When Christina Gallegos moved to China Spring from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in third grade, she felt like she’d come to the country. Kids said “y’all” and teased her for her accent. But she’s adjusted. When she visits family who live out of state, now they think she has the accent. The transition is part of prioritizing — learning what needs to be addressed and what can be let go. As a single mom who was also a teen mom, Gallegos has had to prioritize as she navigates her life with her 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her career.
When she was invited to work with Waco Habitat for Humanity, Gallegos didn’t know much about the organization, but she quickly developed what is referred to as “Habitatitis.” It’s a well-known phenomenon in Habitat circles. It means that you develop a passion for helping people in need of a decent place to live, and you want to spread that passion to people who may not understand what Habitat actually does. (Hint: It’s not about former President Jimmy Carter, and the homes aren’t free.) In her position as community engagement coordinator for Waco Habitat, Gallegos’ job is basically to spread Habitatitis — whether she’s working with volunteers, with people doing community service hours, with future homeowners or even with strangers. Gallegos considers herself an ambassador for Habitat and has been humbled to work with an organization that has 31 years of service in Waco.
WACOAN: I know you were born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. How did you get to Waco?
Gallegos: My family moved here for opportunity. My aunt had already lived here for a few years before, and [my father] wanted to join his sister. We came when I was in the third grade.
It was hard to get used to — very much of a culture shock, going from an artistic community to out in the country. This was back in 2001, 2002, when China Spring was more country.
I was a little bit behind in my education, just because it’s different [states]. So I did attend a summer school program. It was my way of catching up to everyone else that I was peers with. It was real fun to be recognized as a person from a different community. Everybody wanted to hear me talk — ‘Say this word!’ — because I had an accent.
WACOAN: You don’t seem to have any accent to me. Did you grow out of it?
Gallegos: I have grown out of the accent, although when I visit, I come back with a little bit of an accent from talking to family.
WACOAN: So you still have family in New Mexico?
Gallegos: My whole family, my grandparents on both sides, multiple aunts and uncles. I have cousins. It’s really great because I have somewhere to stay when I visit.
I’m actually planning a trip there next week. My niece is graduating high school, and my nephew graduated college. He got a degree in anesthesiology, University of Arizona, magna cum laude. Those are our family’s genes!
WACOAN: I’ve only been to Santa Fe once, on a drive to Colorado, but I was surprised at the elevation. It’s over 7,000 feet above sea level.
Gallegos: Oh, yes! There’s a change in your breathing and allergies.
It’s amazing being able to see how our family sprouts out. We started in one city and settled in different areas. My parents branched out from China Spring to Waco. My other aunt, Houston. Another aunt in Amarillo. I have several family members in the Panhandle.
WACOAN: So now when you go back to New Mexico, do they think you have a Texas accent?
Gallegos: Oh, yes, and I get made fun of. We’re a family that when we first moved here, the ‘y’all’ word. My mom would say, ‘Don’t say the y-a-l-l word.’ It quickly developed into our vocabulary. Now when I go back there, we say it, and they make fun of us. And I can make fun of their accents.
WACOAN: What is the accent in Santa Fe?
Gallegos: I can’t even explain the type of accent. It’s kind of a Hispanic sound behind some words, and you draw some vowels out.
WACOAN: Did you graduate from China Spring High School?
Gallegos: I actually moved to Waco. I went to what was then Lake Air Middle School. From there my parents decided I would go to Midway because they had a better band program. When I tried out for marching band at Waco High, as a freshman I was already in the top three chairs.
WACOAN: What did you play?
Gallegos: I played the clarinet, and band was a huge part of high school. My most fond memories about high school are from marching band and the extracurricular activities that I was a part of.
We moved to Hewitt. At Midway I had so many opportunities, so many types of programs. It was very inspiring being at Midway because their school is so welcoming and encouraging, even through some hard times. I was still accepted into the society that they have.
I was a teen mom. I got pregnant in high school. I made the decision to stay in school. I took a short three weeks off. I gave birth my junior year, went right back, then senior year I got to walk the stage with all my classmates. Being a parent at such a young age, I was forced to work, and I hit the ground running.
Started in food service. Then my aunt started me in the art of mortgage lending. I’m a calm person, and I like a quiet environment, like an office. She trained me to be a loan operations assistant. I moved on to banking.
WACOAN: Where was this?
