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Eight Women of Distinction honored by Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

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Blandina "Bambi" Cardenas Flores acted as mistress of ceremonies.
Blandina “Bambi” Cardenas Flores acted as mistress of ceremonies.

What a night, the Hispanic Chamber of commerce honored eight very distinguished women of the Rio Grande Valley. It was a special ceremony that took place at the luxury Memorial Event Center in Edinburg.

From all facets of professional life, Women of Distinction were recognized and given an unforgettable plaque. Blandina “Bambi” Cardenas Flores, former president of the University of Texas-Pan American acted as mistress of ceremonies.

Honorees are from different professions which covered; Government, Education, Entrepreneur, Professional, Arts and Entertainment, Humanitarian, Military, and rising Stars.

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Alka Vaswani
Alka Vaswani

Alka Vaswani

Alka Vaswani was one of the honorees. She prides herself on bridging the McAllen community with her Indian heritage. As owner of Alka’s Divine Botique, Alka imports the latest clothing and accessories from India. Alka is also the founder of Divine Journeyz by Alka, which promises and delivers its clients an unforgettable journey across Incredible India.

Alka’s appreciation for the arts, fashion, culture, language, travel, and cuisine coupled with her entrepreneurial spirit has earned her a rightful place in the eyes of her Rio Grande Valley clients.

Apart from her entrepreneurial spirit, Alka is a passionate believer in the message of volunteerism. With a strong hunger to effect change in her community, Alka is proudest to be one of the founders of Infinite Love, a nonprofit organization founded by four women whose sole mission is to support the underprivileged and those with chronic disabilities by offering support to uplift, inspire, and improve their overall quality of life.

To fulfill its mission of serving the underprivileged, members bring fresh food and warm company to the homeless at a local park every Friday evening. The organization supplements this outreach by working toward providing housing for individuals in dire need of shelter. To foster community and spiritual growth in South Texas, Infinite Love holds weekly meditation circles and self-awareness classes.

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Motivated by love, Alka and the Infinite Love team hope to help people pursue inner growth, inner peace, and inner strength along their life journeys.

Today, Alka’s philanthropic efforts, leadership capacity, and love for womankind has led her to this new and exciting path. She is proud to announce and launch Women of Love, a chapter of Infinite Love dedicated to empowering and educating the women of the RGV.

Cristina Solis-Wilson
Cristina Solis-Wilson

Cristina Solis-Wilson

Cristina Solis-Wilson is a wife, mother, and Co-founder of Crossroads Academy, Inc. and CM Institute of Leadership. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from The University of Texas-Pan American. In addition, she holds an Associate of Arts degree in Social & Behavioral Sciences, and an Associates of Science in Criminal Justice, both from South Texas College.

In 1991, she started her career in law enforcement. Currently as a Federal Investigator with the Federal Public Defenders Office, she has over 19 years of law enforcement experience to include over 17 years in the U.S. Army Reserve with 3 deployments and several awards.

Cristina is a Co-Founder of Crossroads Academy, Inc. A non-profit organization that helps the youth of today become the leaders of tomorrow. Crossroads Academy provides leadership workshops for economically disadvantaged youth. This empowers youth to become the change agent of their lives, family and their community. While teaching leadership skills to youth, she found that not only youth lack leadership, but also many adults in the workforce, from small companies to large corporations. This gave her an understanding of the high demand and need of leadership development workplace.

In addition, Cristina is the CEO of CM Institute of Leadership. In this capacity, she serves the workforce with coaching, training, or speaking on leadership. Since October 2014, she has been part of the John Maxwell Team. As an International Trainer and Coach, Cristina was among the exclusive group of coaches selected to train in the country of Paraguay. Over 250 coaches trained 20,000 Paraguayan leaders to transform the country in a national not-for-profit leadership education project known as Transformaci6n Paraguay.

Cristina serves as the Event Chair for NHPO-RGV and Treasurer for Rowe High School FFA Alumni. Currently, she is a member of the John Maxwell Team (JMT); National Hispanic Professional Organization (NHPO-RGV); Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas (HWNT-RGV); Organization of Women Executives (OWE); RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Boy Scouts of America; Leadership McAllen; and National Defender Investigator Association (NDIA).

