Clockwise from top right. Leonor Seiler, Selina and Stella De La Peña.

published on December 2, 2019 - 12:12 PM
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The De La Peña sisters all ended up in the nonprofit sector in different ways.

For Selina, the oldest, it came from a work experience program at Madera High School, when she did an internship at Madera Family Health Center (now Camarena Health). She became a medical assistant and was first exposed to working in health care. Later, she worked as the chief financial officer for Owens Valley Career Development Center in Fresno. Her work with Native Americans in the organization would eventually lead her back to health care by joining the Fresno American Indian Health Project (FAIHP).

“They see the person as a whole being,” Selina said of American Indian groups. “It’s holistic in a way. It’s a whole Mother Earth and everything connected — so that really touches me.”

Leonor, the middle sister, was inspired by her sister’s work at the health center and also volunteered as a receptionist. This motivated her to become a registered nurse.

Meanwhile, Stella, the youngest, initially had her sights set on interior design. However, when she was assigned to do design work at a homeless shelter, she couldn’t help but admire the dedication of the staff involved and the rewarding work they were doing.

Whatever their paths, they’re all executives now, devoted to the promotion of health and education for the underserved: Selina is CEO of FAIHP; Stella is now the regional director for the Alzheimer’s Association in Fresno, serving Madera and Merced counties; and Leonor Seiler is back where it all started — working at Camarena Health as the chief quality and compliance officer.

According to them, their desire to work in the health care sector is also spurred on by their upbringing, where they often fell into the underserved cracks for care in the community.

“We were very limited as far as health care when we were children,” Seiler said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of exposure. We weren’t taken to the doctor as needed — it was more if you were sick.”

Education in health care was also something they’ve previously had limited access to, and it’s something all three sisters engage in with their nonprofits. According to Stella, education on and fighting Alzheimer’s is especially personal to her — their father died from the illness 10 years ago, and Stella says she’s learned many things working for the association that would’ve been of great use to them then.

“We made a lot of mistakes that maybe we could’ve definitely done differently, had we known,” Stella said. “And so if it eases the suffering of another caregiver — if it helps somebody in some way — then this is absolutely where I need to be.”

The Alzheimer’s Association is the third largest nonprofit funder of research in the world. This, Stella added, gives it the ability to be more nimble and fund new researchers and projects that will bring them closer to achieving a cure. More recently, the organization received an investment of $10 million through Gates Ventures, the charity foundation funded by Bill Gates.

But Stella isn’t the only sister who has seen generous funding at her nonprofit. The California Department of Education has stepped up to name the FAIHP as a recipient for the American Indian Education Grant, which will bring $250,000 a year to the organization over the course of five years. According to Selina, this funding will go toward afterschool tutoring services and education on American Indian culture.

Camarena Health has for its part been growing with new centers popping up as recently as last month, when they opened their latest clinic in Chowchilla. February also saw the opening of a pediatric health center in downtown Madera.

The De La Peña sisters have been here for all of it and have been at the forefront of the efforts of these three nonprofits. And while their missions and organizations are different, they share the same passion for filling the gaps they used to fall in.

“Giving back was ingrained at such a young age in terms of making a difference, working hard,” Stella said. “The personal ethics that were instilled in us — study hard, make a difference, make an impact, give back — is really where our paths took us.”

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