2014 Alumni of the Year
The 2014 Violet Lumley Rau Outstanding Alumni Award recipients have much in common. Both have made higher education a priority and have gone on to earn higher-level degrees after graduating from Heritage. Both are committed to making long-lasting improvements for children and families in their communities.
And both had their commitment forged during childhood, where the support and influences of adults outside their families taught them the importance of helping others succeed. This year’s outstanding undergraduate alumna is Petra Morales, B.S.W., 2009, and the outstanding graduate award winner is Dr. Shawnta DiFalco, M.I.T., 2008.
As a young girl growing up in a migrant family of 18 siblings, Petra Morales was often the recipient of the support and caring of others. Her family moved frequently, following crop harvests from state to state. This constant moving, paired with the need for the children to work alongside their parents in order for the family to survive, interrupted Morales’s education. She dropped out of high school and started working full time.
But Morales knew that education was important and her family’s way out of poverty. She was married with children and the owner of an in-home daycare when she decided to go back to school. She earned her GED and enrolled at a community college. After earning an associate degree, she enrolled at Heritage in the Social Work program and graduated in 2009. She went on to earn a Master of Social Work from Eastern Washington University in 2013.
“We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and our family saw social workers from many different states. I remembered what it was like to be suffering some sort of hardship and what it felt like to have someone help us to get through it,” said Morales. “I knew I wanted to have that same kind of impact on others. To help them be successful like others helped me.”
After graduating from Heritage, she started work as a Northwest Community Action Center “Readiness to Learn” 2014 alumni of the year case manager and community organizer. Morales worked with citizens of the small, lower Yakima Valley town of Outlook in order to empower people as advocates for their community. For its size, Outlook had high rates of gang violence and crime. Families were afraid to have their children participate in after-school programs. Even though kids could ultimately become better learners, parents didn’t feel it was safe to have their kids walk home after hours.
Morales was tasked to help find ways to break down barriers that kept children from learning. Through her work she helped the community identify the need for better lighting so kids would not have to walk home in the dark. She helped start a community block watch program and a program to paint over graffiti within hours of it being identified.
“It was all about helping the community identify their own needs and feel empowered to make changes to improve their lives,” she said.
Today Morales is a functional family therapist at Behavioral Health Services, a division of the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic. She works with highly at-risk youth, most of whom are involved with the juvenile corrections system, and with their families. Morales provides in-home therapy to a client list that includes families throughout the Yakima Valley, from Selah and Naches to lower valley towns. She credits her background for helping her relate to the kids she serves.
“Sometimes these kids can’t begin to imagine how they can get out of whatever situation they are in and improve their lives,” she said. “They look at me and see someone who, like many of them, dropped out of high school. Yet I was able to go back to school and earn my degrees. It shows them that anything is possible.”
Ask Shawnta DiFalco about her job as the principal of Kiona-Benton High School and it’s clear that she loves what she does. She beams with pride over the successes of her students and speaks passionately about the need to break down barriers that get in the way of teachers being able to teach. Ask her why she became an educator and you realize just how highly personal her career is to her. DiFalco knows firsthand just how influential teachers can be in helping teenagers find success in life.
“I was on my own from the time I was 15. It was the teachers and counselors who pushed me and advocated for me to go to college,” she said. “I got into education because I felt an overwhelming need to be in a job where I could do the same thing.”
DiFalco got her chance to be that influential person after graduating from Heritage in 2008 with a Master in Teaching. She worked as a fourth-grade teacher at St. Paul’s Catholic School in Yakima for two years before taking a position as an eighth-grade English teacher at West Valley Junior High School, also in Yakima. She was a good teacher, but she ultimately felt that her talents were better suited to working at the administrative level where she could support teachers and effect change on the educational system.
“I was frustrated with the barriers that got in the way of teachers being able to teach and felt that we needed good leaders to support our teachers,” she said. “My military experience taught me that when something needs to be done, you jump in and take care of business.”
At that time, DiFalco was a veteran who had served as a combat flight medic in the Army.
During her second year at the junior high school, DiFalco started doctoral studies at Washington State University. Shortly thereafter, she reenlisted in the Washington State National Guard and enrolled in the officer candidate program.
“I decided I needed to challenge myself and to build my leadership skills,” said DiFalco about her decision to enter the officer candidate program. “The military really has helped me engage with my students to find that common ground that is so important for leadership in our schools.”
In May 2013, DiFalco graduated with a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership. In the fall she was hired by Kiona-Benton as the assistant principal. A few months later, she accepted the principal position.
DiFalco’s commitment to kids and her community doesn’t end with her academic and military experience. She donates her time to helping causes near and dear to her heart. She served a year as a member of the St. Paul’s School Board and is a parent advocate and national speaker for the Center for Disease Control’s National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality, where her talks to healthcare providers help to humanize the experiences of families dealing with their children’s medical challenges.
“Someday, when I look back on my life, I’d like to be able to say that I participated and that when life asked for a volunteer, I was the one who stood up,” said DiFalco. “It is important to me because the work I do and the efforts I make are a direct reflection of all those who believed in me.”