World Go Round – Meet Maria Hernandez
Name: Maria Hernandez
Title: Chief Program Officer
Company: United Way Broward County
Major City Where You Work: Fort Lauderdale, Florida in Broward County
City Where You Live: Miramar, Florida in Broward County
Please, share your personal and cultural background with our readers.
I am a Latina and first-generation Dominican. I immigrated to the United States when I was a teenager, and grew up in New York City.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised there until the age of seventeen. I used to live in Santiago, a very beautiful place with many family members that cared for me. We then moved to New York. I spent my college years there. After I finished my Master’s degree in Social Work, we moved down to Florida. I consider myself of intersectional cultures. I’m a little bit of everything. I would say I am a super Dominican, especially when it comes to dancing, food, and many other things, I identify more with American culture because I have assimilated and embraced many aspects of it. Thus, I call New York, the Dominican Republic, and Florida my home.
Please share with us a current typical day or week in your everyday personal life.
I am the proud mother of two teenagers, a 17-year-old daughter, and an 18-year-old son. I also care for my widowed mother. As a result, a typical day and week is hectic with various responsibilities.
I am usually up by 6:00 A.M. I get ready for work, make breakfast with my daughter, and drive her to school. Around mid-day, while at work, I check in via phone with my mom to ensure she is doing okay. After work, my evenings are usually packed. I drive my daughter to her dance classes, my mother to the pharmacy, and prepare dinner. While my daughter is in her dance classes, I use the time to call my friends and relatives. After my daughter is done, I pick her up and we have dinner as a family. This is the time where the three of us: Mom, Vanessa and I, get to talk about our day.
My son is in college. I make it a priority to speak with him every single day. He knows that my day is not complete without hearing from him. Although sometimes there isn’t enough time, due to our many after-hours work commitments, I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. My mom, my daughter, and I are like – The Three Musketeers. We do everything together and my weekends are all about them. We love going shopping, watching movies and sightseeing. When my son is back at home, the dynamic changes a little bit because he does not enjoy so many shopping sprees and outings. Thus, when he is home we tend to spend more time at home.
Please share with us a current typical day or week in your everyday professional life.
A typical work day for me starts early in the morning and usually slows down by 5:30 P.M. Then, before I go to bed, I spend some time responding to work emails and doing some planning for the next day. My position as the Chief Program Officer for United Way Broward County keeps me super busy. In all my years working for such an amazing company, I have to say that no week looks the same. I am always on the move and interacting with my community and our donors!
As the person responsible for overseeing our community investments, initiatives and programs, one of my main responsibilities is to ensure we are addressing the needs of our Broward community. And we know that in our community there is always something to be working toward, so we stay busy! My week is packed with community meetings, engaging with human service agency providers, staff supervisions sessions, strategic planning and brainstorming operation meetings. I love spending time learning about our community needs and planning on how United Way efforts could make a greater impact and bring strategic solutions to our community’s problems. Because of the love I have for this type of work I make it a top priority on my schedule to do these things.
Tell us why you do, what you do, for a living.
I have the best job ever! I do it because every day I get the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life…be part of solutions to assist our community. I believe in goodness and in the possibilities of life transformation. I also believe that every human being is responsible for making our planet better each day. Through the programs I get to create, the programs we fund, and the many lives we get to touch, I get to practice my beliefs. For example, I get to assist a single mother getting food for her children, a veteran connecting and assessing services he/she is in need of, a homeless individual getting housed, a child being taught to read, and so many other rewarding opportunities.
How did you end up in your line of work? Was it accidental or were you strategic about it?
I started my career as a clinical social worker, providing therapy to substance-abusing mothers who had lost their maternal rights. I helped several mothers regain custody of their children, and start a new life for themselves and their families. However, after a couple of years of working there, I noticed that many of them relapsed and their children went back into the child welfare system. This was something that hit me hard. My heart hurt so much for these families. So, I started doing research on substance abuse and the dependency system. Then I understood that there are many economical, racial and psychological conditions that have caused many parents to be consumed by addiction. Therefore, I decided to change my focus to macro level work and pursue a career as an administrator creating and directing human services programs.
Tell us about the factors that shaped your career and business aspirations.
