Employees at El Rio Community Health Center are mourning the loss of their longtime chief financial officer Celia Sarabia Hightower.
Hightower died Oct. 12 of pancreatic cancer. She was 62.
In the 29 years Hightower spent overseeing finances at El Rio, which has a history of caring for disenfranchised populations, the nonprofit never lost money.
That was no small feat considering El Rio was coming out of a bankruptcy, comprised one location and had a budget of less than $2 million when Hightower joined the organization in 1987. In those early years, Hightower also acted as chief operating officer.
Her passion for El Rio’s work fueled the energy she put into balancing its books.
“The community feels that this is their clinic, and they’ve embraced it,” Hightower told the Star of El Rio in 2005. “We have generations of family members coming — and we treat them with dignity and respect.”
When she retired Sept. 30, the budget was $135 million and the organization was up to 14 campuses.
“We have never lost money any year on her watch,” said Nancy Johnson, who is the CEO of El Rio. “Many of the employees here she hired 17 or 20 years ago, and there have been wonderful, heartfelt messages about how she believed in them and supported them in their education.”
El Rio is part of an organization of federally qualified health centers called Community Health Best Practices LLC, which recently set up a Celia Hightower Scholarship in her honor. The scholarship will fund educational opportunities for El Rio employees.
Hightower was an early advocate for creation of the Pima Community Access Program (PCAP), which helps provide health-care options for people without insurance coverage, Johnson said.
She also oversaw El Rio’s financing of a major purchase and move — buying the downtown Manning House and relocating administrative headquarters there.
In 2013, Inside Tucson Business named her CFO of the year.
“Celia lived her life with a passion, whether it was El Rio, traveling with her family, being with her grandsons or dancing,” Johnson said.
“She was a breast cancer survivor and was very involved in influencing our work around mammography. Every October we have free mammography on Fridays.
“She did a lot of fundraising in the community, and was just a very passionate individual. She got behind everything 110 percent.”
Hightower’s friends and family described her as capable, energetic and always someone one could count on to get the job done. She was born and raised in Tucson as the eldest of five children and learned responsibility at a young age because both of her parents worked, said her husband, Penn Hightower. The couple was married for 46 years.
The couple met as students at Sahuaro High School. They graduated in 1972 and married in 1976, shortly before Hightower earned her nursing degree from the University of Arizona. She later went on to earn a dual MBA/MIS degree, also from the UA. In 2014 she was inducted into the Sahuaro High School Hall of Fame.
“Every job she ever interviewed for she got,” her husband said. “She was amazing, beautiful, intelligent and capable.”
Before joining El Rio, Hightower worked as a nurse at a Phoenix area hospital before becoming a trauma nurse in the emergency room at Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson. After earning her graduate degree, Hightower got experience in the financial world working for Bank of America.
Penn Hightower said his wife was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2013. She had surgery and was back at work by April.
“If El Rio didn’t mean anything to her she wouldn’t have gone back,” he said. “It was like part of her extended family.”
When she turned 62 on Aug. 23, Hightower’s co-workers threw her a dual retirement/birthday party. Hightower wore a tiara.
In addition to her husband, Hightower is survived by two daughters: Kristina Menzies of Boulder, Colorado, Sandra Hightower of Tucson and three grandsons.
A service is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 215 S. Craycroft Road, followed by a celebration of life in the parish hall.