She is a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal; Army Commendation Medal (2nd Award); Army Achievement Medal (2nd Award); National Defense Service Medal; Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal (5th Award); Army Good Conduct Medal; Iraq Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; Armed Forces Reserve Medal with “M” Device; Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon (4th Award); Army Service Ribbon; Overseas Ribbon (2nd Award); and the Combat Action Badge for her outstanding service and leadership recognition in the United States Army.

She is married to Michael Wilson for 23 years and has two children, Michelle (22) and Christian (18). Her passion is to add value to others and help individuals reach their goals. She also enjoys giving back to the community and making a difference in people’s lives and the community.

As a business owner, her military training, and leadership in the community, are just a few examples of the skills, knowledge, and abilities that she to brings to any organization.  “My passion is to add value to others. I enjoy giving back to the community and making a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Dr. Shirley A. Reed, President, South Texas College.
Dr. Shirley A. Reed, President, South Texas College.

Dr. Shirley A. Reed,

President, South Texas College

Dr. Reed serves as the founding president of South Texas College, formerly South Texas Community College. She continues her distinguished 44-year career as a community college administrator with experience in three states.

Her com-mitment to the greater good is demonstrated by her choice of fighting structural barriers in higher education and committing to serve low-income, first-generation, students.

She has devoted her career to facilitating access to quality education for African American, Native American, and Hispanic students.

As the founding President of South Texas College, she has led the establishment and development of the College that now serves almost 35,000 credit students and over 16,000 continuing education students annually, in Deep South Texas.

She led the successful creation of a taxing district for the operation of the College and three bond issue elections providing $277.7 million in funding for new facilities.

Since its creation in 1993, the College serves almost 35,000 students per semester, has expanded to five campuses, including a sixth virtual on-line campus, and offers 119 degree and certificate program options, 26 on-line Associate degrees and certificates, and four applied baccalaureate degree programs.

South Texas College is a model of collaboration with public schools. The College has one of the largest dual enrollment programs in the State of Texas. It has instituted a variety of dual enrollment programs, including six academies, drop-out recovery programs and other unique initiatives with 24 school districts, and 72 high school sites, plus six Middle College Academies throughout Hidalgo and Starr counties. Combined, over 16,000 students are currently enrolled in these programs.

Since 2000, the college has provided tuition-free dual enrollment to over 92,500 students in 72 school sites, saving families over $150 million in tuition. South Texas College serves as the higher education partner for 30 Early College High Schools and two Career and Technical Early College High Schools, with over 12,000 students in the pipeline.

Dr. Reed’s leadership has led to state and national recognitions for South Texas College including: Recognized by The Hispanic Outlook on Education (HO) Magazine as one of the leading community colleges for Hispanics in the United States; and named second in the nation for awarding Associate Degrees to Hispanics, the Early College High Schools Program was selected as an Example of Excelencia! 2015 by Excelencia in Education.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics selected the College’s Early College High Schools Program as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education, one of 150 nominees for the highly competitive Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, Achieving the Dream Leader College designation, the McGraw Hill Prize in Education, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Star Award for the Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy, MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award, and the Leah Meyer Austin Award.

Dr. Reed has served on numerous advisory committees for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Dr. Reed’s focus on the importance of community colleges reaches far beyond South Texas College.

In April 2016, she was selected by Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick to serve on the P-TECH Advisory Council (Pathways in Technology Early College High School).

Dr. Reed was elected to serve on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Board of Directors. She has also served as Chair, AACC Presidents Academy Executive Committee; served as a member of the AACC Commission on Academic, Student and Community Development; Texas Comptroller’s Advisory Board for Jobs and Education for Texans, Hispanic Association for Colleges and Universities, Member of the University of Texas System Medical School Advisory Committee for the new medical school in South Texas, Rotary International, Local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Boards.

Some of Dr. Reed’s awards and distinctions include the Border Texan of the Year; Woman of the Year by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce; Zonta lnternational’s “Shining Star Award” for her leadership in Education; Honoree for the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s “A Night at the Oscars”; Recipient of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s “Americanism Medal;” Recipient of the Distinguished Citizen Award by the Rio Grande Council Boy Scouts of America; Pacesetter of the Year Award by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations; “Texas Women’s Hall of Fame” nominee; Alfredo G. de los Santos, Jr. Distinguished Leadership in Higher Education Award, 2011 from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, Inc.; and most recently the McGraw Hill Prize in Education.

