Members of the Tohono O’odham tribe refer to their culture, way of life and overall values as Himdag; it includes everything that makes Tohono O’odham people unique as individuals and as a group. It is a lifelong journey of enlightenment and learning that includes spirituality, healing and sensitivity to others, the land, the environment, community and family. After more than three decades spent serving our country overseas, pursuing her education and building her professional career (first as a CPA in corporate America, then in human services), Rose Lopez has returned to her roots to embrace Himdag as the new president and CEO of Intermountain Centers.
Founded in 1973 by David Giles, PhD, Intermountain’s focus was to provide intensive residential services for adjudicated Native American youth that exhibited extremely challenging behaviors. The original facility was known as the Southwest Indian Youth Center (SIYC) and was located on Mt. Lemmon at the Old Prison Camp, above Molina Basin. For nearly four years, 70 teenagers from 18 Native American communities in Arizona, Nevada and Utah lived on Mt. Lemmon, to receive social and rehabilitation services and attend school in the Tucson community.
Today, Intermountain Centers provides a myriad of services to the state’s at-risk populations in group homes, foster homes, independent living settings and a specialized K-12 school for kids with autism. Serving over 3,500 individuals each year, the nearly 500 staff members and contractors are dedicated to providing the highest quality community-based, individualized services in the most cost-effective manner to the at-risk individuals referred to Intermountain for services.
Born in Sacaton, Arizona, Rose was the youngest of eight children being reared in a single-parent home. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Tohono O’odham Nation is economically poor; the median family income is $21,225, making it the lowest of all U.S. reservations. The latest statistics show an unemployment rate of over 75 percent and fewer than half of the Tohono O’odham’s adults have completed high school, the lowest rate of all U.S. Native American Tribes. Rose’s mother understood the challenges for her family and rejected the self-fulfilling prophecy through the promotion of hard work, education and self-sufficiency while staying true to the ethos of Himdag.
In 1973 as Intermountain began its work, seven year-old Rose began learning how to properly speak English. By age 13 Rose was working the cotton fields with her siblings chopping weeds and earning money for the family; her reward for a hard day’s work was an ice-cold Sprite: to this day her favorite drink. At 18 she enrolled at Central Arizona College and jumped out of the gates by taking 21 units her first semester. “I decided I was going to get college done as quickly as possible because I didn‘t like school.” Although Lopez was very smart and made good grades, she felt as though she wasn’t being challenged.
In November of 1984, a week before she was set to take her exams, Rose was driving down Florence Boulevard in Casa Grande. On the side of the road was a billboard that featured the iconic picture of Uncle Sam with the message, “I Want You.” She made a U-Turn and drove directly to the Army Recruiting office. “I walked right in and asked the recruiter, where do I sign?” The surprised recruiter told Rose she would need to first take the aptitude test, which she did, qualifying for a long list of jobs, of which she chose military police. She added, “That sounded great to me, so I signed the papers and asked when is the soonest I could ship out?” Realizing the enormity of her decision and the impact it would have on her close-knit family, she opted to wait until after the holidays to tell them. She said, “Culturally this isn’t something we do: leaving our community and joining the military. In my culture we stay together, you don’t go very far.” She made the Dean’s List that semester and broke the news to her family about her impending departure; it was poorly received. On January 16, 1984 Rose began her five-year stint in the military, spending most of it in Europe.
In 1990 Lopez left the Army and continued her studies enrolling at University of South Carolina, working toward her degree in business administration while working part-time as an accountant. Upon graduation she took a position with a company that audited magazines and newspapers, which allowed her to travel the country extensively. Working with their broad list of clients, Rose was exposed to many different business models and operations which allowed her to hone her skills and help prepare her for her current position.
The travelling began to take its toll on Rose and back in Arizona, her mother’s health was in decline. To decrease her travel, Rose took a position doing audits for the state and a short time later she lost her mother. In 1998, knowing she needed to reinvigorate her life, Rose befriended two people, (both of whom were from Tucson), who were with Providence Service Corporation, a for-profit behavioral health organization. Being the only person they knew in Columbia, they asked Rose if she would run their South Carolina operations and begin to expand throughout the East Coast. She was part of a team that took the company from a $3 million organization to a $60 million company after it went public in 2003.
Her new found love of behavioral health services and her innate sense of Himdag led Rose to the CFO position at Intermountain in 2004. She took over the leadership role at Intermountain when Dr. Giles decided to retire in May of 2016. With a new five-year strategic plan and a capital campaign preparing to launch, Rose has brought back her experiences and successes to her community and her people. Reflecting upon her life, Rose said, “When I think about me growing up, and where I am today in regards to the work I do, I think it fuels my passion and is the reason why it is so easy for me to do what I do every day.”