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Maria Garciaz: A guide and a mentor

When Maria Garciaz was a teenager, she turned her life around with the help of a few adult mentors who taught her important life skills. The lessons learned made such an impact that she has dedicated the past 30 years of her life to helping young people in similarly tough situations.

“When I was growing up, our family was a bit of a transient family so I was pretty much an at-risk youth myself,” Garciaz says. “There were just a lot of people who reached out to me to guide me, so I think I always felt that it was important for me to do the same thing for others.”

Garciaz earned a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Utah in political science and a master’s degree in education from Utah State University. She also completed an executive program in community development at Harvard.

“I had two goals when I graduated. One was to be an engineer and the other was to be a lawyer,” she says. Her life direction changed when she went to work as a probation officer for a juvenile court.

“I started to work with young people who were involved in the court system, and I found it gratifying to teach them how to access resources in the community to help them to build their skillset as well as help their own families,” she says. “I fell in love with working with the community because I was one of those kids when I was growing up who was high‐risk.”

In 1982, Garciaz began volunteering for NeighborWorks Salt Lake, a private nonprofit organization that helps revitalize older neighborhoods in Salt Lake City and Murray. NeighborWorks Salt Lake provides resources for people living in older, dilapidated areas to reshape and improve their neighborhoods. The organization focuses on homeownership services, community building and economic development. It also includes programs to help young people improve their skills by allowing them to work on these revitalization projects.

Garciaz officially joined the staff of the organization in 1986, serving as the youth works director. She was named executive director of NeighborWorks Salt Lake City in 1990, and this year she is celebrating her 30th year working for the nonprofit.

She says it is amazing to see the results of NeighborWork’s efforts throughout the years. “Because I’ve been here 30 years, I’ve actually been able to see the progress we’ve made in neighborhoods. You can drive through neighborhoods and see the difference house by house and block by block.”

She adds, “Two girls who graduated from our 12-week youth program this year were daughters of a father I worked with back in 1988. So this father worked with the program when he was 16 and his daughters were with the same program this year.”

NeighborWorks recruits for its youth program through the schools. “We want to teach young people skills about punching in on time, respecting authority and how to manage a paycheck,” Garciaz says.

The youth work on houses, fix fences, do landscaping and demolish houses. “They start to love it. It introduces them to things they might not otherwise do,” she says. “There is not a month that goes by that one of our graduates [doesn’t] visit us. We’ve probably had 2,800 kids graduate from the program, and we have an 80 percent success rate, meaning they finish school and stay out of the court system.”