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A Mission to Help: Behind the Scenes of Conservataion in Texas

Women’s History Month 2021 - Women in USDA Segment
Silvia Ortiz Biography & Employee Spotlight

Interview and Story By: Alexandra Smith, NRCS Soil Conservationist and Federal Women’s Program Coordinator for Texas

Creatively Collaborated with: Angela Moody, NRCS Archaeologist & Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

A Mission to Help (arcgis.com)offsite link image      (Google ChromeMozilla FirefoxApple Safari, or Microsoft Edge)

Sylvia Ortiz story as downloadable pdf

“If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.” ― Zig Ziglar

Sylvia Ortiz in military uniformThis recurring theme seems to follow the life story of NRCS’s very own Silvia Ortiz, administrative programs specialist for Management and Strategy in Texas, and a principle she attributes to her career success, saying, “The sky is the limit if you are willing to learn and be a hard worker.”

As an NRCS employee myself, I began working with Silvia Ortiz-Lavallee about a year ago, when I was having trouble getting credit for required coursework in the employee training system, AgLearn. I remember being impressed with Silvia then, because she went above and beyond to go to bat for me when she didn’t have to. Fast forward another year and I am working on behalf of the Federal Women’s Program to set up outreach sessions for Texas employees. As an AgLearn administrator, Silvia was there again to help set the event up. When she heard the intent of our sessions, she began sharing about her own experience attending a Federal Women’s Program employee training event some years earlier and the impact the event had on her career and life. As she spoke, I quickly found her positive attitude, genuine willingness to help others and her love of the agency to be uplifting and special.

While Silvia is now a proud employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she could not have imagined her life would lead her to a career with the agency. Silvia hails from once small town to booming city, Katy, Texas, where her family still lives today. Despite growing up in “Rice City,” Silvia’s only agricultural experience came from visiting her grandparent’s cattle fields in Mexico when she was about five years old. While they are still managing cattle there, Silvia hasn’t been back since she was a little girl.

Silvia’s career in federal service began in 2004, where she was as a young enlistee in the United States Army, working as an Automated Logistical Specialist. Silvia remembered that she, “loved her job in the Army and was a stellar soldier,” however she found it was hard, as a single mother. She recounted, “My work hours were not your typical 9-5, I went in early and worked late. I had two toddlers and constantly had to go away for training or field exercises. I missed so many special occasions in my children’s lives. The pay was ok, but not for the 60 – 70 hours I was putting in a week. I ran a shop office, an administrative office, a warehouse, and managed soldiers.” After 13 years, two duty stations (Fort Riley, KS and Fort Hood, TX), and one deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sargent Silvia Ortiz received an honorable discharge and medical retirement from the Army in 2017.

I had to ask, if there were any obstacles she faced as a woman soldier, and she recalled, “In the beginning of my active duty career I did face challenges in the military being a woman. I was attached to a Cavalry Unit where it was 99% males. Most of these males had never worked with a female in the military. They automatically assumed I was weak. I had to ‘prove’ that I might not be a scout, ranger, or sniper but that I was equally as important in accomplishing our missions. It didn’t matter how difficult a task or mission was, I never demonstrated weakness. I would give every mission my all. To gain their respect, I always volunteered, even for the hardest missions. I carried my own weight and proved that I was a valuable member of the team. I learned so much during my time in the military and all of it has helped me at NRCS.”

In 2018 Silvia bPicture of Sylvia Ortiz in her military uniform with fellow military soldiersegan working as a contractor through a company called Ultima. Through Ultima she worked as a clerk for the NRCS, an organization, at that time, she had never heard of before. She said, “I never realized there were so many agencies in USDA. I used to think they just dealt with food inspections!” The assignment turned into a great learning experience and she found she absolutely loved working for NRCS and helping people.

Still working as a contractor, in April 2019 Silvia attended a Federal Women’s Program employee training event. “This was my wake-up call. It was here that I learned what the field workers do,” Silvia said. “I met employees from all over Texas that came to the meeting. We even got to visit a farm. We saw what NRCS does with farmers and how they have improved the farmers efficiency and productivity. It was a shock to see how much NRCS does for and with the community. During this meeting, a guest speaker held a special presentation where he discussed matters when applying for jobs on USAjobs.gov. He gave pointers and tips. There was a portion for retirement and benefits. It was such a unique learning experience that it sparked my interest with NRCS even more.”

