Carole Vargas is a successful businesswoman--president of her own investment firm in Costa Mesa. She is also a driving force in several cultural and civic organizations in Orange County.
But her greatest satisfaction comes from helping keep young Latino women in high school. Through dropout prevention programs run by Rancho Santiago College's New Career Beginnings and Santa Ana High School's Operation Success, Vargas was matched with three teen-age girls. She spends several hours a week simply talking with them.
Without her encouragement and support, they probably would have dropped out of school, Vargas said.
The dropout rate among Latinos is a serious problem, "as high as 85%," Vargas said. "When I learned of the dimensions of the problem, I knew I had to do something to try to turn the situation around. One person can't solve the dropout problem, but if I can keep just one or two children in school, I feel like I'm accomplishing something."
For her community concern, Vargas, 39, of Santa Ana, will be introduced this morning as a Hispanic Women of the Year by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at a news conference at the Orange County Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.
5 Will Receive Honor
Vargas is one of five Orange County women who will receive the honor from the Santa Ana chapter of LULAC, the nation's oldest Latino civic organization. The others being recognized for their community contributions are businesswoman Teresa Saldivar, educator Lydia Ledesma, social services administrator Judy Campos and volunteer worker Olga Niebla. They were chosen because they were considered outstanding women in their fields and have served as positive role models for young Latinos, said LULAC spokeswoman Aida Ramirez.
Vargas has served as a role model for three high school juniors since last fall. To encourage the girls to remain in school and consider college, Vargas said that she takes them shopping or to the movies and frequently talks with them about their problems over breakfast or lunch. She also has them observe her at work.
Vargas is president of Cal Investments, a Costa Mesa firm with five employees that specializes in making investments for credit unions throughout the country.
Before opening Cal Investments in 1982, Vargas, a Santa Ana College alumna, was a banker for 19 years. She is president of the 53-member Hispanic Business and Professional Assn. of Orange County and a founding member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Santa Ana.
She is also is a board member of Relampago de Cielo, a Mexican ballet and folk dance group which performs at colleges and recreational facilities throughout the county.
Saldivar, 34, of Santa Ana is being recognized for her achievements in business. Working as a cashier at a Spanish-language theater in downtown Santa Ana as a teen-ager in the late 1960s, she fell in love with the commercial district and the people it attracted. She dreamed of someday owning her own business there.
A year ago, she opened Teresa's Jewelers at 4th Street and Broadway, becoming one of the few women to join the ownership ranks of the traditionally male-dominated jewelry business.
Before Saldivar opened her three-employee jewelry shop in her native Santa Ana, she worked for 10 years for a jewelry store chain, becoming a manager and buyer.
Saldivar, a graduate of Santa Ana College, said that jewelry suppliers, relatives and friends encouraged her to open her own business and helped arrange financing for her venture.
"Jewelry is considered a man's world," she said. "I still get customers who come in and say: 'Can I speak to the jeweler?' I just smile and say: 'I am the jeweler.' "
Niebla, 43, of Cypress is being honored for her volunteer work. A homemaker with three children from 17 to 24, Niebla is a member of the board of the Child Guidance Center, a nonprofit organization offering mental health counseling for children and families in stress at facilities in Santa Ana, Fullerton and Anaheim.
"I enjoy raising money for (the Child Guidance Center staff) because they can help more people," Niebla said. "And at the Santa Ana center, 75% of the people they help are Hispanic."
She also is an active fund-raiser for the Leukemia Society, South Coast Repertory Theatre's Hispanic Playwright Program and the Republican Party.
With her husband, Fernando Niebla, owner of a Costa Mesa computer software company, she is an active supporter of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. He is a member of the board; she belongs to the institution's Mexican-American Council.
Campos, 35, of Brea is being recognized in the professional category for her work as administrative assistant for the Brea community services department.
She coordinates social services for Brea city government and is particularly proud of increasing the awareness of the city's Latinos, who make up 12% of the population, of services available to them.
"Because I'm bilingual, I've been able to expand our services to Hispanics," Campos said.
"Now, they don't feel afraid to come to City Hall when they have problems because they know there's somebody here who speaks Spanish. I think this makes them feel more welcome in the community."
Campos has lived in Orange County for the past decade with her husband, Mike Campos, a warehouseman, and her two sons.
Also being recognized in the professional category for her work in the Latino community is Ledesma, 38, of Irvine.
Ledesma, who holds a doctorate in management from Pepperdine University, is an administrator at UC Irvine who coordinates joint programs between the university and county high schools.
A single parent with a 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, Ledesma said she often visits high schools to encourage students to attend college.
In talks to Latino students, she tells them: "You are our future leaders. You need to educate yourselves so that you can make the right decisions in your future roles."
Ledesma said Latino students traditionally have been told they are not capable of college. "My bottom line to them is: 'You're smart. You can do anything you want to.' "
The women will be honored at a dinner-dance Feb. 28 at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 1325 E. Dyer Road, Santa Ana. This eighth annual Hispanic Women Recognition Awards Banquet will raise college scholarship funds for Latino youths.
The cost is $35 per person. Reservations may be made by calling (714) 542-9348.
Times staff writer Lynn Smith contributed to this story.