A Canadian by birth, Dr. Reed is a naturalized citizen who fell in love with the education opportunities available to her in the United States. She has five college degrees, including a Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Illinois State University, a Master’s in Business Administration from Western International University and Master’s in Library Science from the University of Hawaii. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of South Florida in English Education. Dr. Reed also has an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. Petersburg Junior College.

“Graduation from a community college opened the door to my own future, and as president of South Texas College, I am committed to opening the doors to higher education for all and with the highest expectations for their success,” said Dr. Reed.

Deborah Case
Deborah Case

Deborah Case

There is not a day in her memory where she did not dance. She said, “When I hear music I’m dancing; when I see an open space, I dance in it; and even when I am sleeping, I’m choreographing dance.”

She was born into the Arts and Entertainment industry. Her mother danced, therefore, she enrolled her in formal dance training at age 4 in her hometown of Texarkana, Texas, where she danced until high school graduation.

From there, she attended Texas Christian University training daily in ballet and modern dance. Deborah received a Bachelor of Science in Education with a minor in English and Dance. While taking ballet classes at TCU, she met NYC, Arthur Mitchell, Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

She pointed out, “Mitchell spoke to the dancers on the dance scene in NYC, and encouraged us to remain in Texas and develop our art in Texas. That’s where my journey took a new direction.”

After college, she moved to Donna, Texas in 1976, to teach elementary school during the day, and dance in the evening. She said that teaching public school gave her a unique perspective of child development and public service. “I fell in love with the children and immediately enrolled in conversational Spanish classes, so I could better connect with my students and parents.” She continued, “I realized quickly the Rio Grande Valley was my new home where I will serve others through dance. In the classrooms, I would teach dance for enrichment.”

Deborah moved to McAllen to continue teaching public school and dance. It was during this time she met Mr. Doria Avila, artistic director of Rio Grande Valley Ballet. He saw something in her and promoted her to principal dancer, master ballet teacher, and assistant director of the RGV Ballet.

Under Mr. Avila’s direction, she learned Flamenco, Folklorico, Broadway technique, and contemporary dance styles. “We performed Ballet Folkloric shows at the State Fair of Texas every October. And at the McAllen Civic Center we performed The Nutcracker in December, Ballet Fiesta Mexicana in January, Ballet Español in February and Ballet Gala mixed repertoire in March.

The company was on tour with these shows for many years. It was a whirlwind of performances during a time when entertainment in the Valley was at a low point.

Mr. Avila retired in 1993, and appointed her as Artistic Director of Rio Grande Valley Ballet, and owner of a Dance Academy. She said, “My life took a new turn from stage to promoting others.” She continued, “I loved transitioning to training and developing dancers for the stage and a career. This became my new passion. I retired from public education and fully engaged in educating students to dance.”

Over the past 24 years, she has continued RGV Ballet’s long standing tradition of The Nutcracker student matinees and public performances. Each year, The Nutcracker student matinees bring over 7500 students to the theater all at a cost of $2.00 per student.

To keep the student costs low, she learned how to write grants and developed fundraising skills. The business side of the arts was not covered in dance training, but she had good role models, from her parents to follow.

She said, “The responsibility and freedom of this new direction brought me to a new appreciation of influencing and mentoring others to achieve greatness in their lives. I was able to do more with the potential I saw in the dancers.”

As Artistic Director, she has brought numerous guest artists and ballet companies to the Valley. “I’ve presented St. Petersburg Ballet from Russia, San Antonio Ballet, and hosted several summer workshops for Valley dancers to train alongside professional dancers.”

To name a few: Willy Shives came with an ensemble of the Jaffrey Ballet one summer to perform with her students; Prima Ballerina Galina Mezentseva of the Kirov made RGV Ballet her second home for several summers while she taught at Deborah’s studio, as well as, Alex Ossadnik from Dresden, Germany.

She believes in dancers getting “out of Dodge” when they can to further the training, but for the many students who cannot leave town, it is her mission to bring in the best teachers for the students. Every year, the Deborah Case Dance Academy continues to have remarkable, stunning guest artists arrive to inspire and encourage the dancers.

Today, Deborah continues to teach dancers age 3 to adult. “My highest honor is in guiding the children to achieve their dream of learning to dance. I’ve seen numerous of my students leave the Valley for professional careers of their own.