Gallegos: At Synergy Bank. I did that for two years.
Then I was in sales at Dillard’s. My parents, when they first moved down here, my mom was working in restaurants, then seven years ago she started working for Dillard’s. While at Synergy I got a part-time job at Dillard’s. They pay great money.
I changed jobs, and that was part of the evolution of my adulthood because I was inexperienced in the fashion world and all the trends. So when I started working for Dillard’s, it forced me to do my research on different trends and making the best of your looks. That was my turning point from a young woman to just a woman. It was quite inspiring, having people recognize me for something other than just being this young girl.
WACOAN: How did you get to Habitat?
Gallegos: I was approached by Lori Young.
WACOAN: Who is she?
Gallegos: Her husband owns Young Electric. She has been so amazing to me. She’s not only the reason why I got hired here, but she’s also been a great mentor, one of the easiest people to talk to. Every time I’m asked, ‘Who’s your ideal boss, your dream supervisor?’ I always say, ‘Well I’ve already had it.’
WACOAN: So was she your boss at Synergy or at Habitat?
Gallegos: At Synergy. She was my supervisor for about a year, and from there she went to work for Waco Habitat. She was the reason I was recruited twice to Waco Habitat — first for the bookkeeping position and last year for the community engagement coordinator.
She approached me for the bookkeeping position. I didn’t get it, but when the position for community engagement came up, they thought of me. I was absolutely flattered that they remembered me from two years before. I immediately hung up the phone and put up my two weeks’ notice [at Dillard’s].
WACOAN: How long have you been at Habitat?
Gallegos: I have been here since August, and I feel like this isn’t work. You don’t feel like it’s work when you love what you do.
WACOAN: Tell me more about what you do as the community engagement coordinator.
Gallegos: It’s so inspiring! I deal with the community and the people we help and then volunteers, so I can see all aspects of our work. I go to events and talk about everything we’ve done, and that’s easy because we’ve done so many great things in Waco. My job is to pump up volunteers, get them recruited, make it easy to get involved.
When I say ‘community,’ I mean the families we build homes for, the veterans we repair homes for and the volunteers that need hours, like for probation. We welcome people with criminal backgrounds to get their hours completed through our programs in home construction, repairs and the Ramps & Rails programs. [Editor’s note: Ramps & Rails builds wheelchair ramps, grab bars and handrails for low-income homeowners.] Individuals that are needing to complete community service hours can volunteer with us at the ReStore.
We have a very unique spot in the community — we have people with criminal backgrounds working alongside future homeowners and people in need of the services we provide. We have partnerships that are formed from having different types of volunteers working with us. It’s interesting to see connections being made, volunteers turning into employees, community people turning into advocates.
And of course, being able to work with the amazing people I work with. Each one has dedicated years to nonprofit work, and they are so passionate about what they do. It’s infectious. We call it ‘Habitatitis.’ Unfortunately, there’s no cure. I definitely have it.
WACOAN: Did you know much about Habitat when you started?
Gallegos: I didn’t know much about the organization, how Waco was involved and the impact we’ve had. I was just amazed at the amount of work one organization could do in 30 years.
The only thing I knew — the common misconceptions — I thought it was founded by President Jimmy Carter, and I thought they built houses and gave them away. No.
Our founder was Millard Fuller. President Gerald Ford was the first president to be involved, before Carter. And we don’t give the houses away. It’s not a hand-out; it’s a hand up. [The homeowners] have to put in 300 hours of sweat equity.
It’s very much considered a good deal, but there’s no interest charged on [the mortgage]. Most interest payments are $500, which is rent in most of Waco. We have the best deal in town. It’s hard to get the loan, but it’s so worth it in the end.
WACOAN: With your background in mortgage loans, this position must be a natural fit for you.
Gallegos: It’s being able to put these complex mortgage terms into language for people who don’t have the education. If you just explain to them everything needed in layman’s terms, then there’s a possibility that they can get the help that they need. Too many people are uneducated, even that a program like Habitat exists. People know the [ReStore]. I get to just break down a wall and say, ‘We’ve been here for 30 years, and you should apply.’
It’s not an easy process — it takes about a year. Someone who’s dedicated, they’ll push through the program. You find out if they’re serious in the beginning. It will be someone who gets their community service hours done. There are some people who unfortunately cannot complete the program. We give them an opportunity to reapply, but it takes a whole year before they can.
