Gina Carbajal development director with Special Olympics of Santa Barbara County. | Credit: Paul Wellman

“What I love about our athletes is that they’re so excited about participating in our activities,” says Gina Carbajal about Special Olympics Santa Barbara. “They’re such a great group of individuals in our community. There’s such a pureness to them.”   

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, and its mission is to transform lives through the joy of sports. They offer  training opportunities in an inclusive culture that stresses athletic excellence, rewards determination, emphasizes health, and celebrates personal achievement.    

Gina is the development director of the Santa Barbara region, which includes Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland, Carpinteria, Gaviota, Isla Vista, and UCSB. The organization works closely with law enforcement for its fundraising, hosting doing events like “Tip A Cop,” where officers serve as celebrity waiters at restaurants and they donate all the tips they receive to Special Olympics.  

“Law enforcement has been a part of our organization for 36 years,” Gina explains. “They’re our largest fundraising entity worldwide.”  

More than five years ago, she also got firefighters involved in their annual “Polar Plunge.” After the event, as the firefighters helped her pack up, she raised the idea of doing a bigger fundraiser with them.  

“They didn’t stop and think, they said, ‘Yes,’” says Gina, so they launched a fundraiser called “Fired Up for Special Olympics.” This past October 19, the fifth annual Fired Up barbecue took place, hosted by firefighters from both the City and County of Santa Barbara. 

Gina Carbajal was born in Lincoln Heights. “I could see Dodger Stadium on the other side of the freeway,” she reminisces. When she was 11, her family moved to Rosemead, where she attended San Gabriel High School.

In 1983, right after graduation, she met the man who would become her husband, today’s Congressmember Salud Carbajal, on a blind date. He lived in Santa Barbara and happened to be down in Los Angeles. After a long-distance romance, they were married in 1987. “We’ve been married for 36 years,” she proudly states. “We did a lot of growing up together.” 

She followed Salud up to Santa Barbara and enrolled at UCSB, majoring in Chicano studies and psychology. She then earned a Masters in public administration from Cal State Northridge.

After college, Gina started working for the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics. “I thought it was going to be my forever job,” she says. “I was there only a week, and at only one week I felt like I was at home.”   

But in 2013, the organization was hemorrhaging funds and there were layoffs. “Things happen,” she says. “I had to move on.” But Gina is still so fond of the organization that she sits on the board of directors.

In 2014, she didn’t know where she wanted to go, but knew she wanted to stay in the nonprofit sector. Ernesto Paredes told her Special Olympics was looking for someone. “I knew right away it was a job I was going to like,” she explains. 

Right after she started, she was at the Goleta Lemon Festival with her son, Michael. “One of our athletes with Down syndrome saw me,” she explains. “The first thing he did was to give me a big hug. He gave Michael a big hug as well.  He was so genuine.”

I ask her about how she’s been dealing with Salud’s role as a Congressmember. “The first six months were tough,” she confesses. “He’s busy. He comes home on a Thursday. Our day is Sunday. It took a while to get used to it.”

Gina Carbajal answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your most marked characteristic? 

I am not high maintenance; I’m pretty easy going. My husband may think differently!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?  

My wonderful children. Salud and I have raised two fantastic kids: Natasha, 34, and Michael, 19.  

What do you like most about your job?  

I love working for an organization that truly makes a difference in individuals’ lives! I also love working closely with three fantastic colleagues.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness is ensuring that my family is doing well and they are happy. A mother is only as happy as her saddest child.
What is your greatest fear?
Losing my children, grandchildren, and husband.
Who do you most admire?
I really admired my grandmothers. They were very caring and loving. I was very close with them both, I miss not having them in my life.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I always love a bargain, so I don’t like to spend a lot on clothes and shoes, but I do love nice purses.
What is your current state of mind?  

Stressed. I have to get a lot done at work after our major fundraiser.
What is the quality you most like in people?  

People who are sincere and down to earth.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?  

Individuals that are mean and inconsiderate of others.
What do you most value in friends?  

I don’t have a lot of friends, but a small group of girlfriends that I have. They are sincere and are always there for me.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?  

“Whatever!” I think that is the L.A. girl in me.
Which talent would you most like to have?  

To draw. I still draw like I did when I was five.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?  

I wish I was taller. Although, being 5’ 2” has its advantages on an airplane!

Where would you most like to live?  

Besides Santa Barbara, it would have to be Italy.
What is your most treasured possession?  

I have two. I have really old photos of a lot of my family members. I’m really into knowing about our roots and ancestors. 

The second is my grandmother’s Carole King Tapestry album. I would play that over and over when I would go to my grandmother’s house, when I was little.

Who makes you laugh the most?  

Salud. He has been making me laugh for 36 years.  
What is your motto?  

Time flies, whether you are having fun or not! 
Which historical figure do you most identify with?  

Frida Kahlo. She was not only a great artist, she was also a strong woman. She persevered through much pain and sorrow, of which is portrayed in her art. In 1939, she was the first Mexican artist to have one of her works purchased by the Louvre.
On what occasion do you lie?  

We never really told our kids the correct time we were really coming home, when we went out in the evening. We still do it with the 19 year old who lives at home.


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