Local Women Honored as 2017 Women of the Year

Friday, March 24, 2017

(Downey)--Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) is pleased to announce her 2017 “Women of the Year,” for the 58th Assembly District: Michele Diaz (Artesia), Chrissy Padilla-Birkey, (Bellflower), Reyna Reyes (Bell Gardens), Mary Jane Fujimura (Cerritos), Vanessa Perez (Commerce), Liliana Hernández (Downey), Sona Fundukian (Montebello), Mercedez Quintanilla (Norwalk), Bethania Perez (Pico Rivera).  (Biographies below)

“As part of Women’s History Month, it is such an honor to recognize these strong women, from my own backyard, who inspire, empower, and improve their neighbors’ lives and the communities they live in - they are the #Pride58,” Garcia said.

Earlier this month, Assemblymember Garcia introduced Dr. Verónica Obregón as her district Woman of the Year at a ceremony at the State Capitol. (Biography below) 

“Woman of the Year” nominations were open to all women who live, work, or attend school in the 58th Assembly District.  Honorees were nominated by fellow community members and will be celebrated at a district ceremony to be held on Friday, March 24.

Michele Diaz, City of Artesia

Michele Diaz has been a resident of Artesia for over 34 years and has been active member in her community since then.

Michele has served on the City of Artesia’s Planning Commission for the past 18 years; she has also served as the Commission’s Chairperson multiple times. In addition to her vast experience in city planning, Michele is entering her thirteenth term as President of the Friends of the Artesia Library.

The Friends of the Library is a self-supporting program that aims to increase awareness of the library and its importance in their communities. Michele has helped organize fundraisers from book sales to dinner events that attract over several hundred attendees.

In addition to serving on the city’s planning commission, Michele has participated in and organized neighborhood cleanups, tree plantings, and vine trimmings. She has also assisted on the restoration of Artesia’s Historical Fire Station, which is known as LACFD Station #30.

Outside of her contributions to the city, Michele spent a week in New Orleans in March of 2006, where she participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Michele helped restore a damaged store and helped transform it into a home for the Neighborhood Story Project. The project is a literacy program that partners with the University of New Orleans. Most recently, she was appointed by LA County’s 4th District Supervisor Janice Hahn to Artesia’s Cemetery District.

Christina “Chrissy” Padilla-Birkey, City of Bellflower

Christina, known by her peers as “Chrissy,” is currently the Executive Director of “Kingdom Causes”, a community-based organization that focuses on bringing together local churches and city residents to build a strong, thriving community. Chrissy spearheads the organization’s various efforts to combat homelessness, engage the community, create affordable housing, create access to better employment and job training opportunities. Chrissy has been with Kingdom Causes since its inception and has furthered her education and work skills by attaining her Masters in Urban Affairs.

Outside of her work for Kingdom Causes, Chrissy is a member of the Bellflower Kiwanis Club, which is a service club that strengthens communities by helping children and young adults. She also sits on the Executive Board for Caring Connections, a non-profit organization based in Bellflower that seeks to meet the needs of children and families in need.

Chrissy is also a tireless advocate for combating homelessness and providing much-needed services both within the scope of Kingdom Causes and outside of it. Whether it is her work within Kingdom Causes or her broader efforts to tackle homelessness, and current incarceration rates, Chrissy’s motto is to “not only provide direct services, but to mobilize stakeholders in the community to get involved in these issues.”

Reyna Reyes, City of Bell Gardens

After leaving her country of Honduras in 1995, Ms. Reyna Reyes started a new chapter here in California. She settled in the City of Bell Gardens, where she is currently raising her three young boys. With her ambition to create a safe community, Reyna quickly became involved with the Bell Gardens Neighborhood Watch Program. 

For the past fifteen years, Reyna has not only connected her immediate neighbors to the program but has extended invitations to many families in her surrounding community. Through her efforts, the program has had a turnout of 60 to 70 community members per meeting. Reyna also cooks home-made meals to provide food at these meetings, which incentivize residents to attend.

