The joyful resilience of fundraiser Erika Garza Holland

Ever since I’ve known Erika Garza Holland, I’ve associated one word with her: joy. Erika infuses joy in her work, which I saw firsthand when we were colleagues at the American Heart Association, and in her relationships — which I know because I’m blessed enough to be her friend. That joy helps make Erika an incredibly gifted fundraising professional, and it’s carried her through some difficult times. I love celebrating female #Firestarters during Women’s History Month, and Erika definitely fits the bill. I’m so grateful for everything I learned from Erika when we sat down to talk recently. And I’m super excited to share that conversation with you today!

Inspired to Make a Difference

Erika isn’t the first changemaker in her family tree. Her father, an immigrant from Mexico, was orphaned when he was just 13. “A loving family from Texas adopted my dad and his siblings and changed what was a hard childhood into a beautiful life,” she says. “That was my first example of how a loving heart can make a profound difference.” 

Her father continued his adoptive parents’ example. “He was always teaching me philosophy, religion, fishing, math and how to help your neighbor,” Erika says.

Inspired by her upbringing and her faith, Erika started her career as a marketing and communications intern at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, “which quickly led me to something I didn’t know anything about, but apparently was pretty good at: fundraising.” From her first fundraising job at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, “I was in love and found a meaningful career in nonprofits.”

‘We Had a Vision’

I got to know Erika when we worked with the American Heart Association. After working with the organization in California, Erika took the role of executive director for the greater Austin area, so her family could move back to Texas. She had her work cut out for her, including rebuilding the AHA board in Austin.

Erika didn’t know anyone in Austin, but she got to work meeting key people and listening to the needs of the healthcare community. Soon, things started happening — new board members, new staff, new strategy. “We stuck to it,” she says. “And we had a vision.”

That vision started to turn into reality. In just three years, annual fundraising for the local organization grew from $300,000 to $2 million.


A Life-Changing Moment

With her success, Erika got promotions and found herself working “100 miles per hour.” But that was about to change. While buying groceries during the holiday season, Erika had a brief conversation with a fellow shopper. Before she left the store, the man she had been talking with found her again. He told her needed to tell her something that would sound odd. And he wasn’t kidding. The man gently shared with Erika that her breath smelled bad, and that he was worried the odor could be a sign of a health problem. He urged her to get checked out.

As it happened, a friend of Erika’s had just opened her own dental office, so Erika switched from her previous dentist to her friend’s practice — “because friends do not let friends run around with bad breath.” Erika’s teeth were fine. But her friend felt something on the roof of her mouth.

From there, things started happening quickly. Erika was diagnosed with cancer of the hard palate. And it was already Stage 4. Receiving this news, Erika’s first words were “How am I going to tell my children?” Then her doctor told her something she would never forget. Yes, her children were going to see her get sick. But they would also see her get better. “You must stay strong,” she recalls him saying. “And this will teach your children.”


A Sign to Slow Down

As I did after suffering a traumatic brain injury, Erika took her health crisis as a sign. “All of a sudden, I was reminded of how precious life is,” she says. “And how I needed to slow down. … I want to focus on the things I love — and they are my children, they are my friends, they are my family.”

During her cancer treatment and recovery, Erika made some big changes. She became the mom who never missed one of her kids’ events. She also realized that a busy job with lots of travel no longer fit into her life. When she inquired about being a substitute teacher at Hill Country Christian School, she found out there was a full-time opening for a preschool teacher. “It was one of the best jobs I ever had in my life,” Erika says.

Erika taught for a couple of years before the world of fundraising drew her back in. She was contacted by Katie Robinson Edwards, who was the new curator and executive director at Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden + Museum. The Umlauf is a true Austin treasure, showcasing sculpture and other art in a picturesque setting in the heart of Austin. Katie asked Erika to become the Umlauf’s development manager. She hadn’t planned on this change, but was happy to be back and using her skills to benefit the arts.

This is a busy time of the year for Erika, since the Umlauf’s major fundraiser, the annual Garden Party is coming up soon. If you live in Austin, or are planning to be here on April 18, do not miss this event. It’s a chance to sample fare from Austin’s best restaurants, sip on some tasty cocktails and enjoy live music, all amid the beauty of an iconic Austin destination. Proceeds benefit Umlauf community outreach programs. You can also support the Garden Party as a sponsor. 


Erika’s Me-Set Advice

 I love comparing notes with Erika about the transformations in our lives, how we reconnected to our true values, and how we stay in alignment with what matters most. Erika says she’s now able to recognize when she’s getting off balance from doing too much and needs to decompress. For Me-Set maintenance, she tries to exercise and meditate every day. She’s also grateful for how she and her Umlauf colleagues encourage and support each other in keeping life and work balanced.

To stay in a place of joy, Erika fills her own tank through meaningful books. (I’m so excited that she liked my recent recommendation, “Trust Your Vibes”!) She also reminds herself that the most important priority in life is actually pretty simple: love. Let your actions show love to the people you care about — and that includes yourself. “There are always going to be people that might bring you down, but if you are really listening to your soul and your purpose, don’t let that impact you,” she says. “Stay the course.”


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