Santa Ynez Valley Woman of the Year Priscilla Higgins was entranced by the valley’s oak-studded rolling hills, acres of symmetrical vineyards and countless smiling faces. Fourteen years on, she’s become a vital volunteer in more than half a dozen organizations behind that beauty.
“In all honesty, I came here when I was in my middle 60s and it’s given me a new lease on life, opening up different opportunities through volunteering. This is a very volunteer-rich community. I see a lot of people doing all sorts of great things. I find that really rewarding,” Higgins said.
Born and raised in East Africa, Higgins earned her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in physics at Cambridge University. She began her career with IBM before starting a family.
“Back then, women stopped working when they had kids,” Higgins said.
But when she was asked to teach high school math and biology, she took up the challenge.
In 1982 the family moved full-time to Silicon Valley, Higgins became a U.S. citizen and began teaching for Saratoga schools. She earned a master’s degree in education at Stanford University, and rejoined the high-tech industry where she ran education programs and training on technical applications.
“When the kids were little I did some volunteering, but at that stage of your life, you’re very caught up with everything else: going to games, that kind of thing. When I went back to work, I did some volunteering — teaching students English, teaching literacy in San Jose jails. There wasn’t a lot of free time,” Higgins said.
As she and her husband looked toward retirement, they found themselves cresting the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains. It felt like home.
“When you drive over the mountain from Santa Barbara and the valley opens up, it was, like, wow, love at first sight. It’s a lovely place. A lot of the vegetation reminds me of East Africa. The people here are interesting. They come from all walks of life, and that’s really nice,” Higgins said.
While building their home in Happy Canyon, Higgins was introduced to the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation where she soon became a board member and ultimately served as board president from 2014 to 2016.
“It’s been a tremendous experience for me because when you first come to the valley everything looks ideal and happy. Then you realize there are a lot of people who don’t have what they need,” Higgins said.
Her volunteerism in Santa Barbara County has become extensive. From 2006 to 2012, she served as a board member with Direct Relief. She currently serves as a board member with the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara as well as Land Trust of Santa Barbara. And Higgins volunteers at St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church where she serves on the finance committee, women’s guild, and does the weekly food run for People Helping People.
“You always want to give back, and it’s interesting to see how organizations work and what they’re doing for communities. Board work is interesting, quite challenging. You’re engaged in a different way,” Higgins said.
She is also a supporter and fundraiser for Hancock College, and the Nature Conservancy and Wildlands Trust.
In a less official capacity, she belongs to Santa Ynez Valley Women Hikers.
“You don’t ever want to completely retire. You always want to be doing something. The great thing about being retired is you can balance community service with your personal life,” Higgins said.
Accolades have never been a goal in serving Santa Barbara County and Santa Ynez Valley.
“It’s embarrassing. It means a lot to be honored by a community. It’s different from recognition from work. It means a lot when it’s the place where you live,” Higgins said.
While early morning food runs provide Higgins a practical way to give back to this community, she said potential volunteers shouldn’t limit themselves.
“There’s a lot of ways people can volunteer, and it’s great making contact with people. When I get out with people, talk with people, it’s lovely,” she said.
"It’s been a tremendous experience for me because when you first come to the valley everything looks ideal and happy. Then you realize there are a lot of people who don’t have what they need." - Priscilla Higgins