Onward Leaders » Cohort 6: 2021-2022

Cohort 6: 2021-2022

Ana Barillas 

St. Columbkille, Los Angeles


Ana Barillas Ana Barillas was born in Guatemala and moved to Texas at the age of 3 years old. Then she was raised in Texas along with her two older sisters. Her passion for faith was ingrained by her mother and father, who raised her in the Catholic faith.


She finished a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, but her love for education happened when teaching Sunday school at the church. What encouraged her to seek a career in education was the heartwarming feeling from the natural joy and warmth that children gave her with every smile. She then became a math teacher for elementary and middle school while pursuing her master's degree in educational administration. Then soon after, she became Assistant Principal and Bilingual Coordinator for the public and charter school system for eight years. She is currently finishing her doctorate in business leadership with the dream that this knowledge will help her make a difference in education.


Ana is grateful to Onward Leaders for the opportunity to participate in the program. She is looking forward to how this program will prepare her to become a better leader, in which she may continue God's work in the community. She is excited about growing knowledge and experience with her fellow cohort members and on this new journey.

Khia Bautista 
Immaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles

Khia BautistaKhia Bautista grew up in Eagle Rock, a small town in the greater Los Angeles area. She began attending a Catholic school in the 3rd grade and made the conscious decision to continue her Catholic education through high school. At a young age, she knew she wanted to work in a school. She enjoyed learning and loved watching her sense of faith develop as she got older. She knew that a great deal of this was thanks to the teachers that she had growing up. 

After high school, Khia went on to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies while simultaneously working towards her credential in elementary education at California State University Northridge. She continued her education at Loyola Marymount University where she received her Masters of Arts in Reading Instruction as a member of the PLACE Corps.

As a product of the Catholic school system with a desire to share her faith, she was called to serve as a Catholic educator. She began her professional career in education as a Kindergarten aide at Immaculate Heart of Mary School. Throughout her time there, she went on to teach Transitional Kindergarten, 2nd grade, and 1st grade. Now, after spending the past 8 years in the classroom, she wants to continue to grow as an educator while still having the opportunity to share her faith. She feels very blessed that she has the opportunity to do this with the Immaculate Heart of Mary community and through the Onward Leaders program.

Araceli Esparza 
St. Louis of France STEM Academy, La Puente

Araceli EsparzaAraceli Esparza is a native Californian, growing up and living in Baldwin Park most of her life. She is a product of Catholic education, as she graduated from St. John the Baptist School (Baldwin Park) and Bishop Amat Memorial High School (nearby La Puente). Following high school, Araceli attended the University of La Verne and graduated with a degree in journalism in 2000. Throughout her education, faith played a key role in Araceli’s foundation, journey, and drive; she eventually took a year off post-college and traveled the U.S. as a missionary with NET (National Evangelization Teams) Ministries, a Catholic group that facilitates retreats for youth throughout the country. Araceli relocated to St. Paul, MN, and worked for the non-profit organization for three years following her service year. That experience catapulted Araceli’s desire not only to live out her faith, but to teach and spiritually journey with others as much as possible.

These experiences eventually led Araceli to return to Baldwin Park, where she worked as a newspaper reporter for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. Faith and service were continually integrated in Araceli’s life at this time, and these callings grew stronger. Araceli redirected her primary career from journalism, and she began working full-time at the parish level. She worked as a Religious Education/Baptism coordinator and High School Youth Minister within two parishes, including her home parish and alma mater of St. John the Baptist, for the next 8 years. It was through these opportunities that Araceli’s motivations led her back to teaching -- this time, in the classroom.

Araceli became a middle school teacher at St. John’s in 2011, focusing on teaching Religion and Language Arts, as well as moderating the school’s Student Council and serving as emcee and (amateur) deejay for various school events. She has since completed graduate school through Loyola Marymount University, and has continued to apply her journalism background as a public relations consultant for nearby cities. Araceli is excited to apply her experience and passion for learning and growth toward this next chapter in her professional career.

As an Onward Leader, Araceli is most excited to serve and lead her community, collaborating and journeying with others in the process. She is especially humbled by the overflow of support and encouragement from friends, family, and the Onward Leaders team. The opportunity comes at the helm of an ongoing desire for growth and challenge, and especially prayer, and Araceli is excited to see where the Lord leads next.

