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San Clemente Journal

Jenifer Finley - Casa Romantica’s Executive Director

Jan 01, 2011 09:55PM ● Published by Brian O

by Bill Koelzer

Jenifer Finley was hired as Executive Director of Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in November, 2009. She came to the Casa with more than 20 years of leadership positions in non-profit organizations behind her. She smiles her honest smile and says, “After I was hired, I could not have received a warmer welcome. I was enchanted by not only the beauty of the place where I work, but by the charm of this lovely city. People sent cards, called and many just stopped by to personally welcome me back.”

It’s easy to forget that this vibrant woman, who seems to be omnipresent at the Casa, is also a wife and mother. Married to Dan Finley, who was recently hired as the President/CEO of the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, they have three grown children, Chad, Kate and David.  Chad resides in San Clemente and is the Director of Security at the Montage in Laguna Beach and in Beverly Hills.  Jenifer was born in the St. Francis district of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1960. Of Greek-German parents, she was raised in a Greek culture. Her father was an attorney and her mother a secretary for a pharmaceutical firm. They divorced when Jenifer was almost 10, and then Jenifer, her mother, and her brother, Peter, moved to San Juan Capistrano, where her mother remarried.

Jenifer attended elementary school in SJC and then transferred in her freshman year to San Clemente High School. In the summer of her sophomore year, she moved back to Wisconsin and lived with her father and grandmother. She graduated from St. Francis High in 1978. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee she received her bachelor’s degree in education, then her master’s in administrative leadership and adult education. After a year of teaching English to elementary school children in Madrid, Spain, Kate began her first semester of law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while David was in his final year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying political science. 

When you wander through the lists of leadership and non-profit organization roles that Jenifer Finley’scareer has logged in the service of others, it’s easy to get lost. There’s a lot there. She has served as the executive director of multiple human service, health or educational nonprofit organizations with a focus on education, and the prevention and intervention of alcohol/drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse and neglect. Her many layers of experience made her the perfect choice of the Casa Romantica Board of Directors as its next Executive Director.  In the final stage of the hiring process as the Casa’s new executive director, Jenifer’s references were called and asked to respond to this question:  “Describe Jenifer in three words.”  Their responses included “passionate, strategic and motivator.”

Her previous leadership positions in southeastern Wisconsin in the greater Milwaukee community have included senior market manager/ government and community relations of Aurora Health Care, executive director of Up Connection Pregnancy and Parenting Support Services and interim director of Stillwaters Cancer Support Center. Additionally, she fulfilled key management roles at the Addiction Resource Council, Center for Breast Care at Waukesha Memorial Hospital as well as being an adjunct faculty member at a private University teaching nonprofit management, marketing and fund development courses.  Regarding her background, she says, “I have always sought to foster strong community partnerships as well as relationships with governmental officials because these strengthened my ability to meet the unique needs of the communities in which I have worked.”

Prior to taking her position at Casa Romantica, Jenifer taught GED classes in reading, writing, math, social studies and science to male inmates in the Milwaukee County Jail. She refers to this time as her “professional pause.”  “It was a period of time in which I was reminded why I had sought a career in nonprofit organizations,” she remarks.

Jennifer is clear about her role at the Casa. “My job is to actualize or bring to life the Casa’s mission-to enrich our community with stimulating and dynamic programs that will be enjoyed in this unique and beautiful venue.” Pausing to reflect she adds, “My job is also to ensure that we offer exceptional experiences in education, music, art, tours, exhibitions and gardens to even more people through program and age diversification as well as geographic expansion. And finally, to ensure the Casa’s longevity with long lasting community partnerships that help us maintain financial stability as well as foster a programming culture of creativity and innovation.”

Jenifer is given guidance to realize the Casa’s vision by a very committed Board of Trustees that includes two of the organization’s founders, Ruth DeNault and Guy Varriano. She also has an incredibly dedicated and talented staff as well as over one hundred and eighty volunteers and docents who donate their time and talents to the Casa. When asked how is the Casa doing, she responded by saying that “During the fiscal year of 2009/2010, Casa Romantica had 14,069 visitors attend our programs including musical performances, speaker presentations, exhibitions, Christmas at the Casa, etc. This was an 8% increase in program attendance from the 2008/2009 fiscal year. Regarding private bookings, during the same period, the Casa had 7,911 visitors attend a private event at Casa Romantica. This was a 40% increase in private event attendance from the 2008/2009 fiscal year.”

Additionally, NET revenue from the Casa’s major fundraiser, The Toast to the Casa (This year it’s on September 24th), increased from $66,356 in 2009 to $75,500 in 2010.  The major factors contributing to the increased Toast NET included $23,000 of in-kind donations as well as decreasing the event expenses by $17,500. Jenifer says, “Regarding private events, we were more than 95% booked for the peak wedding season which is a special time at the Casa. I love to see each bride all dressed up, and how the decorations at the Casa change with each wedding.”

Waving her hand to take it all in, she adds, “I marvel at the community’s support of this cultural center…this level of participation is extraordinary within the nonprofit community. Moreover, the Casa is in and of itself a hugely gratifying treasure for all of us in our community. I invite everyone to  the website to see the breadth and depth of the programming being offered and also to discover the many wonderful ways to become involved in the Casa community.”  b

Visiting Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 4pm, Closed Mondays Admissions:  General admission: $5. Casa Romantica Members: Free. Children 12 and under: Free. Website: www.CasaRomantica.ORG or Phone: (949) 498-2139. (

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