Through her efforts, the City of Bell Gardens has developed an active Neighborhood Watch Program that keeps families aware of recent crimes, educates families on crime prevention and encourages families to report suspicious behavior. Aside from volunteering around her neighborhood, Reyna serves as a parent liaison between Bell Gardens Elementary and the Bell Gardens Police Department. Reyna's passion for public safety is also evident in her participation at the National Night Out and at National Police Week, where she helps with outreach and attendance. Moreover, she shares this passion with her three boys, who also volunteer and accompany their mother in passing out information, brochures, and safety tips. 

Lastly, Reyna is an active member of the Citizen's Patrol, a community led program where volunteers survey local areas to identify suspicious behavior or criminal activity and report it to law enforcement.

Mary Jane Fujimura, City of Cerritos

Originally born in Hawaii, Mary Jane was raised in a family whose parents and grandparents instilled a sense of community and giving back.

Mary Jane has volunteered all throughout her youth and college career. Always carrying a passion for the arts, Mary Jane became involved with the “Friends for the Performing Arts”,  an organization based in the city of Cerritos that supports the performing arts and provides scholarships to students excelling in their field.

As an educator, Mary Jane has served on the Teacher’s Board and later chaired the Guild for the Friends. She also serves on the board for the Hawaiian Senior Club, where she engages the youth and exposes them to the Hawaiian culture. Mary Jane is also a member of various clubs, including the Soroptimist International Artesia-Cerritos Club and the Cerritos Optimist Club.

Outside of her efforts to engage disadvantaged communities, including youth and women, Mary Jane’s self-declared great passion is volunteering for the “Go for Broke Organization.”  “Go for Broke” strives to honor the virtue and valor of World War 11 Japanese-American veterans. It also recounts the dark chapter of history for many Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated in intermittent camps.

Overall, Mary Jane continues to live her life according to her parent’s wisdom that it is “not about money but the giving from the heart.”

Vanessa Perez, City of Commerce

For Vanessa Perez, a lifelong Commerce resident, things have come full circle. Vanessa spent her teenage years frequenting the City of Commerce Teen Center. She has since made her career there by working her way up to the position of the Teen Center Senior Recreation Leader. 

Vanessa first began working for the city’s center as a Teen Leader, where she helped expand various programs. Under her supervisor at the time, Vanessa expanded the center’s annual camping trip, which is now known as “Adventure Club”. Vanessa transformed the club and organizes various excursions for the teens. Not only do the students gain valuable volunteer experience, Vanessa says she enjoys taking the city’s youth to different places to expand their horizons and visit places they “would not be able to go otherwise”, such as visiting Skid Row. Vanessa undertakes the responsibility of fundraising for the trip, including the expenses for students’ room and board and all excursion fees.

Vanessa has worked at the Center for over 14 years and currently leads a “Girlology”, a program at the Teen Center that provides young girls with the skills and resources to empower themselves. Under the program, young girls have the opportunity of going to various excursions and journaling about their experiences. Most recently, Vanessa took the students to see “Hidden Figures,” a film on the untold story of African American Women working at NASA. Vanessa is not only a role model in her community, but a true asset that inspires young individuals to become invested in their community.  

Liliana Hernández, City of Downey

Liliana Hernández is currently an 8th grader enrolled at the Downey Unified School District. She is one of the leaders of the “Girls in STEM” club at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, located in the City of Downey. The club aims to provide young girls new opportunities and experiences in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

She has been a member of the club since its inception and has rallied her fellow club members to take part in hands-on STEM explorations, field trips and service projects.

Outside of her initiative with the “Girls in STEM” club, Liliana is a long-time member of the Girl Scouts of America and serves as her class president. In her spare time, Liliana builds robots and regularly competes in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, which is the world’s largest student rocket contest and is integral in the aerospace and defense industry’s strategy to build a strong U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Liliana aspires tone day become a doctor. In the meantime, Liliana continues to inspire her female peers by encouraging them to pursue an interest in STEM, which is underrepresented by young woman like herself. 

Sona Fundukian, City of Montebello

Sona Fundukian is the proud parent of 3 children and 2 grandchildren. She has been happily married for 55 years.  Sona is currently the Chairperson of the Nairy Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), which was established in Montebello in 1968. The Nairy Chapter of the Armenian Relief is one of ARS’s 26 chapters and is dedicated to offering humanitarian aid, education, and various social services to those in need. ARS aims to promote and preserve the rich traditions of the Armenian culture by educating Armenian youth about their heritage.

