Freedom candidate profile: Concha Herrera
• Running for Town of Freedom Board of Trustees, Office 1
March 31, 2021
Concha Herrera's expansive understanding of the culture and economic situation throughout northwest Oklahoma, she believes, makes her an asset to the town on the board of trustees.
Herrera grew up in Freedom and attended school there (she spoke of teacher Katie Melkus with boundless affection), although her family then had to move for her father's work. That work kept the family moving all around northwest Oklahoma, moving to Alva, then Kingfisher, some back-and-forthing between Freedom and Woodward. Herrera graduated from Woodward High School.
She went on to attend Southwestern Oklahoma State University followed by a semester at Northwestern.
A joyful development redirected her life at that point. “I became a mom,” she said, “and that was my focus for several years.” Fourteen years ago, she returned to her hometown, bringing along her husband Lupe and their children Christian and Iridian. She still speaks with heartfelt appreciation of the way the town embraced her and her family.
And the family seems to have thrived in Freedom. Christian (24) has recently earned a degree from the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, and Iridian is attending Northwestern, majoring in agribusiness and has her National FFA Degree.
Experienced in Area Workforce Issues
Herrera herself works at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission in Woodward, and if you ask what her responsibilities are there, you'd best find a comfortable chair, because her involvement in employment issues of all kinds throughout northwest Oklahoma seems to be endless.
She oversees both the Woodward and Guymon offices, overseeing both the service-side staff and being responsible for the offices' accounts payable and receivable. She oversees technical onsite managers for the agency's partners, which are numerous. She “does” the temporary agricultural worker program in the area “and I also work with the workforce centers in our district,” she said.
Add to that all the meetings to keep on top of trends and troubles in the various settings, and Herrera is a busy person.
“Every day it's different,” she said. Most of the people coming to her for help are in need of unemployment services.
“In the workforce center itself, the theory is it's a one-stop system,” she said. So, an unemployed person could come to see them to find out what kinds of services might be available to help them weather things until they find that job. The help they receive might include being referred to a center that provides training, or a way to work to a short-term career certificate.
Other people may need a youth program, and Herrera can help the find the right one. Or it could be a hundred other things – “an employer may be looking for an employee, or someone may need help with their resume. We are a one-stop shop for it all. We also connect to community services, so if you have a need like a physical impairment,” or if the family is experiencing food insecurity, Herrera can help them find the services they need.
A career of helping so many local people with such fundamental, crucial issues, might wear down some people – seeing so much difficulty, which, of course, can't always be quickly eased.
Herrera seems strengthened and uplifted by it.
“I fell into it from a previous job,” she said. That job was with a nonprofit, where she “did the youth program and covered 11 counties. So, I was basically the supervisor for all those counties, all the way from Tyrone to Hooker to Guymon, right across the whole northwest quadrant.”
That program was funded by a grant, and that's where she first learned how extremely careful agencies must be with grant money; how many restrictive rules each comes with – rules that, if violated, would mean the loss of the funding. And she also learned how crucial grants are to providing these essential services, and how to go about finding this funding.
“You've gotta look for the grants, know where they are, know how to apply for them,” she said, and that's only the very beginning. Quotes, bids, meetings, documentation …. “and once you get the contract, from there you have to budget and put it all into place, and then you have to oversee it to make sure you're not going outside of that budget,” she said. “Your responsibility is to not misuse that money; you can't even make one change to the proposal – that's your proposal and that's what you have to stick with. A lot of people don't understand that. They think 'it's our money; it's our town; we can do what we want,' but it's not like that. You have so much responsibility that if you're not trained, you actually have to do a lot of research and a lot of legwork before you actually get to that.”
That why people running for town trustee would benefit from previous grant experience, she said; at least be “familiar enough to know what the responsibilities are that come along with it and know that we're going to be held accountable. Being responsible has to be in the front of the mind.”
The Future of Freedom
The biggest current challenge, Herrera says, is facilitating change that will let the town grow “instead of staying exactly where we are.” She understands how important it is to preserve what is precious in a town's history and identity, but believes what's precious can be preserved without turning a blind eye to the advantages of change. “If you don't adapt, make an effort to grow, you're going to lose out financially, economically. I think for any community, that's the struggle. How an we make ourselves more compelling to visitors? How can we encourage more families to move to this area, making us grow?
She envisions a town that draws the eye and attention of drivers who would otherwise simply pass through the town to the bridge. “We need to draw the eye to what's around us. We have some signs that have gone up,” and she was surprised to learn that family who'd visited before had no idea the town had some of the cool things the signs point out, like the museum or the original sheriff's office.
Now, with signs, people are actually inviting passersby or brief visitors to come in and explore the town, and not just pass it by in favor of exploring the caves.
“The museum is one of a kind,” she said. “We have a lot of history here. It's amazing, some of the stuff that's been preserved, and with the archaeology dig on the side of it too!
“We (at the town board) have lots of neat ideas, and yet we have so many complaints. You want to move forward, but others just want to keep us right where we are. Who's going to replace that third generation rancher? A lot of the kids aren't staying. Their careers take them somewhere else. Old-timers – how will we replace them in the future?”
Irreplaceable Freedom: That Hometown Feeling
Fourteen years ago, the Herreras were living in Woodward. “This is when Woodward was really booming. Our kids were coming up into the middle school age group, and we decided we wanted to be outside of Woodward.”
“We sold our house overnight, it was listed and we had a buyer the next day. We closed on the house in not even a month.” But then they had trouble finding a home – really, any kind of home – outside of Woodward because of the high demand for homes.
One day, she got a nudge in a different direction.
“I was driving my grandmother to Oklahoma City for a doctor's appointment and her grandmother was looking through a listing of homes for sale. “She said, 'Oh, my God, there's a house for sale in Freedom and it looks great!'
From her time in Freedom as a kid, “what I remember being best about Freedom was everybody was always willing to help you achieve, whether they knew you or not,” she said.
“My husband was working over by Camp Houston, and so I called him and said 'Would you look at it?' He found somebody at the gas station who told him to go ask at the bank for it, and they gave him the key so he could go into the house and look at it. He called me back and said 'You're going to love it. It has a fireplace, three bedrooms, two baths, and gas for a gas stove.' Everything I required. We closed on the house and I didn't even see it until we signed the paperwork!” she said, laughing.
Her husband “was so impressed with how they treated him, from just asking where the house was, to meeting the guys at the bank, and their trust in just handing him the key to go see the house .... he just loved it,” she said. “It's that hometown feeling that you get. From not knowing everybody in the community to them taking care of you – assistance to someone who's had a fire or suffered a loss or been unfortunate somehow. Our community rallies around its own, and it's what brought us back.
“I'm forever grateful. God gives you signs and I always think of it: my grandmother saw that newspaper, and we had not even thought about Freedom. Usually there's no home, and no land for sale.
“But since (moving to Freedom) we've had the best time, the best neighbors. We couldn't ask for anyone to love us and accept us more. We had family come from Dallas last week, and they thought going to the gas station was the coolest thing, that they could walk there and to the local park and not be afraid of being outside. It's that environment that inspires others to accept us. You can't duplicate it anywhere else.”