VELA STAFF & BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Interested in joining our Board of Directors? Click here to see our General Board Member Opening

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 disabilities 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 sits on multiple local and national advisory committees and is a Pahara Aspen NextGen Fellow .Maria is originally from Bogota, Colombia.

Shalyn Bravens, LMSW
Program Director

Shalyn is a Social Worker, mom to two kiddos, and amateur flower farmer. She formerly worked with VELA as the organization's first Social Work intern in 2012, then managed programs at Easterseals and United Way before coming back to her roots at VELA. Shalyn is passionate about empowering parents to be able to embrace their role as their child's advocate, teacher, and number one cheerleader. Throughout her career, she has loved building and supporting team members to accomplish their work and professional goals in a collaborative and supportive working environment. She is thrilled to be joining this passionate and beautiful VELA team.

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.

 

Laura Gomez, M.S.
Development Director

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.

 

Celina McGraw
Communications Director

Celina is our Communications Director 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 child with disabilities.

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.

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.

Ariana
Parent Facilitator

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.

Jan Michelle Medina-Ruiz
Parent Facilitator

Jan was born and raised in Puerto Rico by an incredible mom with fibromyalgia, ADHD & autism, within a loving family. She became a massage therapist once she moved to Arizona and later completed a BS in Nursing. She has lived in many places and loves learning. She moved to Austin in 2018 and is blessed with four lovable stepkids with whom she keeps growing as she learns more about their autism, ADHD, fibromyalgia, hydrocephalus and more. Jan enjoys singing, baking, nature & photography. Jan is a VELA graduate and is excited to now get to support other families like hers.

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.

Board of Directors

Alex Cantu
Board Chair
MAYA Consulting

Alex is a community advocate, philanthropist, and nonprofit leader. As the Chief Operating Officer with MAYA Consulting, he builds and scales an organization focused on working in community with partners to ensure we all live a good life. Alex graduated magna cum laude with a Master of Nonprofit Administration from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and is also a proud graduate of St. Edward’s University. Alex is passionate about partnering with organizations dedicated to creating safe spaces for children so they may be thriving members of the community. He has spent his entire career engaged with organizations focusing on creating healthy communities through policy initiatives, restorative justice, and teaching leadership through service.

Alisyn Diaz
Board Secretary
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas

A graduate of Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, Alisyn has spent her entire career in the nonprofit sector.  For the last 20 years she has worked in a variety of different roles for Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, Inc., where she currently serves as their Data and Impact Senior Manager.  Alisyn resides in Austin with her husband, two sons, and dog.  In her spare time, you might find her reading a book, trying out a new recipe, or planning the next family vacation.  She is proud to support the work of VELA to help children and families thrive.

Mike Yeldell
Board Treasurer
Google

Mike is Senior Financial Analyst at Google. He has over 11 years of experience in Corporate Finance, Accounting, and Strategy. He received his BA in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh and MBA from the University of Virginia. Michael is excited to be a part of the VELA family and help VELA deliver upon its mission and growth strategy.

Carol Portillo, Ph.D
Board Vice Chair
AMD

Carol is the Manager Global Brand Marketing for AMD. 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.

Jaq Diaz
Board Member
Google

Originating from Los Angeles County, Jaq is a seasoned professional who boasts 15+ years in enterprise operations with a B.A. in History from UCLA. Currently, as Senior Program Manager at Google in the Corporate Engineering org, Jaq has led international business functions in Consumer Electronics and IT, spanning global offices from San Francisco to New York, Amsterdam, London, and Austin. Adept in supply chain operations and scaling with technology, Jaq drives efficiency and innovation with unwavering commitment, leading AI-centered initiatives for enterprise support solutions. With a dynamic leadership style and passion for making a difference, Jaq’s experience offers valuable insights into technology's transformation and its impact on corporate and social spheres. She is excited to join the VELA family and help realize its mission and growth strategy.

Cathy McHorse
Board Member

Cathy is a community advocate, educator and mom of three grown children. She graduated from Duke University and earned her M.Ed. in early childhood special education at UT Austin. Cathy is passionate about equitable access to high quality early childhood programs for all families. Cathy chairs the City of Austin’s Early Childhood Council and serves on the boards of several local and statewide organizations related to children and families. She is passionate about empowering families as advocates not only in programs but also to inform policy changes.

Isabel Cobo
Board Member
Any Baby Can

Isabel, raised near the US-Mexico border, draws inspiration from her immigrant family's dual identity experience. Shaped by her mother's influence as a special education teacher, Isabel developed a passion for community service. With over 20 years as a bilingual early intervention specialist, she fosters relationships with families, empowering them to become advocates for their children. Isabel is thrilled to contribute to VELA's mission of creating a supportive community for all families. Outside of work, she enjoys laughter, outdoor adventures with her dog, making new friends (both human and furry), reading, and exploring new hobbies.