In 2007, Maria “Lou” Calanche fulfilled her childhood dream of starting an organization that would help Ramona Gardens youth flourish and grow without limits. Now that Legacy LA itself has flourished and grown –serving some 350 Ramona Gardens teens and helping them successfully complete high school and go on to college– Calanche is stepping down as executive director and passing the torch to one of its first youth leaders.
“I’m so humbled by the opportunity,” says Lucy Herrera, who on Monday was named Legacy’s new executive director. “So humbled by the support that I have received and just so honored to be able to serve the same organization that once invested in me as a young person.”
“I am thrilled that Lucy will continue the legacy of our work. There is no one more ready and exceptional to lead the organization at this time. She has the experience as a youth, community leader and as an executive at Legacy LA. I have full confidence in her leadership and can’t wait to see her take Legacy LA to new heights!”Statement by Lou Calanche
In an interview this week, Herrera thanked her former mentor and boss, who has taken a position as executive director of Expand LA. In her new role, Calanche will focus on providing youth throughout Los Angeles County with programs and opportunities similar to what Ramona Gardens youth have experienced over the past 15 years.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Lou,” says Herrera. “From the guidance she gave to me as a young girl from Ramona Gardens, to the legacy that is being passed to me, she’s someone who has changed my life.”
“Legacy and Lou taught me that where you are born should never be something that limits how big you dream.”
Herrera was born and raised in Ramona Gardens, one of LA’s oldest public housing developments, home to 2,000 low-income residents. Calanche grew up on Murchison Street, just a few steps away from the housing development – a community she would grow to love and care for.
Though the decision to strive for her dream after college was an easy one, Calanche says the journey was not. As a full-time ELACC Professor at the time she started Legacy, Calanche says the project, albeit worthwhile, kept her working nearly every hour of every day early on.
“I had to sacrifice so much of myself those first few years of growing Legacy, and yet I still get joy looking back to those early days because of the kids and community that I got to work with daily.”Lou Calanche
“It was hard, hard work starting with zero money and growing that into a $3 million [yearly] budget,” says Calanche. “I spent countless hours, days and weeks convincing people that Ramona Gardens was worth investing into. I had to sacrifice so much of myself those first few years of growing Legacy, and yet I still get joy looking back to those early days because of the kids and community that I got to work with daily.”
From never being able to take a vacation for over a decade to having a full team of staff, Calanche says she was confident that her labor of love was ready to be passed on to someone with the same vision and passion.
From Youth Leadership to Director
Herrera recounts that in her teenage years there was excessive police presence and violence in her community – instances of her and her younger sibling being harassed for little to no reason at all.
Herrera met Calanche in 2007, at a community meeting about the oversaturation of law enforcement in the community hosted by the then fledgling organization. Calanche invited her to join Legacy’s first Youth Leadership Program, which Herrera says changed her life forever.
“For the first time, I was surrounded by so many positive mentors and folks that convinced me that I can dream big, that I can achieve anything I want in life,” Herrera affirms.
But it was never easy. Just a year into her membership at Legacy and during her senior year at Lincoln High School, Herrera’s father was killed in a shooting just a block away from her home. She says it was the darkest and most difficult part of her life.
“At the time, I completely shut down, stressed about what it would mean for my family,” she recalls. “Thoughts ran through my head like ‘I have to drop out of school, I gotta get a job, I got to support my family, I got to support my siblings’”.
“If it wasn’t for the mentors that I had at Legacy LA, I don’t know where I’d be today,” Herrera affirms. “They were able to guide me to pursue a higher education, to achieve my dreams so that I can help my family long term.”
She fulfilled that dream, graduating from UC Riverside in 2014 with a degree in Political Science and Pre-Law before returning to Legacy LA to lead the same Youth Leadership Program where she first began.
Through the years and thanks to the supportive community at Legacy LA, Herrera says she was able to grow in her leadership and eventually became the organization’s first Associate Director, working directly with someone she looked up to as a youth. Now 30, she is becoming Legacy’s first ever alum executive director.
Before making any big changes at Legacy, Herrera says she wants to take time to speak with her staff and review the organization’s current programming and evaluate how they are serving the Ramona Gardens community.
“I have huge shoes to fill, but luckily I’ve been training to step into them for many years,” says Herrera. “Lou taught me to dream big, to never limit myself despite what others might tell you. That’s a message I promise will always remain at the core of what Legacy does.”