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Carol Ornelas: Breaking Barriers, Achieving Success

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Written by Ann E. Butenas

Carol Ornelas never wavered when it came to understanding her career goals in life. In fact, one might say she has a solid foundation upon which she has always stood. She knew from a young age that her hands should build houses; she already had the heart to build homes.
“I have always wanted to be a builder,” she recalled.

When she decided to pursue a career in home construction 38 years ago, Carol seemingly stood alone on her own island, learning to navigate the waters of a primarily male-dominated industry. Her first obstacles were figuring out how to get her foot in the door, how to do this as a Latina, and, most notably, how to do this as a woman. Fueled by the desire to make a difference in the lives of others, Carol made sure there was a place for her within this arena.

As CEO of Visionary Home Builders of California, Inc., a non-profit residential development company headquartered in Stockton, Carol is an advocate for providing quality affordable housing for families within the counties of San Joaquin, Sacramento, Stanislaus and Merced. A respected leader in the community, Carol not only builds homes, she also fosters relationships and partnerships within the community, working in tandem with local, city and state officials and other agencies to embrace her mission: to create and advocate for healthy, vibrant, safe communities through the development of affordable housing and educational opportunities for families, seniors and individuals of low and moderate income.

Following Her Example
Carol is proud of what her staff has accomplished and continues to accomplish, but it took passion, determination, grit, knowledge and unwavering belief in herself to reach this pinnacle of success. Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of eight kids raised by a single parent, Carol understands how one’s life can have an extraordinary impact on the choices one makes. “My mom ran a tight ship,” she recalled. “She worked hard and made sure we all knew how to cook and clean. After my parents’ divorce, she had to get into a house, yet no one would rent to her. I saw her crying about this and it really made me think. I thought every child deserved a home. We were just kids. Why couldn’t we have one?”

Carol’s mom loaded up her family and moved to San Diego when Carol was 12 to begin a new chapter, one that came with certain personal responsibilities. “She always told us we could be whatever we wanted, but that we had to work hard to achieve it,” reflected Carol, whose mom routinely practiced what she preached, graduating from high school at the same time Carol did. “She went to night school to earn her diploma and graduated when I did, but from a different high school,” said Carol. “She worked, went to school and raised us, moving us out of a negative situation and starting from scratch.”

Taking a cue from her mother’s strong work ethic, Carol attended college at the University of California at San Diego, focusing on Chicano Studies. When it came to learning about construction and housing development, however, Carol turned to another source for education. “I was self-taught,” she indicated. “I read a lot, studied a bit at San Joaquin Delta College, but basically figured it out on my own,” she emphasized.

Making an Impact
Carol went to work for Gerson Construction, an affordable housing development company, starting out as a rental clerk. She quickly gravitated to the work and learned the rental housing industry from the inside out, eventually becoming involved with the community along the way. When the opportunity arose to work for a non-profit, the National Council of La Raza, Carol eagerly leaped at the chance. “That was my first opportunity to work in a community, and I started a self-help housing project and then a multi-housing program,” she stated.

It wasn’t too long before a friend suggested Carol relocate to Stockton to further pursue her interests. “I came here and started working with farm workers who lived in public housing but who wanted the American dream of home ownership,” said Carol. That’s when the proverbial ball started rolling and one community after another began to take shape.

Under Carol’s leadership, Visionary Home Builders has built and rehabilitated over 1,400 units of rental housing and more than 900 residential homes for first-time homebuyers within San Joaquin, Sacramento, Stanislaus and Merced counties and into Fresno. Her compelling leadership has opened the door to more than $550 million in grants and private funds to develop affordable housing in the San Joaquin Valley. Her focus is on providing balanced communities that not only involve housing, but also education and child development services for its residents. Visionary Home Builders also provides guidance on purchasing a home, understanding the mortgage and lending processes, and promoting financial responsibility and general education for sustaining a healthy home and lifestyle.

Besides being CEO, Carol also makes sure she stays continually informed of what is going on in the industry and serves as a representative on numerous local boards. Her mind is always at work with a laser focus on advocacy. “I always look at available land and imagine what we can buy and build on that site,” she smiled.

Carol isn’t one to boast of her accomplishments; nevertheless, she has created an impressive resume in terms of awards and accolades. Among them, she is one of 49 leaders selected for the Achieving Excellence in Community Development program, a prestigious and highly selective training program offered by NeighborWorks® America in collaboration with Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Giving Back
Her valiant efforts extend beyond the horizon of the work day. A go-giver at heart, she is a revered mentor to young women in both personal and professional aspects. In an effort to encourage and develop young leaders, Carol provides internships for students, mostly women, in their senior year of college. She stands as a strong example of breaking barriers and achieving success in an industry that mainly attracts men, but can be equally championed by women.

With encouraging words of wisdom for other women who may desire to follow in her footsteps, Carol offered, “Always stay the course and be who you are. You never know whose life you are touching.”

Carol admits her days are not always sunshine and blue skies. The nitty gritty of what she does can create its fair share of challenges. However, all she has to do to get out of a temporary slump is to look at the end results and the benefits she is bringing to people and their communities. “If I am having a bad day, I just drive around, look at the places we have built, and think of how many lives we have changed,” she emphasized. Time with her kids and grandkids or just getting out on the golf course bring a smile to her face and light to her life.

While Carol definitely has a head full of knowledge, it is her heart full of love that will ultimately define her legacy. “I love my job and don’t ever see myself retiring,” she paused. “I love my work and being part of a solution.” ■