Woman who founded Nuestra Casa stepping down as executive director

Mabton native will take the reins

Slightly more than 10 years ago Sister Mary Rita Rohde began molding and shaping an organization in Sunnyside that has for the past decade, quite literally, changed for the better dozens upon dozens of lives.

Rohde founded Nuestra Casa to educate Hispanic immigrant women and their families. She has served as Nuestra Casa's executive director from its inception.

This week, Rohde announced she is stepping down from that role. The job of executive director is being turned over to Dr. Esperanza Lemos.

A native of Mabton who still has immediate family members living in that community, Lemos will officially take the reins as executive director on July 1 of this year.

Rohde, who was also in on the ground floor in helping to establish Heritage University near Toppenish several decades ago, said the decision to vacate her Nuestra Casa post was her idea.

"It's been in discussions with the Nuestra Casa board for over a year," she said.

But it was just at this month's board meeting that Nuestra Casa's directors approved the leadership transition plan proposed by Rohde.

She will continue as executive director through the end of June. Once Lemos assumes that post on July 1, Rohde will take on two other roles with Nuestra Casa - serving as an English as a Second Language teacher and working as a development consultant.

Rohde, 72, said it's been almost 40 years since she's had no other responsibilities other than serving as a teacher in a classroom.

However, in the days ahead Rohde's life will be much more complex than that of a classroom instructor. She'll also continue on with Nuestra Casa participating in fundraising efforts, and will serve as an active member of the board of directors.

Rohde, too, has work ahead in the coming months in putting together a campaign. Last week she filed for public office, throwing her name into the hat for the District 3 seat on the Sunnyside School Board. Both she and local attorney Steve Winfree are vying for the board position now held by Lorenzo Garza, who chose not to seek re-election this fall.

Rohde's replacement in the highly visible role as executive director of Nuestra Casa was born and raised in Mabton. Lemos went on to establish a long history of involvement in education, having served as a teacher, both a grade school and high school principal, and as an assistant superintendent in the public school system.

Lemos' educational studies after high school, which have led to her earning a doctorate in educational leadership, included stops at Yakima Valley Community College, the University of Washington, Seattle University and UC Santa Barbara.

She proudly points to her background of having been raised in a farm worker family, noting it was her parents' perseverance and sacrifices that provided her the perspective and guidance along her chosen career path.

Most recently, Lemos worked for the College Success Foundation.

In an effort to help Lemos transition into the role of executive director of Nuestra Casa, she was brought on board as the associate director in December 2012.

Lemos said her job will include keeping the many educational programs that have already been established at Nuestra Casa flourishing, as well as helping to continue the slow and steady growth of offerings that are made available to local immigrant women and their families.

"It's about listening to the immigrants here and learning what they need to be active and contributing members of our community," Lemos said.

Nuestra Casa's board of directors indicated it is very pleased in finding such a capable replacement for Rohde.

"We are extremely fortunate to have found such a highly qualified new executive director," said the vice-chair of the board, Sunnyside's Dick Golob.

The group that funded Nuestra Casa's start-up costs, the Sisters of the Holy Names - the religious order to which Rohde belongs, plans to continue to be significant donors. Nuestra Casa also relies for its funding from numerous local businesses, philanthropic groups and individuals.

"It's strictly the generosity of private donors - no government or taxpayer money - that keeps us going," said Rohde. "We couldn't make it without the support of the local community.

"Thankfully, a large sector of the community recognizes the work we are doing and the efforts we are making to improve the lives of many of the people who live here in the Lower Valley," she added.

Rohde went on to say that it has been rewarding to be able to help educate immigrant women.

"Research has shown that the educational level of a child's mother greatly affects how well that child will do in school. So, educating mothers has a significant ripple effect.

"The several hundred women, and dozens of men, who have participated in educational offerings at Nuestra Casa have greatly enriched my life and the lives of our staff and volunteers.

"I look forward to my next years of teaching and involvement at Nuestra Casa," Rohde concluded.


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