She is happy to say that one of her students is principal dancer with National Dutch Opera & Ballet, another with Chattanooga Ballet, one stars with Charleston Ballet Theater, and several are with professional theater companies.

“I’ve seen my students attend top dance programs for example: American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Jaffrey Ballet, Boston Ballet Conservatory, American Ballet Theatre, Harid Conservatory, TCU, Kirov Ballet in DC, and Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. Every dancer is awarded scholarship by professional schools to train in their programs,” she stated.

Deborah’s dream has always been to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia to visit the seat of Classical Ballet. In 2012, through the invitation of a Russian ballerina friend, she was able do this, and take six of her dancers, and one teacher with her. “We stayed at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy dorm for two weeks and trained with the teachers who work with the Bolshoi. It was a magical time that I will forever cherish,” she stated.

Deborah’s desire to be connected and serve others goes outside of the dance studio. “I have served on the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. John’s Day School Board, and Texas Commission on the Arts performing arts advisory panel.” She also received the McAllen Chamber of Commerce Top Five Business Award.

Today, she continues to be very active serving at St. John’s Episcopal Church as Lay Eucharistic Minister, prayer partner and bible study leader; McAllen Performing Arts Center advisory board; and Quinta Mazatlán advisory board. “I am a member of Toastmasters Metro, and a certified coach, teacher, trainer and speaker with the John Maxwell Team.”

Deborah said to be happily married to Jimmy Kryzak, he is one who captures the stunning images of all the dancers with his photography. “I have three successfully talented adult children, Othal Brand, III, Dr. Michelle Trbovich and Mrs. Heather Dyer, and four beautiful, fun grandchildren, Ian, Owen, Sarah and Hannah. Life is full!” she exclaimed.

Deborah thanked the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for this incredibly humbling award and acknowledgment of her work with the children of the Rio Grande Valley.

“I’m reminded daily of a quote from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and to impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Grace Ann Martinez
Grace Ann Martinez

Grace Ann Martinez

General Manager for Sam’s Club in north McAllen

From the beginning, her objective was to obtain a leading position with a company willing to recognize her leadership skills and retail management experience and twenty-eight years of increasing responsibilities in retail establishments.

She has succeeded  in driving profit increases, with her extensive  operations/business knowledge and the ability to understand customer demographics, product demand and the implementation of strategies to generate revenue.

Grace has demonstrated the ability to improve customer satisfaction and improve staff morale. She has partnered with Operation Teams and Loss Prevention to execute business plans successfully. She has shown a history of working with the local community to build relationships and network internally and externally.

Her professional experience includes her work with Sam’s Club Division of Walmart Stores, a Fortune 500 Corporation. She has experience in direct operations of inventory flow process. She is responsible for on-hand accuracy, staffing and managerial routines to ensure merchandise is replenished and in stock. Grace also works closely with DSD suppliers on inventory processes and monitors data and trend to identify problems with inventory/signs of shrink, where she takes appropriate corrective action.

Since 2013, Grace has managed Sam’s Club on Trenton in north McAllen. It operates from a 134,000-square foot facility with a P&L $100M. She manages direct reports and a team of 168 associates and develops strategies and business cases for new initiatives to market leadership team.

Grace is constantly monitoring performance by analyzing financial and business data. Grace also creates forecast and action plans, most importantly ensures customer satisfaction monitoring club standards, service and leadership.

Her duties also include the protection of company assets and feels pride in coaching and mentoring staff and developing potential leaders.

Her education incudes extensive Walmart- Walton Institute Leadership Courses, with special training in increasing sales opportunities and Business Essentials Classes.

Grace possesses excellent communication skills, the ability to present complex information in an easy to understand format, with excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills. She is used to working in a fast-paced environment.

Her achievements: Highest Associate Engagement Score in market; 2012-2016 Club Year McAllen Texas; 2015- Legendary Member service award; 2015- Club of the Market & Region; 2015 – Compliance Club of Region; 2009-2012 Club of the Year McAllen Tx.; 2009 Winner of the Blue Coat Recipient Award; 2009 Club Manager of the Year & Diversity Inclusion Award; 2009- 2012 Highest Volume Sam’s Club in the U.S. McAllen, Texas and the Top Gun Award.

