Born and raised in Salinas, Puerto Rico, Maria Cruz is the fourth of five children. Her upbringing is filled with memories of her mother managing a boot factory, her father working as a police officer, music drifting through her home, cousins, aunts, and uncles always present, and leading the youth ministry of her Catholic church. While the later years of her life were marked by a young marriage, having children at an early age, and domestic violence, that is not where her story ends. As the new Executive Director of Talbot House Ministries, Maria is a beacon of hope and an advocate for change. Check out this conversation with Maria to learn more.
During your teenage and young adult years, who inspired you?
I was inspired by Lady D (Princess Diana of Wales), Mother Theresa, and Jesus. When it came to acts of kindness, those were three of my idols. When I was as young as 7 or 8 years old, I felt called to do God’s work, and before the internet became what it is today, I remember looking at magazines to see and read about my idols.
What was your first non-profit role?
I was hired as the Social Work Assistant at the Community Action Agency of Puerto Rico. I did so well in my role that I was offered a full-time position as the Administrative Assistant, and was later promoted to Grants Compliance Officer. I was promoted quickly, and in total, I was promoted four times; the last promotion being the Director of the Community Action. I worked there for 12 years, right up until I moved to Florida in 2012.
You have a career in non-profit leadership that spans over 22 years, what led you to this type of work?
I think it was a calling to serve others. The kindness that was instilled in me from a young age. Some would try to ask me, “Why don’t you go into law enforcement?” I believe what drew me to non-profit work was the desire and calling I felt to serve others. I felt connected with the people in every non-profit I have worked in and every non-profit role I have held. I try to see Jesus in everyone. I try to have empathy for their struggles and see them through the eyes of grace, love, and compassion. It’s very natural for me. So whenever I am asked why I work in this line of work, the easiest way to explain it is that it’s my purpose, a call that I try to align myself with. I love to connect with people, help people, and see them overcome barriers just as I have. By the grace of God, I have not experienced homelessness, but I was a victim of domestic violence for many years and I overcame that. I raised two children, completed my master’s degree, and now I am on my doctoral journey. I hope that others can look at me and see me as an example.
Did you always have an interest in working with the homeless population?
At the start of my career, I was working with a community action program located in a highly drug-trafficked area. We worked with people in the community who were on drugs, we offered healthcare clinics, HIV testing, and things of that nature. We specifically worked with people in poverty, not necessarily the homeless. When I transitioned from that role is when I began to work more closely with the homeless population.
When transitioning from Orlando, do you see a difference in the needs and resources here in Lakeland?
I think the needs are the same but the resources are different. The City of Orlando was very committed to resolving the issue of homelessness. They had task forces, various stakeholders worked alongside non-profits, and my organization held monthly meetings where we sat with the City and the County. There was a more aligned, proactive effort in tackling homelessness. I am still getting to know the community of Polk County, but something I would like to see is all of the stakeholders coming together at the table and identifying the gaps in our services. How can we combine our strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses? How can we be more proactive? In Polk County, I have not seen a coordinated effort to fight homelessness and I believe that is the area we need to focus on at the moment.
When it comes to homelessness, what do you see as the most pressing need here in Lakeland?
I believe we need more emergency shelters specifically for women and families. At this time, because of limited resources, we cannot take in homeless families at Talbot House, and I know there are many homeless families within our community living in their cars or homeless encampments. I would also say housing. Yes, we want to provide resources for immediate needs, but the focus should be housing. Statistics and evidence-based practices prove that when housed, a client is most likely to thrive in treatment. If we had the resources to place families in housing, many would be positively impacted.
What are some things we can expect to see from you in your first year as Executive Director?
In my first year as Executive Director, we will be increasing our community outreach efforts and expanding them countywide. We will mobilize our clinic to provide services in the community, we will begin a diversion/prevention program, and I plan to work to bring the iDignity program to Polk County. I also want to expand our food pantry services. We are open Tuesdays and Fridays but we often see people seeking food pantry assistance throughout the week. I want to identify how we can build that program and open it 4 to 5 days a week. Overall, in this first year, I want to elevate our ministry as a whole. We’ll take some time to re-evaluate our practices and programs and integrate new things to move us forward. Our mission is the same; however, we will see some changes in how we carry out the mission.
Switching gears a bit, how would you describe your leadership style?
I am a servant leader, a servant/transformational leader. I believe in the potential of individuals and what they bring to the table. I believe leadership starts with serving and I aspire to lead by example. I will be one of the first to arrive and last to leave because this is my team, these are my people, and I am here to serve them. I believe my words and actions must align, and even still my actions will speak louder than my words.
Let’s finish up with a question about the future, what are you most looking forward to in this new season at Talbot House?
So many things! I am looking forward to taking the ministry to the next level. I’m looking forward to redefining the foundation of our ministry. I look forward to working with the leadership team and seeing the vision trickle down into every area of Talbot House. I’m looking forward to connecting with churches, volunteers, and collaborating with the community. We are going to let the community know Talbot House Ministries is here.