February 3, 2023
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Celebrating three women who met their marks

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By Dianne McKay

Now that we know who will be filling leadership positions in many of our Ventura County agencies, I reflected on late Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez and how I felt the day of her celebration of life. I thought about her death as a pedestrian in an Oxnard crosswalk in August and how the beloved social justice advocate and community leader was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But timing isn’t always so cruel.

I thought about the transformational women leaders who have been in the right place at the right time to help.

Three women, in particular, stand out to me:

Two years after Vanessa Bechtel took the helm of Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF), the 2017 Thomas Fire scorched over 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, resulting in devastation across the region and loss of life after the tragic mudslide. The foundation had gone through a very difficult time. Since her arrival, Bechtel led the organization to restructure and become financially stable. Her and the Board’s acuity, transparency and trustworthiness ensured that the public and donors could be confident wildfire relief donations would be well stewarded.

One year later, VCCF was again at the ready to help victims when the Hill and Woolsey fires burned 100,000 acres. The foundation waived all administrative fees on donations to wildfire recovery funds so 100% of donations would go directly to helping victims and nonprofit organizations responding to community needs, as they did in the fire less than one year prior

The foundation, which has granted over $100 million to the community in the past few years alone and is responsible for stewarding $180 million in philanthropic assets for the Ventura County community, has provided financial support to those who had loved ones taken from them or were present during the Borderline mass shooting, facilitated COVID-19 vaccination outreach and education in partnership with the County of Ventura, co-led the 2020 Census Complete Count effort in Ventura County, resulting in approximately $2 billion in additional social safety-net dollars over the next ten years, and was asked by family to created memorial scholarship fund in honor of Carmen Ramirez.

But my most enduring memory of Bechtel is from the early days of the shutdown. She recorded herself playing violin in her garden and inspired us all to step away from our computers for a moment. It was a gift.

When Monica White took over Food Share in June 2017, the nonprofit was in dire financial straits with no reserves and a maxed-out credit line. The Oxnard-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger was preparing to cut staff. The transition committee offered to handle the initial round of layoffs so White could start fresh.

She refused.

White insisted that if she was going to lead the organization, she would take responsibility for the hard tasks. She opted to fully lead from the very beginning. She later learned the finances were so dire, they couldn’t afford the vacation liability for layoffs.

Her leadership in transforming the organization’s finances proved critical. When COVID safety restrictions left thousands of Ventura County families out of work, the number of people seeking assistance from Food Share increased 138%. The organization serves around 220,000 people a year, nearly three times as many as when she was hired.

When Shawna Morris assumed the title of CEO at Casa Pacifica in July 2020, the residential treatment center outside Camarillo for childhood victims of abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, and other behavioral and mental health issues, was facing the worst financial issues in its 25-year history.

Casa Pacifica had operated at a deficit for several years and was struggling to pivot from the congregate residential treatment of abused children to short-term treatment programs. Meanwhile, more children than ever needed support during the disruptions of the pandemic.

While she righted the ship, Morris kept her eyes on the kids as well as the bottom line. She knows the name of every child. I once watched her conduct a meeting in her office while never once taking her eyes off a child outside who was “a known runner.”

I could see in her eyes she was going to chase him down herself if he bolted. (Mercifully, he didn’t.)

Each of these women had huge financial challenges to stabilize upon arrival, all of which were likely worse than what was represented to them when they agreed to do the job—and perhaps worse than was ever made public.

Each leader, like Ramirez, has the same True North of helping the vulnerable among us and an ethics-driven decision-making that does not veer off course. They were at the right place at the right time.

Dianne McKay is the president of Mustang Marketing in Thousand Oaks and former Chair of the Ventura County Community College District board of trustees.