Diane Ortiz is not one to rest on her laurels.
In fact, the executive director of Youth Alliance has been working since she was 13 years old. And even after she received her master’s degree in social work from San Jose State University, got married and had two children, the Hollister native sought more.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, so of course being the crazy type-A personality that I am, I thought, ‘Well, I could go back to graduate school now,’” she laughs.
Ortiz not only thrives when busy, but when she knows her busyness is making a difference: Her strong work ethic and expertise have been immeasurable assets to the youth in San Benito and southern Santa Clara counties.
The Youth Alliance—a nonprofit organization, now located in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister—was co-founded by Ortiz, her father Joe Ortiz, and the late Jo Wahden, a former San Benito County librarian. It began in Hollister in 1995 as an all-volunteer grassroots organization that “strives to create thriving and equitable communities through comprehensive, innovative and culturally relevant services that equip youth and families to become change agents in their own lives and in their community,” according to its website.
It has since evolved into an agency that benefits more than 13,000 children, youth and their families each year.
The daughter of Joe Ortiz and Margie Diener, Ortiz attended Hollister elementary schools along with siblings Madeline and Rob. She then attended boarding school at Monterey Bay Academy in Watsonville, where she was introduced to a strong work ethic, sometimes working up to 20 hours per week.
“I had to work all the time in order to go to the school because we couldn’t afford it,” she said. “I did everything from milking cows to feeding the calves at the dairy to folding clothes for prisoners to building furniture, and then to being promoted in becoming the office support in one of the industries there.”
After high school, she received scholarships to Loma Linda University and began her undergraduate career there, soon taking a year off to teach second grade in Micronesia.
“I had considered being a teacher, but I realized I wasn’t going to be [one],” she said. “I loved [my time there]. It was just an amazing opportunity.”
And it became a life-changing one, too.
While in Micronesia, Ortiz met a 4-year-old girl named Cyndi and her family, and was soon asked by her family if Ortiz could adopt her.
“I was still in college, so I said I had to talk to my parents about this,” Ortiz recalled. “I called my mom and dad and they said, ‘We’re going to pray about it.’”
Her parents soon after adopted Cyndi, who has now officially been part of the family for nearly 30 years.
Asked if her experiences in Micronesia led her in changing her career path, Ortiz said no.
“I was just trying to find my place, and [wanted to] make a difference and contribute in some way,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a social worker for a government entity…but I certainly knew there had to be ways to support my community that would allow me to be able to help build solutions to things. I was very blessed to have found this degree of social work.”
After finishing undergraduate work at Pacific Union College to be closer to Cyndi, Ortiz got married, had children and sought that master’s degree—all while raising her daughters, who were less than 5 years old at the time. It was around this time that she also co-founded YA.
In its humble beginnings, Ortiz’s driving force behind the organization was the lack of resources she found for youth of color in the community.
“I was looking at young people who could have been my cousin, could have been somebody I grew up with,” she recalled. “These were all kids that I could recognize and I said, ‘Why don’t they have the same opportunities for enrichment, for tutoring, for clubs, for sports, for activities? Why don’t they have the same access to them?’”
Her father Joe said since the organization began almost 25 years ago, his daughter has sought the answers to these questions and—more importantly—sought solutions.
“She’s done an excellent job,” he said. “And it’s not because I’m biased; it’s because of how it’s worked out. She made it more than what it started out to be.”
According to its website, the Youth Alliance has now been the lead trainer and technical assistance provider to San Benito County schools since 2010. With plans to be the lead in providing technical assistance for restorative justice practices in south Santa Clara County schools, the YA has programs at 16 schools and neighborhoods in San Benito and South Santa Clara counties. Its services include after-school, summer, and late night prevention programs, early intervention bilingual counseling and case management, among many others.
YA board chairman Jonathan Gonzalez said Ortiz’s “passion, ambition and vision for youth is unquestionable.” And though she strives to create solutions for at-risk youth, Gonzalez said Ortiz also has a knack for finding employees and volunteers.
“Her talent in seeking out the right people for the job is key,” he said. “Youth Alliance is what it is because of the staff and team.”
He said some former youth beneficiaries of the program have even grown up to become employees of the Youth Alliance.
“They tell us about the line they were treading and where they are now. It’s full circle,” Gonzalez said.
It’s a testament to Ortiz’s hard work all these years, and to what the YA strives to do for the children it reaches.
“Our whole goal really is about helping young people not only discover their brilliance and their power, but also to challenge the stereotypes we have about young people and especially kids of color,” Ortiz said.
Contact Youth Alliance at 310 Fourth St., Suite 101 in Hollister or at 7500 Monterey Road in Gilroy. Visit www.youthall.org or call 831.636.2853/408.840.3685 for more information.