“Oh, Helen, go to high school! Those are the best years of your life! And if God calls you, you will know!”
Helen Santamaria heeded that teacher’s advice. Sister Helen, a 2016 Woman of Impact, felt the call in March 1961, her senior year at Loretto Academy in El Paso.
That September, Santamaria entered the convent and hasn’t looked back on her busy life of service.
The founding of El Paso Villa Maria, a temporary home for women experiencing homelessness, is her accomplishment she thinks has had the most significant impact on El Paso.
“Very quickly after opening our doors in 2006, 22 women were no longer homeless,” she says. “That number has increased to over 400 women and continues to be fortified by the cooperative spirit of residents, volunteers, staff and the generous El Paso community at large.”
Her proudest accomplishment came in 2003, when she saw Villa Maria’s official incorporation as a Texas non-profit. It’s chugging along just fine.
Sister Helen spent 33 of the past 53 years in formal education, serving as teacher and principal at a private girls’ Catholic high school in St. Louis from 1962 to 1989, when she returned to El Paso.
Her resume includes stints as Loretto Academy’s president and director of development, vice chancellor of the Diocese of El Paso, and a year with Jesuit Refugee Services/USA.
She’s also given tirelessly to many non-profit organizations including Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary, Girl Scouts, Pastoral Counseling Services of El Paso and Progress Allocations Board.
Biggest lesson learned? It came during a conversation.
“One night in 2003, I asked God what made Him think that I could found a homeless shelter,” she reveals. “His response was loud and clear: ‘Helen, what makes you think YOU are doing it?’
“I learned that God had been in charge of all the work of my life and so today, I don’t worry about anything.”
She would tell future women leaders something simple – that they should just know how they “have been blessed with all the gifts necessary to fulfill the mission for which they were created.”
Also, that early in her professional career, she was asked to put in writing her personal philosophy of life:
“Whenever a change seems to be in the making, it’s most helpful to determine if the new focus being considered is compatible with one’s own personal philosophy of life.”