Main story: Lisa DeSilva honored with 2017 Leadership Excellence Award
Has spent 36 years at Community Solutions helping people
Published in the February 15 – 28, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
Soon after moving to the South Valley in 1980, Lisa DeSilva found herself working the night shift at Gilroy Food’s garlic-processing plant. The dirty and deafening conditions made the job grueling as she stood shoulder to shoulder with other women sorting bulbs for Gilroy’s famous product.
“I stood at the conveyor belt outside (in a shed),” she recalls “All the women stood there and we had hard hats and masks on our noses and mouths and wore earplugs. And for eight hours as the garlic went by, our job was to pull out the bad garlic and rocks. It was miserable. I lasted a week.”
Aspiring for something better, she got a waitress job at Matthew’s Country Manor, what is now China Palace on Main Avenue in Morgan Hill. The experience working at Gilroy Foods gave her an appreciation for what many low-income mothers in the South Valley face, working night jobs to earn a paycheck and coming home in the morning to get their children ready for school.
The compassion DeSilva feels for people in these financial conditions now helps her with her job at Community Solutions. She has spent 36 years involved with the nonprofit organization based in Gilroy with a mission of “creating opportunities that change lives.” Her work was one factor why the nonprofit Leadership Morgan Hill selected her as its 2017 Leadership in Excellence Award recipient, the most prestigious honor in Morgan Hill. She will be presented with the LEAD medal at a gala party at Guglielmo Winery Saturday July 22.
A 1999 graduate of the leadership development program, DeSilva shines in her involvement, whether it is improving the lives of Community Solutions clients or as a Rotary Club of Morgan Hill member.
“Lisa is genuine and caring while always staying positive and charismatically outgoing,” said Cricket Rubino, chair of Leadership Morgan Hill. “It is an honor for Leadership to recognize one of its own with the 2017 Leadership Excellence Award.”
DeSilva’s friend Rosy Bergin got to know her through their mutual involvement in Rotary where they both work on the We Care program. The owner of downtown’s Rosy’s at the Beach restaurant received the 2012 LEAD honor and was part of the selection committee made up of past recipients. One of DeSilva’s outstanding qualities is her sense of humor and ability to make people feel at ease, she said.
“She’s just a funny person,” Bergin said. “It’s so easy to be around her, and I think that’s why she does such a great job at Community Solutions and also at Rotary. She’s just able to handle a big crowd with humor.”
DeSilva’s upbeat personality and charm encourages Rotary members to happily step up and volunteer for various projects and events the club does, she said.
“I think it’s because of her leadership skills,” Bergin said. “She probably thinks she’s undeserving of it. She unknowingly affects the lives of so many people. It’s more than just Community Solutions — it’s the Rotary and her family and friends.”
At Community Solutions, co-worker Lisa Davis, chief operations officer, described DeSilva as dedicated to helping local children, women and men who need assistance dealing with life’s challenges.
“She is an incredible leader,” she said. “She’s so passionate and mission driven and doing everything she can to help our clients. She inspires me every day.”
DeSilva grew up in Ossinging, N.Y. Before moving to California, she graduated with a degree in sociology and women’s studies. In 1981, she took a women’s studies class at Gavilan Community College and met other women who wanted to start a local rape-crisis service. Police department statistics showed that in 1980 Gilroy had three reported rapes and Morgan Hill had one reported rape. Those low numbers didn’t convey the truth of the problem locally, she said
“We knew it is a very under-reported crime. It still is,” DeSilva said. “Back then it was even more so because the systems had not been set up to be responsive to the survivors. So I was part of that group that started the (South County) Rape Crisis Service.”
Although South Valley had a shelter for domestic violence survivors, the closest rape crisis center was in San Jose, an arduous trip for women of limited financial means. The group had a vision to start a women’s center to serve Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Martin.
“We quickly realized that to open a whole women’s center — we had nothing but our own good intentions — that was not going to work, so that’s when we decided we needed to focus it down.”
The women met various service organizations to find a partner. One in Morgan Hill called The Bridge Counseling Center decided to take on the challenge. A year later, the women’s center got funding from the state of California, and so there was enough money to hire DeSilva as a half-time staff person.
The Bridge later changed its name to Community Solutions. It now helps families and individuals in San Benito County as well as southern Santa Clara County. For the past 16 years, DeSilva has served as the director of development, organizing the fund-raising through special events and community relations.
“We serve people who have a lot of different challenges such as people with serious mental illness, survivors of domestic assault or human trafficking, kids in the foster care system, kids in the juvenile justice system, families that are just really overburdened,” she said. “Then on top of those things you often have the overlay of severe poverty, which makes it all even harder to try to heal and become whole.”
People who come to Community Solutions are often at the worst point of their lives, she said. That’s why she has a passion for helping them get back on track and improve their quality of life.
“Regardless of who they are or why they came, the goal is that we increase their self-reliance, so we help them build their skills and their resources so that they can depend on themselves,” she said.
In December DeSilva learned she would receive the LEAD honor. Her friends Dana and Elaine Ditmore invited her to their home on the pretense of having a glass of wine. Upon arriving, she was surprised to see her friends Mike Cox, Roger Knopf, Sherry Hemingway, and Rosy Bergin who, along with Dana, are past LEAD recipients. When they told her she would also get the honor, she was shocked.
“Look at who has gotten this award — all of these fabulous people who have done so much for the community,” she said. “I felt uncomfortable because so much of what I do is related to my work … but that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful. I have a lot of respect for Leadership Morgan Hill, both for the organization and for the individuals who go through it.”