VIDEO: New Welcome Center director up for the challenge

Published 6:45 am Friday, August 28, 2009

Sophia Ponce is up for a challenge.

The new director of the Welcome Center will be thrown into a town where immigration —both legal and illegal — has been a topic of discussion and protest.

She is also following in the wake of Victoria Salas, who resigned in June after only a few weeks as director, citing financial and organizational concerns.

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But Ponce is ready to tackle all of it — and more.

“I’m here 100 percent,” she said Thursday. “My main goal is to make the Welcome Center huge.”

Ponce started Monday as director of the center, which was formed in 2000 to help new residents of varying nationalities get comfortable in Austin.

From Plainview, Texas, Ponce grew up as a migrant worker, traveling Texas and Minnesota in search of low-paying, manual labor jobs — an experience she said taught her a lot.

She went to school in southern Minnesota, eventually getting three master’s degrees from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Ponce has also spent time at Centro Campesino Inc. before coming to the Welcome Center.

“When I saw this position,” she said of the director opening, “I said ‘I need to get in.’”

Ponce got in, and beat out about 40 others who interviewed for the spot.

Now, she’ll turn her attention to dealing with some of the big issues facing the center.

Ponce said illegal immigration is not something the center would get involved with because the staff serves an “educational” role.

As far as the Salas situation, Ponce said she doesn’t know the specifics of what happened and is instead focusing on what she’ll do in the role.

“As a leader, you’re given all these challenges and you have to decide what’s good for you,” she said. “I’m ready for it.”

Ponce has seen the budget that gave Salas so much concern and admits it will be a challenge — but one she’s willing to work diligently at.

“Anywhere you go right now is getting hit hard,” Ponce said. “I did look at the budget. But I didn’t say, ‘Oh, it can’t be done.’”

The Welcome Center has seen expenses rise the last three years, and in two of those years — 2006 and 2008 — year-end expenses exceeded revenue.

Ponce said her job will be to look at ways the center can save money, as well as at ways the center can make more money — such as fundraising and grant writing.

“(The board) wants the same thing,” she said of the center’s board of directors. “They want us to be successful.”

Board chairman Mark Stevens said Ponce had all the qualities they were looking for in a candidate.

“I think she’s going to work out real well (and) be a real asset to the community,” he said. “We’re pretty fired up.”

Stevens added that the Salas situation is “water under the bridge” and he expects Ponce to strive for a long time.

That’s something Ponce said she wants as well — the Mankato resident is looking for a home in Austin so she and her family of six children can settle down.

Then, she plans to pour her energy into a place she feels is very important for the community.

“The Welcome Center is for everyone,” Ponce said. “It’s essential.”