Former San Antonio housing chief talks about her new career, family’s move from Mexico

At first glance, there seems to be a gap between Lourdes Castro Ramirez’s experience in public housing — she’s a former CEO and president of San Antonio Housing Authority — and her current role as the first-ever president of the University Health System Foundation.

But she doesn’t see it that way.

Castro Ramirez, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Los Angeles, began working in public housing in L.A. After taking the top job at SAHA in 2009, she went to Washington, D.C., in 2015 to serve under then-Housing and Urban Development Sect. Julián Castro, who as mayor appointed SAHA’s seven-member board and worked closely with her. At HUD, she oversaw the Office of Public and Native American Housing Programs.

Castro Ramirez, 48, hadn’t expected to make the transition from housing to health care in 2017, when she left HUD after President Donald Trump took office — but it wasn’t much of a stretch. She said her lifelong mission has been to serve her community.

She said she’s drawing on her background — her upbringing in her tight-knit family’s upbringing and work in local and national public housing — to ensure UHS’ philanthropic arm improves access to health care in the 22 counties it serves. At the end of 2017, the foundation had total assets of $7.3 million, according to its tax return for that year.

Castro Ramirez spoke with the San Antonio Express-News at the University Health System Foundation offices. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did growing up in an immigrant family from Mexico influence you?

A: I was born in Mexico, and my family immigrated to the United States when I was four years old. I know it was a very difficult decision for my parents because leaving everything that you know and coming to a country that you don’t know is hard. But they had no other option. They did this for us, to provide a better future for themselves and for their children.

My dad worked two jobs. My mom had a job at a factory, and then would come home and take care of us and basically work at home. Sometimes on the weekends I would get in my dad’s station wagon and we would go through trashcans to pick up cardboard to be able to take to the recycling centers to get some extra dollars to pay the bills or to buy food.

So when I think about how far I’ve come from where we were over 40 years ago, and when I think about what’s happening currently with families that are being separated, I know first-hand that I probably would not have accomplished what I have if I would not have had the support of my family. I can’t even imagine being in that position where I didn’t have my mom and my dad or I didn’t have my siblings with me.

I found strength in my family.

Q: Has your family continued to play a part in your career?

A: Family has been a constant motivator and a constant focus. It has been what has kept me moving forward. Both my family — my parents and my brothers and sisters and their families — but also my husband and our three children.

I grew up in L.A. being the eldest of nine, and always being there for my mom and my dad and for my brothers and sisters and helping by sort of being the third parent. So when my husband and I made the decision to come to San Antonio, I felt that I was leaving my parents and my brothers and sisters. As someone who had been there to help parent and help guide them, I felt that I was abandoning them.

I remember the conversation with my dad when I was contemplating the decision to come to San Antonio. He reminded me that they left their country to provide a better future for us and that what my husband Jorge and I were doing was exactly what they did. We were leaving Los Angeles to come to San Antonio because there was a better opportunity for us and for our children.

He said, "The only difference is that we didn’t have the ability to go back to our country when we left. You have the ability to get on a plane and come and see us. It’s hard to not be together, but this is what it’s all about. Going after those opportunities for yourself and for your family and doing the work that you care about."

And so that was it. That’s when I said to myself and to Jorge, "We’re going to San Antonio."

Q: Before we started the recording. you talked about how your early career and job decisions also influenced what you went into for the rest of your career. What did you mean?

A: When I was in graduate school at UCLA pursuing my urban planning degree, I received a call from one of my professors who said, "Lourdes, there’s this great job opportunity working for a community development corporation in Ventura County. Based on your interest and your skill set and your passion, I think you would be a great fit."

He connected me to Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation, which was created to develop affordable housing for primarily farm workers and service-sector workers in Ventura County. Ventura is a very rich county, but it also has a population that’s very poor — individuals who are working in the strawberry fields or the orchard fields who don’t make enough to be able to afford good housing.

That experience really shaped my understanding and appreciation for community development and for how housing can be a platform to create opportunity for families.

Providing access to affordable and stable housing also introduced me to the concept of community building. The importance of working with families and residents to not only connect them to resources, but to identify the abilities and the strengths and the talents they have. When you’re working with social service systems, we tend to focus on the deficiencies or the needs people have instead of thinking about "What do they bring to the table? What do they care about? What are their abilities and aspirations?"

That philosophy has been my guide in the work I have done for L.A.’s housing authority, the San Antonio Housing Authority and the University Health System Foundation.

Q: How does your experience in housing relate to your work at the UHS Foundation?

A: When you’re working with people and you’re working for a nonprofit agency or a public sector agency, it’s really important to be reminded that you’re working to support families and individuals.

The work is about people. The skill set I’ve strengthened working for different agencies has been my ability to work with diverse groups, to be able to listen, to treat people with dignity and respect, and then to use my understanding of the communities I’m serving to develop programs and policies that are responsive to those populations.

Instead of coming in saying, "I’m going to introduce this new program" or "We’re going to change the policies to do what we think is best for you," my approach has always been understanding who we are working with. Where do we collectively want to go? How do we translate that information into programs that can be funded and policies that can lead the way in terms of how things are done?

That was the skill set I used when I was serving as a chair of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Taskforce.

In the work I do now for the foundation, our mission is to build lifelines of support, to increase the health and well-being of San Antonio and Bexar County residents. We do so in a way that is compassionate to the people we serve and allows us to provide health-care excellence.

That means we need to understand our patients and their families. It also means we need to be respectful, treat people with dignity and understand the role the foundation can play in improving the experience that patient and that family is having while they’re at the hospital or when they’re accessing one of our clinics.

Q: What challenges has you faced in the switch from housing to health care?

A: I’ve spent about 25 years of my professional career working in housing and community development. Working in health care is different from the work that I’ve done in the past, but I also see the importance of connecting these two worlds.

If you don’t have access to quality housing, quality affordable stable housing, then that will impact your health outcomes.

There’s an opportunity to bring these two worlds together by establishing partnerships that allow for us to be more proactive in creating opportunities for families to access good housing, create partnerships with clinics in the community and really have the foundation play a role in being a thought leader.

I wouldn’t say that it’s challenging. It’s just looking at the work that I have done from a health lens and realizing that the health-care system plays a critical role.

Q: What are you working on at the foundation?

A: Some of the programs that I’m working on now are really inspirational for me. We have a partnership right now with Teen Cancer America to expand programs and services for adolescent and young adults with cancer. It’s a four-way partnership between University Health System, the University Health System Foundation, UT Health San Antonio and Teen Cancer America.

Having these four partners coming together to improve the delivery of care for adolescent and young adults has given me, a parent who lost a child to cancer, the ability to provide my perspective in a project to create a more nurturing and supportive environment for teens who are struggling with cancer. In many ways, I feel like I’ve come full circle by being at the table with some of the doctors who worked with my son.

When I’m at a table with doctors and leaders from the health system, and we’re looking at how to either create a new program or enhance a program, I think I’m bringing in a different part of me and a different experience, and in many ways I feel like it honors my son’s memory.

Q: Since you are the first president of the foundation, can you tell me what impression you want to leave on the organization?

A: At the University Health System Foundation, we are building lifelines of support to the health system, and we do that by helping to amplify and tell the story of what happens at the hospital and what happens within our clinics. I think that as the first president of the foundation, my vision is to be able to create a foundation that is a thought leader in the community. A foundation that is able to bring other partners to the table. A foundation that is able to leverage funding to be able to support critical patient programs that are helping provide compassionate care to patients, but also bringing in the entire family unit.

megan.rodriguez@express-news.net

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