VCCF Donor Spotlight: Interview with Catherine Sepulveda
This month’s featured VCCF donor client, Catherine Sepulveda, brings a unique perspective to her philanthropy as co-chair of the VCCF Donor Peer Network, in addition to her leadership on the VCCF Board of Directors and her enthusiasm for supporting education in our community. The DPN is a group created to help foster relationships between VCCF’s donor clients, to learn more about each other’s philanthropic passions and the challenges facing Ventura County.
“What’s so wonderful about that is getting to hear the stories of other donors and seeing what they do,” Catherine said. “It becomes a culture that you’re a part of, and it becomes even more contagious. I’ve learned about so many things I would not know, nonprofits and individuals and organizations and all the good they do.”
Catherine was born in Augusta, Georgia, but her family moved back and forth between Germany and the United States three times for her father’s military service. At age 21, Catherine settled in California to attend law school. Living in Ventura County, she married the late Ray Sepulveda and had a daughter, Rena. The couple worked together at Santa Paula High School, Ray as a science teacher and Catherine running the school bookstore.
In 1999, Ray and Catherine started the Agricultural-Science Academy, a rigorous four-year college prep and honors program that gave students hands-on experience and mentorship. One of the requirements of the curriculum was that students had to submit an application to a college, as SPHS had low college attendance rates at the time. Catherine also helped fundraise for the academy’s scholarship to help remove the barrier of college expenses for students. Ray passed away in 2001, the same year the entire first cohort of academy graduates were accepted into major four-year universities, 16 of the 22 being the first in their families to attend college.
Ray’s death affected the whole community, and Catherine was motivated to keep the scholarship going. She connected with VCCF to set up the scholarship fund in partnership with Thelma Garcia, the fund’s co-founder, who was dissolving her own LA-based nonprofit at the time. Years later, Catherine has become a core part of VCCF, serving both as co-chair for the DPN and a member of the VCCF Board.
“Being on the Board at VCCF is one of the highlights of my philanthropy, because I get to see amazing individuals with altruism, constantly coming from a place of giving, of love, of acceptance,” Catherine said. “I think it makes me a better person, because they influence me by just watching what they do, what they say, how they live their lives.”
You’ve traveled extensively through your life. Has that influenced how you view the idea of a “shared world” in your giving?
Absolutely. We’re all so connected, and no matter where you go in the world, we share so much more than our differences, because we have our families that we love, we love our children, we all want a nice home, and food and good medical, and it’s universal. Most of how people think and go about their lives are universal. And the thing traveling also did for me, I learned to be the “other,” not just because I was in a foreign country, but sometimes even in in the states, because I was always the new kid. And there’s a certain amount of intimidation you feel being the new person all the time. I meet people that have immigrated here, how they must be feeling because they’re from someplace else and they’re trying to fit in, and it’s giving me empathy and sensitivity. I think that’s added to my philanthropy also.
Could you describe some of the highlights of countries you’ve visited?
I have a brother who’s an anthropologist, so I’ve gone to some unusual places with him. I spent a month in Mongolia when he was living there, so I rode camels in the Gobi Desert. And I went to the Singing Dunes and the Red Cliffs. I learned when I was there, dinosaurs roamed there, and there’s a lot of dinosaur bones still there. So, one day I went to go there and see those, and it gave me a feeling of…There’s birth and death, and everything in between is on one continuum, because here I stood where all these dinosaur bones were, and you could pick them up from the earth through the red clay and hold them. And it was an incredible feeling, because I don’t even know how many thousands of years old that had to have been. And it changes the way a person thinks when you can have an experience like that.
How did you first connect with the Ventura County Community Foundation?
Another fascinating story, Rodney Fernandez founded Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation. He was an early pioneer in providing housing for farm workers. He grew up with my husband. They both had immigrant parents; they had known each other since they were 5 years old. They were always great friends, and when Ray passed away, I went to Rodney, and I said, “I really would like to put this money somewhere where it could grow and I could have leverage and service more farmworker kids,” because the scholarship had an emphasis on kids of farmworkers. He had business dealings with Kate McLean, who was the (VCCF) CEO at the time. So, he made an appointment, introduced me to Thelma Garcia, who was dissolving the nonprofit in LA. We went there with him, we met with (Kate) and we founded the fund together. And so here we are, giving out scholarships today. And it all started, you could say, like the dinosaur bones, and standing there and feeling that time is endless and you’re a part of it all. Here’s two 5-year-old boys that grew up together that now influenced me to have this fun at VCCF.
Why is supporting education so important to you?
There’s kind of a shift in the paradigm today about the benefits of education. Maybe it’s because today, these students graduate with so much debt, they can never really thrive. But in my day, education changed lives, and it changed my life. The people I met affected me in a way that was bigger than my life. I just thought it was life-changing to get an education, and it would be great to be a part in some way to help an individual have more opportunity, because they not only are more empowered and improved in their personal life, but it affects every life around them. Then they become role models, especially in Santa Paula, for their siblings, their cousins, and the community at large.
And I love to tell the story, and everybody’s probably sick of it, and I’m going to tell it to you: Mike Nava was in our pilot program in 1999 and he received our very first scholarship. He went to college and he’s a PhD in statistics and mathematics today. He teaches at (the University of Santa Barbara, California). And I was sitting in one year, where we had our first scholarship committee meeting, and in walks Mike Nava. He comes over, he goes, “Well, hi, Mrs. Sepulveda!” and pulls out the chair, sits, and I’m like, “Mike, what are you doing here?” And Mike goes, “Oh, I’m on the committee now!” It was a full circle moment, why you do all of this comes walking in the door and sits next to me at the table with us, reading scholarships, promoting other people to become like he is. He goes in and he spends his time tutoring at the middle school or at the community colleges. He is remarkable. It’s why we do what we’re doing, and he’s proof of it. He’s a colleague now. That’s like the dinosaur moment I was telling you about earlier.