WACOAN: I spoke with Eric Shephard at Waco Civic Theatre for another article, and he mentioned a partnership between the theater’s production of ‘Rent’ and Waco Habitat.
Gallegos: The Civic Theatre contacted us back in February, and they wanted us to highlight what our organization does. They came in and asked some questions. Carlos Hinojosa, our director of development, was working with that.
I’ve seen ‘Rent,’ the musical, and I like that they were turning it into something that’s Waco-ified. That’s so creative! We want to make this world a better place, and being debuted in something like this was really honoring.
WACOAN: We’re looking at nonprofits in this month’s issue. What was your experience with nonprofits before coming to Habitat?
Gallegos: None at all. I maybe volunteered for Salvation Army and Caritas, but I never felt like I could feel the importance. I was just in my own cycle, my own world, experiencing my own life. When I made that switch, it was almost, well, not a personality change but a perspective change where I saw the world a little bit differently. I felt a change in my own humility — I don’t know exactly how to explain it. I wanted to do my part, even if it was a small amount.
You can’t be a nonprofit without help from the outside, from volunteers. So it’s my duty to spark that fire on the outside, and it’s so easy to do that. I’m an ambassador for the Habitat brand, and I advocate to strangers, to friends, to family, as much as I possibly can.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your family. I saw a picture of you with your daughter. Do you have only one child?
Gallegos: She is an only child. She’s 9 years old, Olivia Marie. She goes to Castleman Creek Elementary since pre-K. She is quite the little precocious individual, very inquisitive, always wanting to be involved in the conversation. People think that she’s bossy, but I think she’s a leader.
She knows what she wants, and she’s got her plan, which changes every single year — dancer, lawyer. I try to encourage her as much as possible. She’s in a hurry to grow up, like all 9-year-olds. We try to keep her grounded as much as possible but still treat her when she deserves it.
When I was a young mom, it felt very unnatural to be a parent because I was so young. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t really do a lot of the baby talking [to her]. I just didn’t know how. That was an added benefit to Olivia because she grew up talking in full words and full sentences — talking by 4 months and walking by 9 months.
She was so ahead of all of her growth charts and everything. So when she got into school — she was born a little past the cutoff date for the state of Texas, so she had to wait a whole extra year — that was even more of an added benefit because she went in there knowing so many things.
She makes me so proud.
Her taste in music is so not what a 9-year-old’s would be. She loves classic rock, Journey, rock ‘n’ roll bands, Metallica, AC/DC, a wide range of music, which is quite interesting. My parents raised me with their taste in music, but she discovered this on her own. We’ll be driving down the road and she’ll be singing along, and I don’t even know the words.
WACOAN: What are your plans for her this summer while school’s out?
Gallegos: This summer I plan on taking her to the MCC Kids College. That’s not till July.
We’re trying to get her into a sport of some sort. Last year and year before she did coach-pitch softball. This year she wanted to do something with Midway.
We’ll probably put her in a dance class — she was taking one at the beginning of last summer. She loves dance class. She wants to play soccer, and she wants to do karate. This summer will be very busy for her. Maybe karate next year. I did karate in middle school. I feel like she wants to beat her mom. I don’t know where she gets her competitiveness from.
WACOAN: Do you still have family in town?
Gallegos: Of course, my parents. My father works a daytime job, so he’s got his evenings open. My aunt — I call her my aunt, but she’s a woman I grew up with. My mom and her are best friends. Also her son, which is Olivia’s godfather.
And of course, [Olivia’s] father. He gets her every other week. We made a choice a long time ago to be civil, regardless of our situation. We never married. We knew it wasn’t going to work out. Most people these days are in a conflicting relationship with their child’s parent, and it’s something we saw early on. We just knew that it wasn’t going to be a fairy tale, so we made that decision and evolved.
Last year we decided to get the state of Texas out of it and just share her one week to the next. She goes with him a week and then me a week and stays at the same school. We coordinate holidays.
She has a little brother that he had with another marriage. He looks up to her so much. It’s so cute to see them interact with each other. He looks up to her, and she thinks he’s so annoying. [Her dad] keeps them together at the same time, which is important to me and to Olivia.
For as long as Olivia remembers, we haven’t been together, so she can accept us. The hardest thing with parents breaking up is the children, but since she didn’t know anything else but us being separated, that was also helpful.
