Special Guest


In January 2015, Cecilia Abbott made history by becoming the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas. She has been a teacher, vice-principal and principal at several Catholic schools across Texas, and she has also worked in senior health care services. But Cecilia hasn’t only devoted her professional life to helping others – she has done the same in her personal life. She serves on the board of several educational organizations and is a member of numerous philanthropic organizations. She recently announced the launch of her Texanthropy Initiative, which she will use to promote volunteerism and service to others as her primary focus as First Lady of Texas. Cecilia and her husband, Governor Greg Abbott, have been married for 35 years, and have one daughter, Audrey, and two dogs, Oreo and Pancake.


Keynote Speaker

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Barbara Harrington, Founder of Sponsorship Plus, and frequent nonprofit and business consultant and speaker, will share a compelling look at how leaders from business, nonprofits, government and academia can come together to meet complex community challenges. Harrington will share how to structure the most successful strategic partnerships while avoiding common pitfalls, explain how to harness the untapped resources of young leaders, and offer inspiring examples of what’s possible when stakeholders unite. You’ll leave this idea-packed keynote with a new vision of what’s possible and with the tools to take action right away! See her bio >

Dr. Luzelma G. Canales


Dr. Luzelma G. Canales is executive director for RGV FOCUS, a collaboration with Educate Texas. Prior to joining Educate Texas, Dr. Canales served as a community college and university administrator for over twenty-five years. Luzelma serves on local, state and national boards related to closing equity gaps in voter turnout and educational attainment. Luzelma holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Pan American University, a Master of Business Administration from the University of Texas – Pan American, and Doctorate of Philosophy in Human Resource Development from Texas A&M University – College Station.

Lucila Lagace

With 27 years of experience, Lucila Lagace also known as The Nonprofit Girl, is the owner and principal consultant with Lagace Consulting, LLC. Lagace spent 15 years as a leader of local, state, national and international non-profit and governmental projects and organizations securing and managing over $50 million dollars in grants. As the Director of the Strengthening Communities Fund at the University of Texas–Pan American she provided over 1700 hours of training in organizational leadership to hundreds of nonprofit executives, staff, volunteers and board members.. Lagace is a proud Longhorn and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.

Barry Lovelace

Barry Lovelace is one of the founders of Compass Settings, which provides individual clients career guidance and assists companies in creating high performing teams. Barry has over 25 years of multi-faceted executive management and consulting experience. As an adjunct faculty member at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, he has led research projects and has authored numerous articles ranging from water policy to crash data systems. Barry earned a Masters in Urban Affairs and Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin, and Bachelors in Political Science and Philosophy from St. Louis University.

Dr. Fernando Valle

Dr. Fernando Valle is a native of the Rio Grande Valley and is a former teacher, counselor and principal of South Texas schools.  He is a PSJA High School Graduate, a UTSA graduate and a UTPA graduate. Dr. Fernando Valle currently serves as an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at Texas Tech University where he leads i3 Innovation & Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) federal grants across the state developing competencies in school leaders. Dr. Valle continues to challenge and dismantle deficit thinking through leadership development and graduate coursework at Texas Tech University. 

 Jeanette Ahlenius

Jeanette Ahlenius is the Program Coordinator for Volunteer South Texas, a program of United Way of South Texas and an adjunct professor at Wayland Baptist University. She is an attorney and former Texas Tech University School of Law adjunct professor and Teaching Fellow (1L Research and Writing Courses).  While a part of the development team at IDEA Public Schools, Alhenius secured over $11 million to support college readiness programs. She has authored numerous articles on legal ethics for the Texas Bar Journal. Alhenius is a graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law and Summa Cum Laude Graduate of Wayland Baptist University.

Sarah Stegall 

Sarah Stegall is Assistant Director to the Office of Engaged Scholarship & Learning. In 2015, Sarah earned a M.A. in Experimental Psychology from The University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, TX. Although originally from Louisiana, Sarah has called the RGV home for the last eight years and is passionate about fostering student development through service learning projects, research, and other experiential learning activities. Her research on the impacts of experiential learning on student success has been accepted at national and regional conferences.

Estela Martinez

Estela Martinez received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of Texas at Brownsville in 2010. She is the Program Coordinator for the Office of Engaged Scholarship & Learning at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Over the past seven years, she has worked alongside community organizations and faculty assisting with the development of service learning courses. In her capacity at UTRGV, she assists with providing logistical support to enhance academic experiences across the university where she focuses on student success through experiential learning experiences, such as undergraduate research and service learning.

Maria Leonard

Maria Leonard is a faculty member at the Management Department, College of Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She specializes in teaching upper level courses in business ethics, sustainability, stakeholder management, and organizational behavior. Ms. Leonard has over 20 years of management experience in leadership positions in apparel manufacturing, and received her MBA from the University of Texas Pan American. She serves as trainer for the youth entrepreneurship program sponsored by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and acts as a corporate trainer for the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center at UTRGV.

Ms. Jenny Newcomb, MAOMD


As founder and principle consultant of Newcomb & Associates, Ms. Newcomb provides leadership in strategic visioning, organizational development and leadership coaching by utilizing a dynamic values-based approach.  She has over 20 years of experience in synthesizing organizational identity and values with key stakeholders for strategic change, drawing from theory/multiple disciplines that inform an understanding of human and organizational systems. Ms. Newcomb received her MA in Organizational Development and Management from Fielding Graduate University and a BA in Psychology from the University of Houston.

Felipe Salinas

Felipe Salinas has extensive experience in program development and grant writing, which led him to the use of logic models in grant proposals and as evaluation tools. He holds master's degrees in communication and in religious education. Prior to assuming his current role at UTRGV, he worked as a grant writer and director of pre-college outreach programs at the university.

Lizandro Garcia, CPA 

Mr. Garcia joined Burton McCumber & Cortez, LLP in 2006 and serves as the manager of Audit & Assurance Services. Lizandro has experience in audits involving a variety of industries, including construction, oil & gas, non-profit, financial institutions, hospitality, distribution, agricultural, manufacturing, employee benefit plans, healthcare, governmental as well as publically traded companies as required by the SEC and by the PCAOB. He received his BA in Accounting at the University of Texas – Brownsville.

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

Lisa Mitchell

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett was born in Mexico City and has lived and worked in Latin America, Europe and here in the Rio Grande Valley for the last 25 years. She has a BA from the University of California, a Master degree in International Development Administration (MIA) from the School for International Training, and a Master in Public Health (MPH) from the University of Texas, School of Public Health.

Marco A. Davis 

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Marco A. Davis is a Partner at New Profit, providing strategic insight and advice to the organization's Focus Funds, field leadership, and portfolio investing practices to identify opportunities for engaging new populations and communities, increasing pipeline diversity, and enhancing equity and inclusiveness in the social entrepreneurship space.  Davis received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Latin American Studies from Yale University, and is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Originally from Mount Vernon, New York, he lives in the District of Columbia with his wife and daughter.

Dr. John Ronnau


John Ronnau earned his BS in political science from Kansas State University, an MA in elementary and early childhood education from Antioch-New England, and Master of Social Work and Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of Kansas. As a faculty member and administrator for 25 years, his roles have included Graduate Program Coordinator, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, Director of a Research Institute and Department Chair, Dean of Graduate Studies and Sponsored Programs and Vice-President for Administration and Partnership Affairs.