Maria P. Hernandez, M.A.
Executive Director & Founder
Maria P. Hernandez is the Founder & Executive Director of VELA, a nonprofit organization based in Austin Texas. Maria started the organization in 2011 to provide English and Spanish-speaking parents with hands-on courses, support, and community so that all families could create the very best outcomes for their child with disabilities. Before creating VELA, Maria worked as a bilingual speech and language pathologist across the school and clinical settings providing services to children with special needs ages 0-21. Her incredible papa has multiple sclerosis and her brilliant brother has dyslexia- different has been her normal. In 2006, Maria completed a MA in Communications Sciences in Disorders at UT Austin and has a BA in Hearing and Speech Sciences from the University of Maryland at College Park. She is a Pahara Aspen NextGen Fellow and is originally from Bogota Colombia.
Imelda Rodriguez, LMSW
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.
Laura Gomez, M.S.
Laura is originally from Bogota, Colombia, but moved to Austin after graduating from high school. She started her career in the sports event production industry, but after obtaining her masters degree in Recreation and Leisure services from Texas State University, she felt like it was time for a change. That is how she joined VELA. Laura loves that VELA walks alongside families and empowers them to give their children all the resources they need to live lives focused on their abilities regardless of limitations. In her spare time, Laura enjoys baking, trying new restaurants and cooking with her husband, and she will never say no to a coffee or ice cream date.
Communications & Development Coordinator
Celina is our Communications and Development Coordinator joining VELA to share her knowledge in marketing strategy. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Advertising and a minor in Business Foundations and Latino Media Studies. She has 12+ years of brand and media strategy experience and has worked with global brands at reputable ad agencies. Her experience in new business development and creative strategy allows her to build efficient and effective campaigns for VELA. She hopes to bring VELA's incredible mission to light for this largely underserved community in central Texas. Celina lives in south Austin with her husband and two young boys.
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.
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.
Maria Luisa Echavarria, Ph.D
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.
Ariana is originally from Mexico City. She previously worked in the energy sector and since she started a
family, she has been working as a Spanish & English technical translator and a Spanish medical
interpreter. She is the mother of two energetic boys, one with an autism diagnosis. She is a former
graduate of the Vela program where she learned and took to heart all the tools taught in the program.
She is a strong supporter of bilingual education within and without special education programs. She is
excited to work with all the Vela families to help plant the seed of parent empowerment and advocacy.
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.
Program and Operations Assistant
Lorena, originally from Milwaukee grew up in a Spanish speaking family and is a proud to be bilingual. She completed an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin (hook’em!) and is striving to become a Bilingual Special Education Teacher. Her passion for serving families with disabilities has led her to join the VELA team & she is excited to continue to learn from and with families!
Board of Directors
Susanna Olivarez, MBA
Senior Operations Manager, Seton Foundations (Ascension)
Susanna works for the Seton Family of Hospitals as a Senior Operations Manager with the Seton Foundations. Her background is in finance, marketing, operations, and strategy. She has worked at Dell and The University of Texas and taught at St. Edwards University. She earned her MBA and BA at the University of Texas at Austin and is well versed in philanthropy, technology, higher education, and emergency management. " VELA is an organization with its heart in the right place. The work they do with families and children could be the factor that helps catapult them to that next level of educational, economic, or social well-being."
Monica Saavedra, MPH, MCHES
Board Vice President
Director of Marketing and Community Relations for CommUnityCare
Monica Saavedra has over 22 years experience in the health care non profit world. She has worked with many diverse populations from migrant farmworkers, to low income Travis county residents. Monica's passion lies with helping the underserved gain access to healthcare, particularly the Latino community. Monica started her work by developing and implementing public health program, and has now transitioned to health care marketing and communications. Monica is an undergraduate from UT El Paso with a BS in Health Science and has a Master's in Public Health from UT. "VELA is easy to love! It gives me the opportunity to give back to an organization that empowers both parents and children to become the best version of themselves! I'm proud to contribute in a small way to making Austin a better community through VELA."
Community Ambassador Superior HealthPlan
Guadalupe has been a long time advocate for VELA. As a community ambassador, she provides support and resources directly to families of children with disabilities who access the STAR KIDS Medicaid Program. She has over 10 years of experience working with not for profit organizations and over 20 years in the healthcare industry in sales, community outreach, and health insurance.
Leslie Wiley is a Certified Treasury Professional and the Treasurer for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers. She has been in this role since 2014 and was the Treasury Manager at ERCOT for 4 years prior. She received her degree from the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. Leslie was a Director of Treasury Operations for a healthcare consulting firm in Wisconsin when she relocated to Austin and now calls Austin home. Leslie’s parents were educators in special needs classrooms and growing up in that environment always resonated with her. She is excited to help grow VELA’s mission.
Creative Director TKO Advertising
Raul is a veteran of the communications industry, and an accomplished brand creator and curator. He is co-founder of TKO Advertising, an Austin- and Albuquerque-based full-service brand agency. Raul's passion is Story - he is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. When not working, Raul obsesses about pop-culture, kundalini yoga, and foodie-ism. "VELA shines with the best of all of us. It is our shared story waiting to be told."
Katie Tackett, Ph.D
Clinical Assistant Professor for UT's Department of Special Education
Katie is an Assistant Professor of Practice at The University of Texas at Austin. She oversees the undergraduate special education teacher preparation program. Katie is a former general and special education teacher. She is a parent through biology and the foster care system. Katie loves VELA because she knows how confusing and intimidating the special education process can be for families. Children do better when their parents are involved and empowered.
Renee Hanson Malone
Chief Development Office for Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin
Renée Hanson Malone is the Chief Development Officer for Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area. Prior to that, she was the Director of Development at Austin Child Guidance Center for six years. Before this position, she served as the Grants Development Specialist at Easter Seals Central Texas from 2008-2011, and she was the Education Program Director and Grant Writer for Manos de Cristo from 2006-2008. Renée received her M.A. in Latin American Studies and was employed as a Lecturer by the Latin American Studies and Spanish Departments at the University of Kansas. She is passionate about improving outcomes for underserved populations and has expertise in raising funds for: mental health, disability services, education, health, the environment and the arts.
Sam Goessling, P.h.D
IDEA Public Schools
Sam Goessling is the Chief Advancement Officer at IDEA Public Schools where manages development, growth and political advocacy for the public charter school network. Sam was previously a 6th grade teacher and middle and high school principal with IDEA in the Rio Grande Valley where he worked closely with the campus special education team in each role. Sam lives in East Austin with his wife Lenora and four children, he is a graduate of the University of Richmond (B.A), the Harvard Graduate School of Education (M.A.), and the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D.).
Carol Portillo, Ph.D
Marketing Director at Dell EMC
Carol is the Director of Marketing for Dell Technologies Americas Channel division and just embarked on her 21st year with Dell. Carol recently earned her Ph.D. in Business Technology Management from Northcentral University and has over 15 years of university-level teaching experience. Most recently, Carol had her dissertation accepted for publication in “An Examination of Online Repurchasing Behavior in an IoT Environment”. Carol is currently an adjunct faculty at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Texas and has been on the teaching faculty at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas and Concordia University in Austin. Carol has two children and has served on the Pflugerville Education Foundation as a board member. She loves spending time with her family and is the lead singer for The undiskovered Band.