Carlos Peña receives Cotati’s Spirit of Sonoma County Award
By NICOLE R. ZIMMERMAN / Cotati and Rohnert Park Correspondent
As a student, Carlos Peña mounted a campus campaign to save Sonoma State University’s sports programs.
Now he is an ambassador for the college’s 22 sports clubs and NCAA-division teams, as well as an advocate for children’s sports in Rohnert Park and Cotati.
For those efforts and the nonprofit Galilea’s Chance to Play that is named for the young daughter he lost in a car accident, Peña will receive this year’s Cotati Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Sonoma County Award.
The award honors local business leaders who contribute to the economic development and enhancement of the communities in which they live and work, said Suzanne Whipple, executive director of the Cotati chamber.
Peña is one of 19 countywide honorees who will be recognized at a Dec. 7 luncheon.
“Carlos bridges the gap between the university and the business community. He has also been extremely active in local organizations, giving his time and talent to provide leadership and help others,” Whipple said.
Peña helps manage the Sonoma State Athletics Association, is advisor to SSU women’s lacrosse, cheerleading and dance teams, and serves on the boards of several Little Leagues.
The 44-year-old Peña says he is humbled by the selection, but says that connecting university sports and the wider community is something he feels passionate about.
He got his start as a sports advocate while at SSU from 1989-94. He became the school’s first Latino student body president about the same time that current university president, Ruben Armiñana, was elected as the first Latino to hold office. He still calls Armiñana a mentor.
Campus athletics were on the chopping block due to state budget cuts, and Peña instituted a referendum that allowed students to vote whether or not to contribute to student programs. The students voted 83 percent in favor, about $1 million was raised, and sports programs were saved.
Peña barely passed his classes that spring and, in an ironic twist, failed weightlifting.
Unbeknownst to the university at the time, he had invited his father to live with him, helping him find a job and hiding him for an entire year in the dorm. Peña managed to keep a low profile, although his father hung his clothes outside to dry and cooked delicious meals that filled the adjacent building with the aroma.
He credits his father with emphasizing the importance of la familia, the family. The eldest of six brothers and the first in his family to attend college, Peña’s biggest goal was to get his family out of L.A.
“Coming from the inner city, sports gave me that drive to succeed. I saw it as my opportunity. It kept me off the streets.”
Awakening to cows in a pasture was a shock after hearing sirens and helicopters.
“The serene beauty, the calmness — it was a big transition from all that activity.”
Shortly after bringing his mother and three of his brothers to Rohnert Park, Peña went to Mexico to be an observer during its presidential election. He didn’t return to the area until 15 years later, this time with his own wife and children.
“Our SSU athletes have great talent, but we need to publicize and promote them,” he said. SSU’s golf team won the national championship, and its baseball team has been to the World Series twice.
The association helps raise money for athletic scholarships and marketing campaigns. But Peña’s vision includes offering sports clinics and informational workshops to younger athletes and their parents, taught by SSU coaches.
His kids, including a 15-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, share his love of sports. But he stresses the importance of academics before being an athlete, even pulling his eldest daughter from cheerleading when she needed to raise her grades.
“I teach them they have to be accountable to something,” he says. “We have a responsibility to the community we live in, to contribute back.”
That message is especially meaningful to Peña after experiencing “so much love in this community” in the wake of 8-year-old Galilea’s death in 2010.
“We never really had a chance to grieve,” he remarks. “I did what I do best, getting back into the community where I found support.”
He and his wife Angie started the nonprofit in their daughter’s name to raise funds for youth scholarships. They want to develop their own sports awards program to give recognition where it is due.
Peña says, “What you give, you’ll be able to harvest later on and pass around.”
The 2012 Spirit of Sonoma County Awards luncheon is held from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at the DoubleTree in Rohnert Park, 1 DoubleTree Drive. RSVP by Monday, Dec. 3. For information, call Ann Gospe at 565-7298 or email Ann.Gospe@sonoma-county.org.