Feature: Natalie Vega O’Neil

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ve interviewed JAWA CEO & President Natalie Vega O’Neil on her roots, her career journey, and the role she feels Hispanic leaders play in the future of the education industry.


JA: Share with us your background, your roots.

NVO: I was born in Northwest Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago, surrounded by a large, loving Mexican-American family that had landed in Indiana for work in the thriving steel industry. I grew up with a strong understanding of the importance of education and how education creates opportunity. My maternal grandmother, who was a high school graduate (unheard of for an orphan in the 1930s) was passionate about the importance of education and that was echoed by both my mother and my father. I am the middle child of three girls and it was always understood that education was a priority because it would gain us access to opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.

JA: When did you realize you wanted to follow this career path?

NVO: I attended graduate school on a whim. While working at a non-profit in Chicago, a colleague of mine mentioned she was getting her master’s in social work. I was intrigued and originally thought I would pursue social work as well. However, once I visited the school and sat in on a class on child development, I was hooked. I knew in that exact moment I wanted to work in the field of early learning and advocate for children. While I had absolutely no idea what that work would be, I was certain that I could find a path that would allow me to work on behalf of children but one that wasn’t necessarily in a classroom. I’ve been given incredible opportunities to work in various youth-sector services that all have strong missions connected to equity, access, and education of children.

JA: What have been some of the top challenges you’ve faced during your career?

NVO: In my early twenties, I was recruited to be a co-founder of a public charter school in Los Angeles and to create their early childhood programs. Looking only at my resume, I was woefully unqualified, but the CEO of the school saw potential in me and took a chance. She has been one of my greatest mentors and that work afforded me opportunities to advance my career. That push into a new level of my career also meant that I was typically the youngest person in the room and the least experienced voice. It took time for me to believe in myself and understand that I deserved to be at the table as much as anyone else and understand that as a woman of color, my experiences are unique and need to be heard.

JA: What role do you see Latinx, Hispanic leaders playing in the future of the education industry?

NVO: We need more Latinx leadership in the field of education because the barriers for academic success for Latinx students are so severe. Latinx students underperform and are at higher risk of dropping out of school than their non-Latinx peers. We need educators and advocates who understand the experiences of our Latinx youth. There are many misconceptions and disconnects regarding culturally competent educators and school personnel, lack of bilingual programming, and lack of understanding of the unique and special dynamics of Latinx families. When Latinx leaders can bring their experiences, their successes and challenges to help develop new ways of working and creating new systems for change, we will see better outcomes, like higher graduation rates, for our Latinx youth.

Dare to Dream 2020 Behind-The-Scenes

Dare to Dream 2020 featured a number of firsts for JA of Washington but most important of all, it demonstrated the dedication of our JA supporter family across the state. Despite the fact that we couldn’t gather in person, over 450 people registered and tuned in on the night of Saturday, September 26, 2020 for our virtual extravanganza.

Normally, it would be difficult to have JA supporters from Eastern Washington joined us for this event. We were thrilled that by going virtual, we could. And we saw so many people from across the state – and even some out of state! – tune in and support JA. With our generous sponsor support, a live and silent auction, and a “raise the paddle” portion we called “Fund a Future,” we exceeded our goal and raised $422,500!

The JAWA Events Team with Dare to Dream emcee Alyana Gomez.

So what went on behind the scenes? So much! First, we had the fortune to contract with PNTA/Seattle Lives, a virtual event services company. One of the first projects we worked on with them was filming the JA videos that we aired during Dare to Dream. It was a great day at our JA Education Center in Auburn as a small group of us gathered to shoot the videos including the film crew, Natalie Vega O’Neil (CEO/President of JAWA), Lisa Stirgus (Board Chair of JAWA), corporate sponsors, students, and more! Safety measures were high priority that day and everyone was masked and kept 6 feet apart as much as possible. The videos turned out wonderfully thanks in large part to PNTA and our willing JA supporters.

JAWA CEO & President Natalie Vega O’Neil being filmed.
JA student being filmed in JA BizTown.

Two days later, the film crew along with JA’s Director of Events Hilary Bhagat drove out to Spokane to film the feature Dare to Dream video. Aided by our colleague Janet Banaugh (Regional Program Director), we filmed in beautiful Manito Park and captured JA alumni Ducati Sanchidrian’s impressive and moving story.

JA alumni Ducati Sanchidrian being filmed.

Finding items to fill our live and virtual auction this year was also an interesting challenge! With travel so curtailed by the pandemic, not to mention dining out and any crowd-related activity, we had to really depend on JA staff and supporters to help source items. And they really came through! If you participated in the Dare to Dream auction, I’m sure you saw how many wonderful goodies we ended up listing: from wine packages to portrait photography services, to vacation getaways with long expiration dates. We were able to provide a great assortment of items for people to bid on.

Finally, the event itself was such a new experience for us all! Typically, we hold Dare to Dream on the T-Mobile Park field, but of course this year, it all had to be filmed and broadcasted live. A small group of JA staff were at the PNTA studios and it was very exciting and different! We also had auctioneer John Curley and our evening’s emcee Alyana Gomez from Q13 Fox, as well as celebrity bartender Abigail Gullo from Ben Paris Restaurant with us and we couldn’t have had three more professional, delightful people working with us on this event.

Auctioneer John Curley pointing out our amazing auction wine packages!


For more photos of the event day as well as a recording the hour-long show, visit our event page. We’re already looking ahead to next year’s Dare to Dream and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll all be able to meet in person then! And of course, a deep heartfelt thank you to everyone for joining us for this unique event. We feel so honored that the support for JA shines through so powerfully especially in these critical times.