Silvia further recounted, “I didn’t just want a job. I wanted a career, where I would be able to retire. I began searching and applying for jobs with NRCS, looking at things like location, department, position and pay. In May 2019, I came onboard as a federal employee. My new position was management analyst. I handled fleet, property, and warehouse. I became the AgLearn administrator and mentor coordinator along with other clerical duties. I loved my job as a contractor and even more now as a federal employee. I have always wanted to help others and feel as if I’m contributing to something. After working for NRCS and being a valued employee, I can’t see myself working anywhere else.”

“Later that year, I applied for a new position as an administrative programs specialist for Personnel, in the state office. Though I had all the knowledge to perform the job I thought I might not get the position, since I had only been with the agency 1 year, but I received the job and started my new position in October 2020,” said Silvia. “My primary responsibility at NRCS is human resources for Texas. I work with Tony Townsend to assist around 700 employees throughout the state daily. We post vacancies for the state, handle employee retirements, pay issues, benefit updates, promotions, awards, performance planning, personnel action requests, 1890/Pathway/Recent Grad accommodations, and onboarding assistance for new hires.  My secondary responsibilities are mentoring coordinator, AgLearn training coordinator, personal property, meeting approvals, LincPass coordinator, purchase card holder for M&S, and forklift operator, and other responsibilities.”

“I’d have to say the biggest challenge I have faced while working for NRCS is balancing my workload,” she commented. “I dislike falling behind. I get calls and emails daily requesting assistance, so I constantly stop my daily tasks to assist employees. I have created many spreadsheets to help me keep up with my duties and I give myself a maximum of 2 days to respond to employee needs. I multi-task to keep up with the demands of NRCS and use my time wisely so everyone and everything is taken care of, all traits which I learned in the military.”

“I have only been at NRCS for a short time, but I have made so many connections and friendships. NRCS is very special, it reminds me of the Army family I made everywhere I went in the military. I get that same feeling in NRCS and know I am making a difference helping. I do not feel like this is just a job. I absolutely love the work hours. I enjoy that I am still able to have a day-to-day life that isn’t consumed by my job, as it was in the military. I enjoy coming into work, being part of a team, and helping Texas employees.  I wear a lot of hats working for NRCS, but it is not stressful to me,” she said.

As NRCS employees, we can typically relate to wearing multiple hats to get our jobs done, though not many of us have 700+ people depending on us each day or would classify it as, ‘not stressful.’ Having pride and feeling complete joy in one’s own work is rare, and it is beautiful. I was immediately inspired by Silvia’s genuine attitude of love toward her work and I felt extreme gratitude to have this woman working behind the scenes for me and for all NRCS employees in Texas.

Silvia saiJay and Sylvia wedding photod, “I can truly say I love my job. I enjoy helping personnel. I have the sense of fulfillment that I had when I was in the military. Employees are respected and valued. Supervisors and managers care about day-to-day life and work life. They are very understanding, something I wasn’t used to when in the military. I have seen so much growth from within the agency and I have been a part of some of it.”

While Silvia’s work accomplishments are many, the ones she is most proud of focus on integrating systems or programs to assist state operations and employees. I asked her what personal qualities she thinks helped her get where she is today, and she considered that being an adaptable, go getter, who’s hardworking, willing to go the extra mile, and has a desire to help others were likely the biggest factors. Silvia says she is most inspired by her mother, Maria, and lovingly stated, “She is a hard-working woman, and a great mother and friend. She has taught me to work hard, always be myself, and to never settle. In my eyes my mother is a superhero.”

As fulfilling as her work life is to her, her personal life is seeing some positive changes as well. On March 20, 2021 she married her fiancée, Jason Lavallee, and is now Silvia Lavallee. Together they live in Belton and share their lives with four children: Silvia’s son Andrew (13) and daughter Alana (12), and Jay’s daughter Genesis (17) and son David (13), and two dogs, Zuna and Zeke.

Silvia’s words of encouragement to her fellow employees: “Be yourself and give it all you got. Always be willing to learn. Ask questions! Do not be afraid to ask or learn something new. There is so much room for growth in NRCS, just do your job as best as possible and you will make a huge difference.”