Reynaldo Villareal’s rise at NIB associated nonprofit agency Valley Center for the Blind (VCB) in Fresno, California, has been meteoric, and for good reason. “His ability to connect with people and support them through challenges has made him invaluable at the agency,” says VCB Executive Director Shellena Heber. “Reynaldo is a wonderful leader, a caring colleague, and a never-ending dreamer.”
These qualities led NIB to award Villareal the 2021 national Milton J. Samuelson Career Achievement Award. The award is named for former NIB board member and executive director of The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, Milton J. Samuelson, who advocated for upward mobility and placement programs benefitting people who are blind or visually impaired.
Villareal joined VCB as a volunteer in 2015 and soon was offered an internship in rehabilitation training. He joined the staff as an assistive technology trainer in January 2017, teaching students the latest technology to help them land jobs. Under his guidance, says Heber, students made tremendous progress in both academics and self-confidence.
At the time, VCB was primarily engaged in rehabilitation training, but the agency realized offering meaningful employment opportunities was crucial to meeting its mission: Many clients successfully completed rehabilitation programs and were ready to enter the workforce, but struggled to find employment.
When an opportunity arose to launch a call center with NIB associated agency Beyond Vision, based in Milwaukee, VCB wasted no time. In need of a compassionate leader who could adapt technology to make the jobs available to its clients, VCB found Villareal not only had those skills and more, he also had a call center background. Villareal was so effective in the role that VCB promoted him to workforce development director in May 2020.
“We had just a few weeks to launch the call center,” he recalls. VCB hired 10 agents, most of whom were Villareal’s former rehabilitation students, and another five shortly thereafter. Today, nearly 30 people who are blind work under Villareal’s leadership in virtual customer service jobs. He also oversees a team of contact tracers for the state of California.
The call center helped VCB grow from 19 employees in February 2019, to 41 employees today.
“All of us here know that Reynaldo has been absolutely instrumental in the growth of our agency. His passion for our mission, leadership, and reach-for-the-stars attitude is contagious,” says Heber. “We had long conversations over the years about how we could better serve our community. Reynaldo helped make that dream come true.”
“I am passionate about what I do and who I help,” says Villareal, who, at the age six, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that causes vision impairment, including decreased vision at night or in low lighting and the loss of peripheral vision. “I was lucky. I had a supportive family and good opportunities in my life. I want to be able to give those opportunities to others who haven’t.”
Villareal, who is deeply honored to receive the Samuelson award, says “It’s not just my award, it’s the entire agency’s award. Our team rose — and continues to rise — to the challenge.”