Rose Garcia grew up living with her grandparents in New Mexico. Her grandfather owned a bar and pool hall, and her grandmother operated a grocery store and meat market. "My grandma had me helping in the store from a very young age – stocking cans, sweeping floors and bathrooms, and waiting on customers," Garcia recalls.
She drove a small scooter, delivering groceries on weekends to some of the older customers who had a hard time getting in to the store to shop. That's where she learned about small business and interacting with customers – and the people who were barely scraping by.
"Most of them lived on social security," Garcia shares. "They were strapped for money, and I would help them with their budgets, making sure they had enough money to pay the food bill at the end of the month."
In college in the 1970s, while studying accounting, Garcia volunteered to help nonprofit organizations with financial reports. "I liked being a part of it," she says. "To make a difference with them." Some of the leaders she met were in the process of forming Tierra del Sol.
The goal of the organization at its founding was to help farmworkers who spent their days dairy farming or growing and harvesting chili peppers, onions and cantaloupe. They were people, Garcia says, who "needed a little bit of help." She got to know the president of the board of directors, and when there was an opening in 1980, they asked her to lead the organization as its executive director. She said yes and became one of the few women in leadership at the time — and the only one in construction. It was common for her to be the only woman in the room.
While she says she didn't know much about housing at the beginning, "I knew how to manage money." She stayed with Tierra del Sol, save for a few years when she helped form another affordable housing and community development organization in El Paso. She came back, though. "I was home sick. And I've been at Tierra del Sol ever since."
The organization is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Garcia has been with the nonprofit for most of those years. In that time, Tierra del Sol has expanded its mission to help working families and older residents. Along with helping residents build their own homes, they also own 22 apartment complexes and have a home-repair program, so people can stay in their homes longer as they age.
Sal Estrada has known Garcia in a professional capacity for more than 40 years and currently works as a housing production manager at Tierra del Sol. "Rose is one of the most dynamic individuals I have ever met," he says. When she was hired as executive director, Tierra del Sol was a "single purpose corporation" producing single-family housing under the mutual self-help program funded by the Farmers Home Administration. Garcia expanded to multiple lines of business in New Mexico and West Texas.
One lesson Estrada learned from Garcia was not to take "no" for an answer. He jokes, "Her favorite word seemed to be 'appeal.' If a proposal for programs or funding was denied, it was almost automatically appealed. And often when we appealed, she was successful in reversing the decision."
Garcia has always been determined, Estrada says, but people occasionally underestimated her because of her gender. He once suggested she come across with a firmer handshake, and Garcia just smiled, saying she knew what she was doing. Whatever first impressions people had from her handshake, the reality soon became clear that Garcia "was a determined business woman with sharp insight and shrewdness in the then, male-dominated construction industry."
Strong relationships are also central to Garcia's working philosophy. Estrada says Garcia believes in establishing strong partnerships with the private and public sectors and is effective in the three Cs: working with coalitions, consortiums and collaborations. With Garcia taking the lead, "Tierra del Sol has gained a regional and national reputation as an active partner in development of affordable housing for farm workers," he says.
A reputation over her career that earned Garcia honors from President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. But she always draws focus away from herself and back to the work.
"I like to help people," she says.
When she retires, she says she'll probably go back to doing what she did when she started: Volunteering.