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.

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.

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.

Carolina Sarria
Communications Coordinator

Carolina is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and is passionate about community service, social justice, and education. Originally from the Houston area, she is the proud daughter of Colombian immigrants. Her favorite activities include reading, dance, travel, and spending time with loved ones. Carolina’s younger brother is on the autism spectrum and is her inspiration! Carolina’s experiences abroad and fluency in Spanish as well as French have opened many doors, including her current role as Bilingual Communications Coordinator for VELA. She is looking forward to making memories with this incredible team to positively impact families’ lives.

Board of Directors


Alex Cantu
Board Chair
MAYA Consulting

Alex is a community advocate, philanthropist, and nonprofit leader. As the Executive Vice President of Finance and Operations 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.


Monica Saavedra, MPH, MCHES
Board Vice President
Associate Director of Communications Optum Everycare

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."


Mike Yeldell
Board Treasurer

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.

Bio Pic Guadalupe Yanez2

Guadalupe Yanez
Board Secretary
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.


Susanna Olivarez, MBA,
Board Member (Chair Emeritus)
Associate Director of Contracts and Procurement
The University of Texas System

Susanna is VELA's Chair Emeritus and works within the University of Texas System. She has worked at the Seton Family of Hospitals as a Senior Director of Operations with the Seton Foundations, 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. She is currently working on her Masters in Public Affairs at UT-RGV. " 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."


Carol Portillo, Ph.D
Board Member
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.


Sam Goessling, P.h.D
Board Member
The Center for First Generation Student Success

Sam is the Chief Growth Officer for The Center for First Generation Student Success. Previously, he was the Chief Advancement Officer at IDEA Public Schools where he managed 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.).


Paulette Betancourt
Board Member
Austin Independent School District

Paulette was born in the border town of Brownville, Texas and raised in Matamoros, Mexico.  She attended the University of Texas in Brownsville, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Marketing. Soon after graduation, she began working as a substitute teacher in Brownsville ISD in a Lifeskills classroom; this evolved into teaching Lifeskills in all primary grades (1st-5th) for 11 years. In 2017, she started working for Austin ISD Bilingual PPCD teacher and is now  a Bilingual Instructional Coach/Special Education Department Chair. Paulette's motto is "Think 21" ensuring that we are planning for the future of students with disabilities, now.