I would say that my Latinx culture, gender, family and the social economic conditions impacting our Latinx communities are some of the main factors that shape my career and my business aspirations. I believe as Latina women, we are professional, we are mothers, daughters, caretakers, business owners, advocates, wives, teachers, and we are also huge economic engines in our communities. However, the positive economic impact that we bring is so often overlooked. I understand the daily difficulties and the racial disparities that so many Latinas face in their everyday lives. Therefore, since I am a female who is part of a minority group, and a mother, I feel a debt to clear a path for other women like me to follow. This is so that they have less obstacles to overcome to move ahead in life and in society.
Share how you balance the work-life challenges…what have been the rewards.
I don’t think there is such a thing as work-life balance. It is more like juggling! I believe in life we learn to juggle, managing all of our responsibilities, obligations and doing the things we love. And at times, we have to sacrifice time with our families to work on a project or meet a deadline. At other times we sacrifice work when a family member is ill or our own health needs attention. I see work-life challenges as finding the time to do the things we love and to do it well, while meeting our obligations.
What advice would you have for other Latinos in the business sector trying to make it day after day?
My humble advice to other Latinos in the business sector is to continue their hard work and to never give up. There will be times when they will have to work twice as hard, times when they will have to be patient, and times they will have to fight for their convictions in order to achieve their goals. One thing that I always recommend for any business person is to engage in networking. I see this as a key component for business success in any industry. I make it a point to purposefully practice networking and to make it a priority as I work with my community. I suggest to make time for networking and building relationships as you attend meetings and events in your field.
Did your ethnicity create any obstacles for you? Any advantages? How so?
I would say that my ethnicity, at times, has been an obstacle in my career, and at other times, a great advantage. Systematic discrimination is not something of the past. It is manifested on an ongoing basis in environments, processes, and interactions that usually create opportunities for those in the majority group. As an immigrant and Latina, I have, on several occasions, felt I didn’t fit the “right” profile. Being a Latina has also been an advantage for me. When at the table, I bring a diverse perspective to issues and matters. I get to advocate for other Latinx members. Also, I have been able to take advantage of opportunities designed for women of my culture and background.
What inspires you in your work life? What turns you off?
I am inspired by my culture, heritage and family. The values those three things bring to my life propel me to continue trying harder.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do not get distracted! Stay focused, work hard, and do everything with passion and dedication. Never let your shortcomings or what others think of you determine your possibilities. That’s what I would say if I could go back and talk to my younger self.
Do you think you have ever truly “made it” in life?
No. Never. I see life fulfillment as the accomplishments we enjoy on our journey in life, but never as our final destination. I am always thinking about areas I want to improve, things I want to learn, places I want to visit and people I want to meet. As time goes by, my list keeps growing. Right now, I want to see my children graduate from college. I am very excited to see them build their own career paths. I am always focusing on what I can do now, but also planning and hoping for the future.
If you could have dinner with any Latinx person—living or dead–who would it be? Why?
If I could have dinner with a Latinx person, my choice would be the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor. She comes from humble beginnings in New York City. Her father passed when she was 9 years old and her mother worked two jobs to pay for her education. Regardless of her challenging family dynamic, low economic conditions, and growing up in a distressed neighborhood, she worked hard and did not get distracted with life’s challenges. That little girl from the Bronx ended up attending Princeton University and Yale Law School. Today, she is the first Latina Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and her work impacts the entire nation. This honorable judge is a vivid example of what perseverance, hard work, and dedication can do in America.
What is your favorite quote/saying? Give us your own personal quote to commemorate at LBT.
I love the quote by Abraham Lincoln, when he said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” I use this quote to remind me that the best way to achieve my goals or complete a project is by working hard, and by taking action steps today, so tomorrow I can see it come true. It does not matter how big our dreams and goals, we can take small steps today to create a better life and future.
Anything else you would like to share.
I would like to remind LBT readers to never give up on their dreams, even if takes a long while. It is important for us to keep going after our dreams, and make them come true. And it is equally important to be a role model and mentor to other Latinx members. We have a responsibility to look back and pull others to join us.
For 80 years, United Way of Broward County has united the community to tackle the most complex, critical challenges and create long-lasting positive change. United, we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, united we confront those who are working hard and falling short and united we fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in our community. For more information, please visit www.unitedwaybroward.org.