WACOAN: As a single mom, do you get much time to yourself?
Gallegos: Me and Olivia’s father will switch weeks off and on, so from week to week, my time to myself is when I don’t have Olivia. And I have to keep myself busy or I will start to miss her. So I try to have dinner with friends — we watch movies, everyone brings a side dish. I love to go shopping. That’s an easy way to gobble up some time and relax. A little retail therapy never hurt nobody!
And sleeping in. That is the most amazing feeling. That’s my way of relaxing in my own world. We have had plenty of times when we’ve gotten up so early, at the crack of dawn before anyone else. When you get to sleep in, it’s a whole new recharge.
WACOAN: So, what does the idea of keeping balance mean to you as a working mom?
Gallegos: As a working mom, it means having the time to smell the roses as well as get the job done. You’ve got to learn to prioritize.
My aunt instilled in me from a young age to put things in order of importance and have a sense of urgency. There have been several times where I can hear my mom’s voice and my aunt’s saying, ‘This can be put on the back burner. This can wait.’
Of course, making sure that you prepare a little bit ahead of time. It might be easier in the long run — five minutes of prep saves an hour of work, that idea. It’s important to prepare for things, even if it’s a small presentation or a project, so that when the deadline comes up, you’re not scrambling to finish.
WACOAN: You said something about going to New Mexico this summer?
Gallegos: When this comes out, we will have just been back. What we’re doing, my older sister — I forgot to mention my sisters! I have an older sister and a younger sister, and we each have one daughter. We’re all five years apart. We kind of have this cute little trend of ages going down.
We flew her daughter down, my niece Monica, and we’re going to drive her back to Colorado. So it’s a road trip. It’s absolutely gorgeous! We’re going to visit every state park and hike for days. The weather right now in Colorado is still cool. As long as we’re in the mountains, it won’t be too hot.
We’ll do Garden of the Gods, trails along the highway. We love to go up to the national parks. When you open up those water spigots, that fresh mountain water! Even the restrooms are majestic.
There’s part of the family that [moved] up there as well. I’ve got people that started in New Mexico and sprouted out to California, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas.
WACOAN: Where do you like to go in Colorado?
Gallegos: Pikes Peak. We always camp. We also go to Colorado Springs and this little strip of cabins — not sure what road it’s on. It’s $20 a night, cute little one-bedroom cabin. I love to do that. When can you get a cabin for such a cheap price? It’s next to a hotel with the word ‘lodge’ in it. They have a sign that says, ‘Primitive campsites, $16, cabins, $20.’ Four more dollars? I’m gonna sleep in a bed tonight!
WACOAN: What do you and Olivia like to do for fun around Waco?
Gallegos: She absolutely loves to go shopping. I used to work at Dillard’s, so at the mall we’ll go to the makeup counter, get her some lip gloss or a cute glittery lipstick. Her favorite counter is MAC.
We like to drive around. My life is very busy. Most of my day is running errands. She loves to get on Spotify and play music so we can jam while we do our errands. She is quite the performer.
When it’s a weekend, we are hanging out. I only have one vehicle — two with my fiance — so we stay home and watch TV, and she gets to pick the first [show], and I pick the second. She likes to watch the Discovery Channel.
She watches crime shows. It’s interesting to see her questions evolve. We’ll be sitting there, and she’ll use her imagination and create a story and almost make her own crime show out of a situation.
WACOAN: You said fiancé. You’re engaged?
Gallegos: I am engaged to my best friend, Jonathan. We were best friends in high school. He’s been in my life since I can remember being at Midway. We were beginning to move out of our duplex in Hewitt to another one, and he popped the question on me. I was not expecting it. It was in the middle of me doing laundry. He said, ‘I don’t want to be with anyone else but my best friend.’ I said yes.
We’ve been engaged about a month now. The ring that I got I wear on a necklace because my knuckles are a little bit swollen. My ring finger knuckle has always been funny. It’s in a little cast right now.
WACOAN: And his name is?
Gallegos: Jonathan Nance.
WACOAN: When are y’all planning on getting married?
Gallegos: We know that we want it to be in the fall — I want it to be in the fall. I want it to be a very grand event because I’m only going to be married one time, and I want it to be planned very meticulously. This will take time and money, so planned probably within the year, maybe do something fun with the month/date/year. We got together in the fall, so we’d like to have our dating anniversary be the same as our marriage anniversary.