Celia Sarabia Hightower was a native Tucsonan and a first generation American; her father’s lineage being Spanish and her mother’s being Mexican. Her sister states that with both parents working full time, Celia took on the role as surrogate mother to her siblings. Because she was such an exemplary student, she motivated them to be disciplined in their studies, scheduling and supervising their chores and poured into their lives daily.
Celia graduated from Sahuaro in 1972, which was the first 4-year class from Sahuaro. While at Sahuaro she was involved in many school activities and served on Student Council.
Celia then graduated, with honors, from the Nursing program at the University of Arizona in 1976. After only seven months being a practicing nurse, she was hired as a trauma nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She remained there for six years; however, after three years, she knew she had a higher calling in the medical field and decided to go back to school. She went on to earn her Masters Degree in Management Information Systems and entered the banking and finance industry. After receiving her Master’s degree, she entered the banking world for 1st Federal Savings, which became Mera Bank, and was later absorbed by Bank of America.
Using her experience and the tools she learned in Finance, Celia began her career at El Rio Community Health Center where she has helped it become one of the nation’s largest non-profit healthcare providers serving over 76,000 people, the majority of whom live at or below the poverty level. In one year she led El Rio Healthcare from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to $360,000 in profits. In October 2013, Celia was named the 2013 Chief Financial Officer of the Year. Because of this achievement, Celia was then recognized with a Congressional Special Recognition Certificate by the United States Congress in November of 2013. Faith, family and serving others were the mainstays of Celia’s life. She and her husband, Penn, were married for 46 years and they have two daughters, Kristina and Sandra.
Celia passed away in October 2016 after a courageous battle with Pancreatic Cancer. Her accomplishments in her professional and personal life reverberate for tens of thousands of Southern Arizonans.