During her time on the Executive Board, Sona realized there was a need to educate the local Armenian-American youth in and around her community. In 1982, she helped establish a Saturday School in the City of Montebello, which provides young Armenians the resources to learn their language, history and culture.

Sona also sits on several committees, including the ARS Scholarship Committee, which she originated. More specifically, she was instrumental in the creation of the “Nairy Scholarship,” which awards deserving Montebello High School students of Armenian descent.

Outside of her work for ARS, Sona has a teaching career spanning over 33 years, including 5 years of teaching for the Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello and 28 years at Bell High School. She has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1995.

Mercedez Quintanilla, City of Norwalk

Mercedez Quintanilla is the current Executive Director and Founder of Door of Hope, an organization committed to providing supportive and caring team members that will serve as mentors to the youth. Mercedez is an action oriented leader, she saw a need for after-school programing for at-risk youth she knew that they would benefit from the sustained guidance over a prolonged period of time.

She also has served as an administrator for the Norwalk Sheriff Station’s “Personal Responsibility in Developing Ethics” (PRIDE) Program for the past seven years. This mentorship programs helps at-risk youth redirect their lives and teaches the lessons of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

While serving as the PRIDE Program Administrator, Mercedez visited countless homes and helped at-risk youth connect with valuable social services. Due to her tireless efforts, she was recognized by former Los Angeles County’s 4th District Board Supervisor, Don Knabe, as the 2013 Volunteer of the Year.  

She also has served on the SARB (School Attendance Review Board) Panel and SART (School Attendance Review Team) for the Norwalk/LA Mirada School District. It was her time working with SARB and SART that she discovered a need for helping young students develop their attitudes and improve their academic success.

Bethania Perez, City of Pico Rivera

Bethania Perez is currently a senior at El Rancho High School and is on route to be the first in her family to attend a college. She is a leader in various clubs and organizations within her school and carries a passion to help first-generation students like her pursue a higher education.

She was recently selected to be part of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Better Make Room” Student Advisory Board. The application for this competitive position drew in over 300 applications and Bethania was one of two students chosen from the State of California. The Campaign promotes higher education and a “college-going” culture in high schools throughout the county.

Bethania is currently the president of her school’s California Scholarship Federation and is a link crew member, where she mentors middle school students as they make their transition into high school. This program creates a welcoming environment for high school freshman as they adjust to a new environment.

In addition, Bethania is a peer advisor at El Rancho High School, where she is one of 12 advisors that help their fellow students navigate various college applications and complete the FAFSA form to determine eligibility for federal student aid.

In the near future, Bethania has her sights to attend Columbia University, where she would like to pursue a major in biomedical engineering and hopes to make a positive impact for females pursuing careers in STEM fields. 

Dr. Verónica Obregón, City of Montebello

Dr. Verónica Obregónis a mental health expert with over 15 years of mental health consultation experience. She is a licensed clinical social worker and educational psychologist with a pupil personnel services credential authorizing work in schools.

Dr. Obregón received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from the USC Dworack-Peck School of Social Work and her Doctorate Degree in Education with an Educational Psychology concentration from the USC Rossier School of Education. A well-educated therapist, she built her expertise working in urban communities in Central Los Angeles.

Dr. Obregón began her career at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. She moved on to practice as a psychiatric social worker at the Los Angeles Unified School District-School Mental Health Program. As a mental health consultant she worked with teen moms to help them stay in school, provided mental health consultation with school administrators and staff about student and staff mental health and socio-emotional needs, provided crisis intervention and worked with district staff to engage parents in their child’s education.

Dr. Obregón was born in Mexico City and raised in East Los Angeles. Growing up in this community inspired Dr. Obregón to work for a just and well-organized society. That is why she pursued a career as a social worker after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UCLA. She now shares her passion and expertise gained as a licensed clinical social worker with aspiring social work students, as a part-time adjunct faculty at the California State University Los Angeles School of Social Work.                                                                                                                 

The 58th Assembly District includes the cities of Montebello, Pico Rivera, Commerce, Bell Gardens, Downey, Norwalk, Bellflower, Cerritos and Artesia.