Irma Valerio-Salinas
Irma Valerio-Salinas

Irma Valerio-Salinas

Irma Valerio-Salinas was born to Aurelio Valerio and Socorro Valerio in Mexico, on April 17, 1960. She attended Weslaco High School. In 1982, she earned an associate’s degree from Texas Technical Institute.

With the support of her family, and husband Juan Alberto Salinas, she started her career in the health care industry.

She would go on to open her first partnership business in the human health services community by establishing Nuestra Familia Adult Day Care, Inc. in 1998. After four years of partnership she would part ways from her partners and continue establishing adult day care centers in Weslaco, Texas. Promoting positivity in the community, and growth by expanding to now five adult day care centers that are located throughout Weslaco and Donna, Texas.

Mrs. Salinas brings assistance and care to over 600 elderly clients. She would soon grow to expand her career and take ownership of the provider agency PAS Home Care, LLC., in the summer of 2015. Within a year, she grew the company from 75 clients to 500 clients.

This agency provides over 800 jobs to the community and now services more than 800 clients. Making this one of the biggest PHC companies in Weslaco. In addition, she is also in partnership with the agency Spirit Alliance Home Health, LLC., in Harlingen, Texas, and Promesa Home Health, Inc., out of Weslaco, Texas. Mr. and Mrs. Salinas have also founded the company Valerio and Associates, investing in homes in the mid valley and providing low cost living for residents of the communities.

Mrs. Salinas is a mother of two, daughter Jacqueline Salinas and son Juan Alberto Salinas Jr., husband to Sandy Salinas, who have also contributed to her many business adventures. Mrs. Salinas is a grandmother of two girls, Arianna and Carolina Salinas. Irma Valerio-Salinas has built her business around something she loves and it has contributed to her success as a great leader in her community, and an accomplished woman entrepreneur.

Justice Leticia Hinojosa
Justice Leticia Hinojosa

Justice Leticia Hinojosa

Justice Leticia Hinojosa was born in Brownsville, Texas and graduated from Homer Hanna High School in 1975.

After graduation from high school, she attended the University of Texas at Austin graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Government in December of 1978. Justice Hinojosa also attended University of Texas Law School where she received her Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in May of 1981. She was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in November 1981 at the age of twenty-three.

Justice Hinojosa began her legal career as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow doing public interest litigation for two years in Austin, Texas. Upon completion of the Fellowship, she moved back to South Texas and was a partner at various law firms heading up the firms’ litigation divisions.

In 1989, Justice Hinojosa was appointed and subsequently elected Judge of County Court at Law #4, becoming the first woman elected Judge in South Texas and the third Hispanic woman elected Judge in the State of Texas.

In 1996, she was elected Judge for the 139th Judicial District Court. She served two terms as District Judge and then stepped down to practice law.

In 2016, she was elected Justice of the 13th Court of Appeals, Place 3 and took office on January 1, 2017.

Justice Hinojosa has served as a member and on boards of numerous legal and community organizations. She is especially proud of her work with Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), where she served as a member of the State Board of CASA and was instrumental in the establishment of CASA in Hidalgo County.

By the age of thirty-five she was recognized by Governor Ann Richards for her lifetime commitment to her community by receiving the Governor’s “Back to the People” Award.

Linda Garza
Linda Garza

Linda Garza

Linda Garza Peisen, is founder of Image Marketing Group. She is a marketing strategist with 17 years of experience.

She specializes in forward-thinking marketing campaigns for brands, businesses, and corporations.

Linda began her career in the Rio Grande Valley where she earned a degree in business management. This allowed her to develop skills to make projects successful.

While in college, Linda worked doing public relations and marketing for multimillion dollar brands. She started at the bottom and worked her way up to senior management. This enabled her to master the trade by understanding the business from both the employee and management standpoints.

She excelled at creating innovative sales platforms and campaigns that helped companies attract visitors, generate leads, and close customers.

After developing an impressive portfolio of successful campaigns for other companies she left the corporate world in 2010. She used the experience gathered in a multitude of fields and her passion for effective communication to open Image Marketing Group. Image Marketing Group is an extension of her charismatic leadership, creative ideas and drive for results. This has contributed to her success and high growth trends.

Linda uses her success in marketing to fuel her need to help those around her. She routinely speaks to business students giving them encouragement to follow her entrepreneurial footsteps. In addition, she is actively involved in community outreach. TBB

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