CALEXICO — Though Ricardo Ortega’s original intention of becoming an elementary school teacher was sidelined by his decades-long career with Calexico Neighborhood House, he nonetheless used his tenure to impart knowledge, much like a teacher would.
And he has continued to do so as the nonprofit organization’s special project director, following his retirement as executive director in 2018.
“I’ve always valued information and sharing information,” Ortega said.
Since his retirement, Ortega is not as involved with Calexico Neighborhood House’s day-to-day operations as before. But in his current role, he still uses the motivation, knowledge, and expertise he acquired both on and off the job to help ensure the organization can continue to serve the community.
In doing so, the 73-year-old Calexico resident has remained an asset to the organization and the wider the community and earned accolades that continue to this day.
Since 1938, the mission of Calexico Neighborhood House has been to assist and empower local disadvantaged groups, with a focus on women and children.
When Ortega first started volunteering for the organization in 1973, he was tasked with teaching photography to teenagers ages 13 to 19. Before long, San Diego State University-Imperial Valley became aware of his efforts and donated the use of space and equipment so that he could set up a dark room on campus.
During that time, Ortega also helped chaperone dozens of local youths for weeklong summer camping trips to the mountains of Julian.
“We tried to help the kids as much as possible,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Hearing Ortega talk about his past gives one a sense that his personal and professional life have been marked by a resiliency to adapt to changing circumstances. And that he has thrived under such situations.
One example includes the postponement of his post-collegiate venture into the working world in 1971, when he was drafted by the U.S. Army. Though the Vietnam War remained ongoing, Ortega said he was not overly worried about potentially seeing combat. He instead focused on what was asked of him.
“This is what we need to do. Let’s get it done,” Ortega said he had told himself at the time. “It was a good experience.”
He adopted a similar attitude when he first started volunteering with Neighborhood House in 1973, shortly after his discharge from the Army.
It wasn’t long before he was offered part-time, then full-time employment, as well as increased responsibilities. Eventually, the organization’s board of directors became so impressed with his dedication that they encouraged him to apply for the executive director position.
“Things just happened more than anything else,” Ortega said about his unplanned climb to the organization’s helm.
A native of Mexicali, Ortega was just a 1-year-old when his family moved to Calexico. He is a graduate of Calexico High and Imperial Valley College, where he also enrolled following his discharge from the Army and earned a certificate in business administration. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles.
During his tenure with Calexico Neighborhood House, Ortega has been instrumental in its continued growth. As special project director, he helps staff prepare for and implement extensive projects under shorter-than-normal deadlines.
“It’s a lot of development, a lot of problem solving,” he said. “It really takes experience to do that.”
His work ethic and continued advocacy on behalf of the community recently earned him the honor of being named one of the Valley’s 10 local Stone of Hope award winners this year.
The awards are handed out on an annual basis by the local Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Committee to individuals who embody the late civil rights leader’s values.
As someone who came of age in the 1960s, Ortega said he could not help but be influenced by the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr.
“He was very inspiring and visionary in the sense of what needed to be done and what needed to be worked on,” Ortega said. “I still listen to his speeches.”
Stone of Hope honorees received a medallion as well as a miniature replica of the granite statue of Martin Luther King Jr. that is located at his memorial in Washington, D.C.
The original statue is inscribed with the words “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope,” which is an excerpt of his “I Have a Dream” speech.
This year’s scaled-down ceremony took place at the Brock Brand Asparagus property in El Centro. The additional Stone of Hope award honorees included the following:
Delgado has been the Imperial County Work Training Center executive director for the past 20-plus years. Her tenure has been marked by a high level of empathy and compassion for the elderly, disabled and unemployed that receive services through the agency.
Her advocacy on behalf of vulnerable populations was heavily influenced by the assistance of a former El Centro elementary school teacher who helped her learn English when her family had initially immigrated to the United States in 1972.
Dunn is the daughter of a pioneering African American family that settled in Calipatria. She credits her father, Charles Taylor, with instilling in her a sense of self-empowerment and community service.
A former Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo employee, Dunn had initially gotten hired as a maintenance worker and retired from its purchasing department. She remains active in the community by volunteering with service as well as activist organizations. She is an avid believer in doing the right thing, even when that means making repeated tries.
Hartfield is a Brawley native who retired as an Imperial Valley College human resources analyst in 2009 and is the current El Centro Senior Club president.
Her mother’s past practice of feeding the homeless in Brawley left a lasting impression on Hartfield, who assists the Johnson Chapel-African Methodist Episcopalian Church in El Centro with its efforts to feed the homeless.
Hartfield is also widely recognized for her civic engagement, volunteerism and preservation of African American history.
Houser is a Brawley Police Department commander who is known for his community involvement and dedication to the youth.
One example of that commitment was his offer to help pay for the college of a bright young child he encountered while responding to a domestic dispute many years ago. That child is now a first-generation college graduate.
His decision to pursue a career in law enforcement was motivated by the professionalism and compassion he observed in a police official who had responded to a tragic incident at Houser’s former place of employment during his college years.
Quintero was born in Calexico, raised in El Centro, and had once aspired to be a secretary. Instead, a lifetime of encouragement from mentors, prominent figures and activists transformed her into a voice for the voiceless here in the Valley.
The child of migrant farmworkers, Quintero graduated from Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus, where she earned a master’s degree. A former youth counselor at Calexico Neighborhood House, Quintero is currently employed with the California Rural Legal Assistance as director of community workers.
Griselda “Grace” Sesma
Sesma is a student, practitioner, and teacher of curanderismo, or indigenous healing practices. The Mexicali native had gotten her apprenticeship and training in indigenous medicine in 1995 under Yaqui/Lacandon Maya elder Tezkalci Matorral Cachora of Mexico.
Sesma was a founder of Imperial Valley MANA in 1973, and in 2013 successfully led an online campaign and petition to stop the Walt Disney Co. from trademarking the phrase “Dia de los Muertos,” a Mexican and Latin American spiritual holiday.
Solomon is an IVC history professor who believes in the power that education has to change lives. A native of Fresno County, Solomon grew up on a small rural farm and was taught by her father at an early age that race, ethnicity, and class should not be used to sow division.
Solomon credits her Aunt Fam for bringing her to her first demonstration when she was 13 years old. As a teenager, Solomon worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and became aware of how other marginalized groups faced similar injustices.
Dr. Tien Vo
Vo is a native of Vietnam whose father had dreamed of becoming a physician but had instead encountered considerable obstacles to do so in their home country. By immigrating to the United States, Vo’s father had provided an opportunity for Vo to pursue such a dream.
Locally, Vo is widely known just as much for his efforts outside of the doctor’s office. Some of those efforts include the feeding of the homeless, delivering meals to homebound COVID-19 patients, and providing educational opportunities for at-risk youths.