James Ryan 
Holy Spirit STEM Academy, Los Angeles 

James RyanJim Ryan was born and raised west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A product of Catholic school, Jim attended St. Joseph's Prep before graduating from The Pennsylvania State University with a B.A. in Communication Arts & Sciences. Throughout middle and high school, he was heavily involved with youth ministry and founded an afterschool program sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ. However, it was through the Jesuits at The Prep that Jim felt a calling toward Catholic education.

After graduating from college, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. Despite learning much, he ultimately decided to leave the industry. Stirred by a need to serve, and to be "a man for and with others" as he was taught by the Jesuits, he began studying education at Loyola Marymount University. Simultaneously, Jim became the 4th-grade teacher at Holy Spirit School in Mid City, Los Angeles. He graduated with his M.A. in Elementary Education and a Multiple Subject teaching credential.

In 2019, when Holy Spirit School became one of the pilot schools for the ADLA's STEM Network, Jim was selected to be the STEM lead teacher of Holy Spirit STEM Academy. Teaching 3rd through 5th grades, he helped oversee data disaggregation and the application of best practices in the STEM classroom. With the help of his principal, Claudia Garcia, he cultivated his leadership skills while learning about maintaining a school community. Jim looks forward to continuing his mission of service leadership as a member of Onward Leaders, Cohort 6. He is grateful for the opportunity to develop as an administrator, and hopes to help his school community grow in their faith in Christ and love of learning.

Sonia Nunez 
St. Matthias Dual Language Immersion Elementary, Huntington Park 

Sonia NunezSonia Nunez was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She grew up in a religious family and knew all her prayers before she even learned the ABC’s. She comes from a family of teachers but growing up she did not want to be a teacher. Regardless of her then career choice her parents instilled the importance of an education and encouraged her to pursue a college degree.  

Sonia’s journey in Catholic education began as a child.  She attended Our Lady of Lourdes School in Los Angeles and went on to Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School. She received her Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Biology from Loyola Marymount University (LMU).  Sonia began LMU with the intention of pursuing a career as a doctor and took all the prerequisites for medical school.  She has always enjoyed being around children and began working at St Sebastian as T.A. for second grade.  She really enjoyed working with children and realized a career in the medical field was not for her. Her calling was to be a teacher.  After graduating from LMU, Sonia began her teaching career at St. Joan of Arc teaching second grade. Through LMU’s CAST program Sonia received her Master’s Degree in Elementary Education and Teaching Credential. 

At Holy Name of Jesus School, Sonia taught 1st grade and was given the opportunity to return to LMU to complete a Certification in Blended Learning and as a Technology Integration Specialist. While at Holy Name, Sonia was mentored by the principal and took on a leadership role. She is grateful for the help and advice that was given to her.  She is blessed to be part of the Onward Leader’s Cohort 6 and is excited for this new journey.  

Walter Ortiz 
Sacred Heart Dual Language Immersion Elementary, Los Angeles 

Walter OrtizWalter Ortiz was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and did all of his formative schooling in Huntington Park, CA.  A product of LAUSD schools, Walter gradually developed a passion and strength for writing and language, a skill that would only become more fortified throughout his college years.  After receiving his Associates Degree in Liberal Arts from East Los Angeles College, Walter proudly transferred and graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts in English.  While pursuing work as a writer after graduating, he took on a myriad of odd-jobs ranging from retail to customer service to mail delivery.  After working as an on-call substitute teacher for Teachers on Reserve, he finally came upon the opportunity that would completely change his life.

In 2015, Walter was given the opportunity to teach Junior High ELA as the 7th Grade Homeroom teacher at St. Malachy School in South Los Angeles.  Since then his odyssey as a Catholic school educator flourished: his tenure at St. Malachy saw him take on a number of roles including Academic Decathlon moderator, Student Council moderator and Girls’ Volleyball coach, as well as promotion to 8th Grade teacher and Vice-Principal. In 2020, Walter, yet again, proudly graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a Master of Arts degree in Urban Education.

While participating in a NCEA/WASC committee at St. Francis of Assisi School in Silver Lake, CA, Walter first heard mention of a relatively new and innovative school leadership program called Onward Leaders.  He would hear it mentioned again and again by professors and mentors at LMU and began to feel a shift in his vocation.  During the challenge of the pandemic, Walter reflected upon how his gifts and willingness could be used to make an even bigger impact in terms of leadership, so he sent in his interest form, resume and application  and found himself part of Cohort 6.  He feels blessed to be supported and accepted not only from the program itself but also by everyone in Catholic education who has championed his journey.  He is incredibly humbled by the experience and hopes to serve to the best of his capabilities.