At age 4, Vicky Westra emigrated to Tampa from Cuba with her family with the goal of starting a new life and living the American dream. Fast forward, Westra is a college graduate, wife, mother and community activist who is helping others achieve the dream.
She met husband Pier by accident, literally. She had a minor accident and he was her claims adjuster. They recently celebrated 26 years of marriage. The couple adopted their daughter from a Romanian orphanage when she was 2. At age 4, she was diagnosed with autism. “We struggled for many years with our daughter’s behavior and went through the many stages of uncertainty and grief about the diagnosis and her future until our journey brought us to the point of completely embracing our daughter just where she was at as well as the diagnosis.”
In 2006, Westra left a senior level role at Tampa Electric and started a coffee company. In 2007, she founded Art for Autism, a 501(c)(3) social enterprise, to develop programs and services for people diagnosed with autism. In 2010, these two organizations came together to form Artistas Cafe. The cafe serves premium gourmet beverages and foods — that is where the similarities to other cafes end. All the team members at Artistas have autism.
Over the past two years, our focus has been on developing a replicable training model that will teach team members social, communication and multitasking skills and improve their self-confidence. Through a partnership with USF St. Petersburg, Westra has developed an assessment tool that validates the significant growth experienced by Artistas team members.
Westra recently opened a second café at Jabil Circuits in St. Petersburg and will be opening three additional locations by the end of the year. In addition, Artistas is launching a culinary program using the same training methodology as the cafe program. Her long term goal is to serve individuals with autism globally.
What do you think is the secret to your family’s success?
Unconditional love. Our daughter Gabbi taught us that. When she came to us, she didn’t fit our model of the daughter we had always envisioned. It was challenging. After experiencing a lot of pain, I realized that I truly wanted to love Gabbi for the wonderful being that she already is and be happy right where she’s at on the journey. It was a pivotal point in our relationship and allowed me to see so many positives about her talents and abilities as well as the diagnosis of autism. That lesson in unconditional love has helped us as a family to live a more joyous life.
What is your biggest fear?
To not live life to my fullest potential. I believe that everyone was brought here with a purpose and mine has become clearer and clearer.
What advice would you give to other women?
Live your purpose. As women, sometimes we get caught up in what people want for us versus what we want for ourselves. Some women are called to be stay-at-home mothers and others are called to be CEOs — whatever you were called to be and do live and do it fully!
What is your proudest moment?
We have created an environment at Artistas of acceptance and unconditional love. For many of our new team members, it’s something that they have seldom or never had. On the first day that they enter our program, we let them know that they are wonderful right where they are and we are going to give them the skills and abilities to discover that for themselves.
What is your biggest achievement?
The Artistas program has not only been transformational for all the team members but for me and our whole team. Developing a program that has already transformed lives and has the potential to positively touch so many people around the world is very rewarding! However, I still feel like my biggest achievement is yet to be.
What makes you happy?
My goal is to find joy in whatever I am doing. I love the times when I am just hanging out at home or at the beach with Pier and Gabbi, when I am at work with my wonderful team, with extended family during Sunday dinners or just going to dinner or hanging out with friends. It’s all good!
How do you relax and take time for yourself?
My favorite thing to unwind is to go to the beach and sit under an umbrella with a good book. There is nothing better than being by the water. It’s so cleansing and refreshing!
What kind of message would you like to give women in the area or in this community?
Embrace your own power. I know so many amazing women and I find that the thing we as women have in common is that we sometimes don’t see the powerful, unique and talented beings that we are. We either give our power to someone else or criticize ourselves for not doing a good enough job in one or all areas of our life. I take this very personally now because I see that in order to teach empowerment to our children or our employees, we must first live it. In other words, our actions speak louder than our words.
What else would you like to share with our readers? About being a mom? About your work?
One of the lessons that I learned with our daughter is to not make your happiness dependent upon what your children (or anyone else for that matter) are doing and not doing. Another lesson I have learned is to tell your child how wonderful they are and to envision all the possibilities for them. Since Gabbi was little we’ve told her that she could achieve anything that she wanted. We even created stories around professions because I subscribe to the philosophy that we can create our own reality. The steps are to first identify what we want, second believe that it’s possible and then take inspired action to achieve it.
How do you enjoy or draw information from the magazine?
Sometimes when we have a challenge in our life, whether it’s with our children, at work or in our family life, we are so close to the situation that we don’t see a way around it. Magazines like Tampa Bay Parentingand other inspirational sources help us to expand our viewpoint, give us new ideas or just help us to be thankful for our own lives.
What is your favorite thing to do with your kids in Tampa Bay?
Our favorite place to visit is the beach. We also enjoy the public parks (Gabbi’s favorite thing is still going on the swing), Busch Gardens, MOSI and the Aquarium.
Who is your biggest inspiration or role model?
I have many people that I greatly admire; however my biggest inspirations are my parents. They left their homeland and everything they knew to make a better life for their family. They accomplished amazing things and to this day we have a very, very close and loving family.