Young Alumna to be Honored at Homecoming

By Scott Craig   |   September 12, 2023
Young Alumni Award winner Gabriella Avila (photo by Brad Elliott)

Westmont will give Gabriella (Pinheiro Chavez) Avila (2014) the Young Alumni Award at a special Homecoming brunch Saturday, Oct. 14, for her faithful life of leadership and service. 

Avila serves as a counselor in California’s largest school district: Los Angeles Unified. She meets regularly with many of the 1,200 students at her middle school, helping them find solutions to chronic absenteeism, homelessness, food insecurity, and transportation needs.

“Mental health is a huge factor for a lot of students and their families, especially since COVID,” she says. She works with a campus psychologist and outside agencies to decide the best approach to schooling, which may include alternative learning such as an online virtual academy or independent study. “These are temporary options that help get them back on track until they’re ready to return to our school system,” she says. 

Los Angeles Unified serves more than 550,000 K-12 students, including about 92,000 English learners. “The emerging English learners have specific teachers, separate schedules, curricula, and testing to move through different stages before becoming integrated with the other students,” she says. “When you’re working with a student, it’s encouraging to see the progress they’re making. They’re excited to tell you about their reading exam, or when they’re able to get to that next level of fluency or understanding.”

The daughter of a Brazilian mother and an El Salvadorian father, Gabriella seeks to serve diverse communities, drawing on her multicultural and bilingual skills. The 30-year-old earned degrees in communication studies and Spanish at Westmont College, where she honed her confidence and communication skills. 

“I have a heart for people,” she says. “Growing up, my family was very generous, always willing to help a neighbor and to volunteer. Many times I’ve felt led to a certain group or area — I prayed about it — and felt that’s what I needed to do.”

After graduating from Westmont, Gabriella worked for Olive Crest, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youth in Southern California, seeking to prevent child abuse and providing adoption and foster family services. For three years, she advised families transitioning from fostering to adopting and offered post-adoption support as well. 

She still uses the skills she learned at Olive Crest to assist her middle-school students, many of whom have spent time in foster care. “It all ties together,” she says. “I didn’t realize what I would be doing when I was taking communication studies and Spanish classes at Westmont, but I’m still using the skills I learned.”

Gabriella has earned a master’s degree in Social Work from Long Beach State and is working toward certification as a licensed clinical social worker. As part of the master’s program, she advocated for clients through the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, supporting them with visits to court and helping them apply for public benefits and community resources for food, housing, mental health, victim’s rights, domestic violence, and legal assistance. 

Until she joined other Westmont students on a four-day trip to Ensenada, Mexico, Gabriella planned to major in economics and business. Her intercultural experience inspired her, and she eventually co-directed a Bible school for the college’s long-running outreach to Ensenada during spring break. 

Also through Westmont, she spent a summer volunteering at a Guatemalan orphanage. Until the pandemic, she continued to travel and visit Casa Bernabe, a ministry dedicated to restoring the lives of children and vulnerable families. “That’s my special place,” she says.

“Westmont helped me be bold in different cultural settings and in choosing a career and pursuing higher education,” she says. “I had a lot of good mentors, people who were willing to invest time in me and have tough conversations. That’s something really special a lot of people don’t experience.”

As a result, Gabriella says, “I’m able to be useful wherever I am.”


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