Amelia Garza, pioneer in aiding farm families

Amelia Garza, the daughter of farmworker parents who became a leading Democratic Party activist and a tireless advocate for migrant workers and families in the Yakima Valley, died earlier this month at Providence Yakima Medical Center after complications from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. She was 65.

Family members and colleagues remembered Mrs. Garza as a pioneer, who developed dozens of local programs focusing on literacy, education and public health.

They said she had the attitude to relate to at-risk high school students and also the composure and savvy to secure consistent funding from federal sources.

"She was hard-nosed, she knew what she wanted, and she worked hard to get it, no nonsense," said Henry Beauchamp, the executive director and CEO of Opportunities Industrialization Center, a Yakima nonprofit where Mrs. Garza worked for about 12 years.

"She had a really big heart, wanted to make quality of life better for those around her," Beauchamp said. "Hundreds of people became successful because of her intervention and inspiration."

Mrs. Garza, who died Aug. 5 and lived in Grandview, also started an alternative school in Sunnyside and served on the Grandview City Council for 13 years.

Mrs. Garza was born Aug. 28, 1937, in the Rio Grande Valley town of Weslaco, Texas, the daughter of Merced and Belen Maganas. When she was 7, her family moved to the Sunnyside area, where they found jobs as migrant farm workers.

She dropped out of high school but earned her equivalency diploma in 1967.

Her activism was personal, and always sparked by the experiences of her family and those around her, said Mrs. Garza's husband, Ed, 69. They had been married more than 40 years.

For example, she saw that neighboring families needed child care, so she found out how to apply for grants. Then she saw that the migrant children were missing lunches during the summer months, so she started a meals program with the local school superintendents.

After researching the dropout rates for local high school students, she started a program to keep them in school, improve their grades and connect them to professionals. Part of the program simply involved driving the kids to local universities and exposing them to what could be.

Mrs. Garza's talents were ideal for bridging white employers and their Spanish-speaking employees. Recently, she helped translate training and safety manuals in Spanish for companies in Eastern Washington with large numbers of Spanish-speaking employees.

And if she couldn't find the right resource or agency, her husband recalled how Mrs. Garza would work the phones until she could do it herself.

"She would find clothing, food or just a ride to work so they could have some money at the end of the week," Ed Garza said. "She never thought anything of it, she thought everybody should do that."

She became interested in politics, her husband said, because she felt not enough Hispanics were voting. In 1984, Mrs. Garza was elected as one of the state's three Democratic National Committee members, a position she held for four years.

Last year, she and her husband were given lifetime achievement awards by the state Democratic Party.

Mrs. Garza is also survived by her five sons, Ed Jr., of Yakima; Rick, of Olympia; Ron, of Maple Valley; John, of Seattle; and Ben, of Yakima; daughter Lisa van der Lugt, of Potomac, Md.; and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or