For someone who started out as a volunteer at a nondescript social service organization before working her way up to the position of executive director, Sandra Figueroa Villa has come a long way.
This past March, the Eagle Rock resident was awarded the “Woman of the Year” title by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Gloria Molina in L.A. County’s First District, where Villa’s Echo Park-based organization, El Centro del Pueblo, has been based since 1974. The honor was part of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women 27th Annual “Women of the Year” awards, given downtown in the historic Biltmore Hotel.
Housed in what was once a public parking garage on a quiet street off Sunset Boulevard, El Centro del Pueblo—Spanish for “People’s Center”—mostly serves at-risk youth who are in danger of joining gangs as well as youth who are already in gangs or have been referred by courts for offenses surrounding gang-related crimes.
Villa vividly recalls coming to the run-down office building that served as a “teen post” in the 1970s. “Because of the gang problem in Echo Park, it was a special place for people to gather and talk about social justice,” she reminisces. “I didn’t have a job as such—I came in and worked wherever there was help needed.”
When she became the Center’s executive director in 1980, Villa was faced with a $25,000 budget deficit. She turned the organization around with her strong management skills, transforming El Centro del Pueblo into one of the most respected resources for families in Northeast L.A.
Much of her management prowess, Villa admits, revolves around inspiring her 87 employees with her leadership and her unflagging dedication to protecting all facets of people’s rights, from education and health to employment and housing. “It’s great to have my staff not quit on me,” she says—only half-jokingly.
“Any type of financial problems we’ve had—knock on wood—was only in the beginning,” Villa told Patch during a recent tour of the Center’s 10,000-square-foot facility, which includes everything from a youth drop-in center, lounge and classrooms to a gymnasium, dance studio and a computer lab.