Women We Love: Retiring leader recalls United Way’s big impact on families

Thelma Garza, president of the United Way of South Texas, poses at the United Way offices on Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Editor’s Note: In observance of Women’s History Month, The Monitor is recognizing local women who inspire us. This is the fourth of eight profiles on those who made our 2019 list of “Women We Love,” a series we’ll publish every Monday and Thursday in March.

Tears streaming down her face, Thelma Garza recalled Thursday the time an Edinburg family baked her an pineapple upside-down cake just a few weeks after getting their own kitchen.

As the president of United Way of South Texas, Garza learned last year that the family of nine resided in a makeshift home without running water, flooring and — in some areas — walls. To cook, the oldest daughter used an electric countertop burner that sat atop wooden crates.

Through the United Way, Garza found the family a mobile home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms after four months of planning. It came furnished with kitchen appliances and furniture that was donated by local organizations and residents. One day, Garza returned to the family to check on their new home and became emotional when she saw they had just baked the cake.

As one of thousands of families United Way has helped during her 33-year tenure with the nonprofit organization, Garza said this is her favorite story to tell. It’s also of special significance considering the family’s eldest daughter gave United Way her graduation stole as a token of gratitude upon graduating with honors from Texas A&M in College Station.

“You don’t realize how big of a difference you are making in these low-income families,” said Garza, who was raised in Realitos, Texas, a community of less than 200 people.

Garza started working for United Way in its Corpus Christi office, United Way of the Coastal Bend, as the campaign director in 1985. She was offered the position of president of the United Way of Hidalgo County eight years later. It now operates as the United Way of South Texas after her proposal to include Starr County residents was passed.

In the time she has piloted the nonprofit, which is located in McAllen, Garza has made other additions to extend the organization’s reach. Programs she introduced include: Back-to-School In Style, an annual event that takes 120 students on a shopping spree before the school year starts; the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which provides families with free income tax preparation services; and the establishment of the Community Veterans’ Engagement Board-RGV, which helps establish communication between veterans and VA representatives.

She credits her mother for having an affinity for people. Garza said she raised her to be compassionate and can relate to families living in poverty.

“I always put myself in their shoes and understand that every person has a story,” Garza said. “I always try to look at someone from that point of view and think about what their feelings would be, and what their thoughts and concerns are.”

Garza’s mother was a housewife and her father was a farmer who harvested cotton, peaches and watermelon.

Before transferring to the University of Corpus Christi, which is now Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Garza attended Del Mar College where she remembers having to walk over a mile a day because she did not have a quarter for the bus.

Garza graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and is married to Manolo Garibay, who has worked for AT&T since its Southwestern Bell days.

After serving as president of the United Way of South Texas for 24 years, Garza will be retiring on March 29.

“It’s about what you do with the resources you are given,” Garza said of United Way’s work. “How you are re-investing your resources? That is what matters.”