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From United Way client to executive director, alum rebuilt with education

There was a time when Leslie Ornelas believed that the difficulties in her life had pushed her too far down to find her way back up. Facing sudden unemployment and a serious struggle with postpartum depression after the birth of her third child, Ornelas and her family moved from Austin to Houston to be closer to family support.

"After my doctor diagnosed me with PPD, my employer said he couldn't wait for me to get better so I lost my job, then my husband was laid off. Everything went completely downhill," she said. "I walked into Salvation Army and they asked me what I needed, and the answer was, I needed everything."

Ornelas said she got a job as a social service case worker there. "I worked for two years there and I was really able to relate to the clients that were coming in. I could put myself in their shoes. I knew what it took just to walk in and ask for help."

She said she became a client of the United Way when she and her family moved to the area 14 years ago. "I started out as a receptionist with no education and no experience," she said. "I expressed to my supervisor that I wanted to grow in the company and I was told to get my education."

She enrolled at College of the Mainland and met with an advisor who immediately recommended that she transfer to University of Houston-Clear Lake when she completed her associate's. "He was already aligning the classes I took at COM to transfer to UH-Clear Lake," she said. "I knew I needed to keep working, so I had to have something 100% online that was close," she said. "I graduated with my associate's in 2017 and transferred immediately to UHCL."

When she received her associate's, she was promoted at United Way Galveston County Mainland to donation director. "I kept track of all the donations that came through from campaigns and other donors, which was over $2 million a year," she said.

She went on to complete her Bachelor of Business Administration and Management at UHCL in 2020, having been promoted again to assistant executive director of the United Way Galveston County Mainland. Now, as she prepares to complete her MBA with Concentration in Human Resource Management in May, she's just been named executive director of the United Way Galveston County Mainland.

"I took a lot of management classes where you're given case scenarios and simulations in which you have to put yourself in a position to get a team of people through a difficult situation," she said. "It helped me with critical thinking, confidence and experience. Because of my education, when I interviewed for this job, I knew it was a much better fit for me. I wasn't overwhelmed; I was able to jump right in."

She said as executive director, she knows exactly the places where some people fall through the cracks because there are no services. "I know what people are struggling with," she said. "For me, this is not just a job. It takes a long time when you're that far down to rebuild your life. People come in and say I have no idea what they're going through, but I actually do."

Since moving to Houston, Ornelas said that she and her husband have had one focus — to get educated and become financially stable. "I am a first-generation college student, and I think it's important to break the cycle and set an example for my kids," she said. "To anyone in this position, I'd say, take it one day at a time. Don't say you're working on your bachelor's degree. Just work on one goal at a time. Get registered for a class. If you think too long term, your goal might seem unachievable."

Most importantly, she said never to be afraid of asking for help. "There are so many great resources at COM and UHCL," she said. "Surround yourself with people who will help you through, one day at a time."

For more information about UHCL's nine MBA programs, go online.