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Inspiring Change: Catalina Blair

Inspiring Change

Catalina Blair's vision to positively impact schools.

"I love my city. I love my community. And I care so deeply about our schools."

On any given weekend, you’ll find Catalina Blair sipping coffee with her kids, baking homemade raspberry pop tarts and homemade jam (recipes that she’ll happily share), or skateboarding through her neighborhood to their favorite strawberry stand on Akers and Ferguson. Her love for Visalia runs as deep as the roots of the Valley Oaks.

Like most Visalia natives, Catalina loves that the beach is a two-hour drive and the mountains are just a hop, skip, and a jump away. She enjoys Visalia’s quaint downtown and the fact that you can almost count on running into someone you know. Because aside from the wonderful restaurants and majestic views on a clear day, “It’s the people that really make everything in Visalia,” Catalina says.

One might say a byproduct of growing up in a small town is becoming a person who cares deeply for others and enjoys the smaller things in life. This is Catalina. Married to Heath Blair and raising three awesome humans: daughter Jovial, 14, an old soul who devours classic literature; son Beckham, 12, an artist and woodworker; and daughter Evangeline, 10, who’s always singing, rallying friends, or fighting for a good cause.

Together, they enjoy playing the card game Dutch Blitz or hosting neighborhood movie nights. “We make popcorn and cocoa and everyone sets up their chairs in the grass. I love our neighborhood,” she says. The kids have grown up putting on neighborhood plays and playing in garage bands, living childhoods of long days past. The Blairs haven’t fallen prey to the American habit of pulling straight into the garage and closing it. In fact, they don’t even park in the garage. Community is fundamental to their family.

In November 2021, Catalina was sworn in as Area 4 School Board Trustee, still in the midst of grieving her nephew, who had passed away just weeks earlier. "I didn't even know which way was up. But I threw my name in and said, ‘Okay, God, if you want me to do this, I will.’" Prior to serving on the school board, “I was just living my life, my simple life,” Catalina says. “I love being involved as a parent. I know I have a strong voice and I want to be able to support and love my kids and my school. I’d never want to put myself in the spotlight.”

Catalina reads to a group of VUSD students

And yet, seven months ago, she stepped into a new role on the Visalia Unified School Board. “I didn’t feel called to college. I gave myself to working at a preschool and raising my kids, and it’s taught me everything I know.” Volunteering in the classroom, leading read-alouds in schools, attending school board meetings, participating in committees, and serving on PTA are some of the ways she embraces her community to make a difference.

Growing up in Visalia, Catalina was keenly aware at a young age how leadership impacts a school. “My uncle, Jess Alaniz, was the principal at Crowley Elementary. He knew everyone’s name and people loved him. I loved the way he led and changed the school. I realized then that the leader changes the atmosphere of a place.” Similarly, her late cousin, Dick Doepker, transformed the atmosphere of Golden West High School. “When someone shows up to love and serve, people feel it,” she says. “I’m aware of this [influence] and take it very seriously.”

Catalina longs to get the community more involved, while connecting parents to their schools. “It’s not healthy if we’re all on our own. We’re a community and we need each other,” Catalina states. “For years most parents have completely trusted their kids to just go to school. Parents need to be involved more than ever.”

One way she hopes to connect the community includes faith-based and business partners for schools across the district, modeled after Neighborhood Church’s wildly successful partnership with Houston School that's lasted over 15 years.

The Blair family playing games at home

The Houston Partnership begins at the elementary campus, but offers support to students through high school in The Neighborhood Degree ministry, by helping kids that want to go to college. Members help students with essays, scholarships, and practice interviews; members provide support in innumerable ways. The church offers support and care to the parents in that community, all on the Houston campus. They hope to offer Parent Café nights in the future.

Stephanie Benthin of Neighborhood Church explains that they began the Juntos “Together” parent group, similar to a PTA, where they provide food and movies and put on events for families in the school to participate in. Additionally, the church offers summer camps, like VBS, onsite at the school where parents already feel comfortable dropping their kids.

Catalina at home with her family

Over the years, many have watched as this partnership transformed the school with a decrease in crime in the neighborhood along with test scores up in the school. “This is not about church membership,” Catalina says. “It’s about loving our neighbor. I’ve seen their model, it works, and I love it! I want it duplicated all over the city.” Her hope is to begin rolling this out in the coming school year.

Much sacrifice is involved in leadership with the community at this level. But Catalina believes every person on (or off) campus has the opportunity to be a positive influence on a kid’s life. Catalina’s life experience and deep connection to the community underscores the value her voice brings to the district. She’s the ideal girl-next-door. “I love Visalia. I love our schools and I love our students.”

catalinablair.com

Instagram: catalina4vusd