MEET THE VELA TEAM

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Maria P. Hernandez, M.A.
Executive Director & Founder

Maria P. Hernandez is the Founder and Executive Director of VELA, a nonprofit organization based in Austin Texas.  Maria started the organization in 2011 to provide English and English-speaking parents with hands-on courses, support and community so that all families could create the very best outcomes for their child with special needs. Before creating VELA, Maria worked as bilingual speech and language pathologist across school and clinical settings providing services to children with special needs ages 0-21. This is where the idea for VELA began. In 2006, Maria completed a MA in Communications Sciences in Disorders at The University of Texas at Austin and has a BA in Hearing and Speech Sciences from the University of Maryland at College Park. She is originally from Bogota Colombia.

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Imelda Rodriguez, LMSW
Program Coordinator

Imelda is a bilingual Social Worker who grew up in Harlingen, TX in the Rio Grande Valley. She started her career in Child Protective Services where she developed a passion for working with children and families from many different cultures. She switched gears and is now growing her administrative skills through program coordination and agency support. Imelda is married and has the most awesome son. She enjoys family gatherings and spending time outdoors. Imelda loves that VELA believes in endless possibilities for all children with special needs through parent support.

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Nadine Rueb, LCSW
Clinical Social Worker

Nadine grew up in south Texas with parents from South America. Thankfully, they made her speak Spanish. She has been able to use her Spanish personally and professionally. First, as a kindergarten and high school Spanish teacher, and for the last 10 years as a social worker with families and their children in educational, medical and non-profit settings. She now encourages her young family to continue learning Spanish as they explore and have fun in Austin.  She loves how VELA takes on the role of supporting the caregivers of children with special needs so they can support the ones that depend on them. She sees firsthand how this compassionate agency creates a community where caregivers know they are not alone, and that is enough to make a ripple effect of positive changes in the lives of everyone connected to the special needs child.

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Rhonda Roberts
Parent Facilitator

Rhonda is the proud mom of beautiful twin boys with Autism. She is also an advocate for families and a Special Education Substitute Teacher. Prior to her current work with families, Rhonda worked as a medical assistant and as a medical billing and coding specialist for several physicians. Since her children's diagnoses, she has dedicated her time to learning all she can about Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, Eating and Sensory Disorders. Rhonda loves VELA because she gets to witness the change it is facilitating in the community of families with children with disabilities.

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Maria Luisa Echavarria, Ph.D
Parent Facilitator

María Luisa has been a volunteer and facilitator with VELA for the past 5 years, teaching the Autism and Special Education classes for Spanish speakers. She is as lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, where she especially enjoys teaching first generation college students whose families immigrated from Latin America. She has taught Italian, and Spanish for Business at St. Edward's University, and Spanish for Healthcare at UT's Nursing School, which currently uses the textbook she co-authored. Before moving to Austin, María Luisa worked in international banking in New York City.  Because she has personally experienced the ups and downs of raising a child with special needs, she can understand the many challenges families face. Working closely with VELA's families, in their native language, gives her the privilege to support each family's well being, and their efforts to maximize each child's full potential.

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Jolene Sanders
Parent Facilitator

Jolene has been working with children and families for over 20 years, providing direct services, conducting research, training parents, and advocating for public policies that improve disability rights for children and adults. She is the parent of a child with autism and is passionate about special education and promoting inclusive opportunities early. In her spare time, she enjoys going to concerts with her husband and three sons, and eating all things pickled.

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Natalie Ross
Lead Childcare Facilitator

Natalie has worked with children in various settings for the past 17 years. She has been a teaching artist as well as an aide in Montessori and Reggio-Emilia classrooms. Natalie believes in the magic every child possesses and is eager to learn what they teach her. She loves VELA because we treat the parents as the experts of their children, and that the kids can come here and feel like this is their space.