CASA GRANDE — In his position at the helm of the United Way of Pinal County, Allen Villalobos hopes to encourage greater self-sufficiency and financial stability among those who typically rely on the services of area nonprofit organizations.

“My goal in this position is to get the people who use these services to become givers,” Villalobos said. “The biggest blessing in life is when you can give back.”

Villalobos, who became the chief executive officer of United Way of Pinal County in May 2019, replacing Mannie Bowler, said he understands those who rely on services from nonprofit agencies. He once relied on them as well.

“I was helped by many nonprofits when I was younger, including United Way and the Salvation Army,” he said. “What helped me was learning English and going back to school. I understand what it takes to succeed in America and with some of our foundational programs, we can help people move on.”

Villalobos was born in Costa Rica and traveled alone to the United States on a tourist visa when he was 18. He immediately fell in love with America, he said.

“I came for a graduation trip and never went back,” he said. “I loved it here and loved everyone.”

When his tourist visa expired, he lived life as an illegal immigrant for several years but later legalized his status under a Ronald Reagan-era amnesty program.

“I went through a 10-year process to become a U.S. citizen and finally became one in 1998,” he said.

His early years in America were difficult, he said. He worked dozens of jobs including waxing floors, servicing pools and working as a parking lot attendant in Southern California.

“I knew education was key,” he said. “Even though I had already graduated from school in Costa Rica, I was able to still enroll in school in Los Angeles and I learned English.”

When a work-related accident forced him out of work, he enrolled in college, earning degrees in accounting and nonprofit management. He got a job as an accountant with Corona-Norco United Way in California and later became executive director. He was with the organization for more than 20 years.

“For me, it was a difficult ride but it was a great ride,” he said. “I think my story proves that America is the greatest country in the world. I was helped by people and organizations, and now I want to do the same for others.”

His focus is on education and he hopes to grow the organization’s Path to Success Scholarship program.

Path to Success provides scholarships and tools to adults who wish to acquire their GED.

Villalobos started a similar program when he worked for the Corona-Norco United Way.

“We brought in teachers who offered classes in math, science and other subjects to help people pass the GED test,” he said.

The program started with 15 students. Within a few years more than 1,700 had obtained their GED, he said.

“Education is the way out,” Villalobos said. “It’s the first step in getting people self-sufficient and becoming a contributor.”

To instill a love of reading and learning in young children, United Way of Pinal County several years ago began providing funding for area children to take part in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Children up to the age of 5 who are enrolled in the program receive a book delivered to their home once a month.

More than 360 children in Pinal County are enrolled in the program.

Villalobos is also an advocate for financial education and financial stability.

Through its free VITA tax preparation program for low-income people, United Way helps them work toward financial stability, he said.

In 2019, the program served 1,300 people and brought in about $1.5 million to Pinal County residents through tax refunds.

In 2020, about 851 people were served.

This year’s program runs until the end of the extended tax filing deadline.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you make. If you are living beyond your means, you are not financially stable,” he said. “The next step would be to provide financial education to people.”

While Villalobos began his job in Pinal County in 2019, he said he feels as though he’s “starting all over again.”

“It was like 2020 never happened,” he said. “We spent much of 2020 trying to bring our services online to still help people. We were productive, but we didn’t have much face-to-face contact with people. We’re only now beginning to network again.”

United Way partners with several other agencies in Pinal County to provide educational, economic and health-related services to people throughout the county.

More information about its programs, including how to apply for help or to make a donation, is online at unitedwayofpc.org.

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Melissa St. Aude is the Arts & Entertainment editor at PinalCentral. She can be reached at mstaude@pinalcentral.com.