About Shirley

Shirley Nakawatase in a dark green Mariners jacket points to the large gold balloons that spell celebrate overhead.

Shirley is a longtime resident of Imperial Beach, first arriving in 1963 when her father was stationed here at North Island. She went to Westview Elementary, Mar Vista Middle School and then Mar Vista High, where she was active in cross age teaching, drama, music and was a founding member of the NJROTC unit. Alongside 23 other students, Shirley and her other cadet members bonded together to establish a culture of mutual care and respect that continues to live on in the award winning unit.

She joined the local Girl Scouts in 1967 and later became a lifetime Girl Scout in 2004 when she became a troop leader. For the next 12 years she volunteered her time and energy to her troop including organizing yearly trips to expand the horizons of her scouts through new experiences such as cruises, international excursions, and historical landmarks.

She is a past president of the Imperial Beach Boys & Girls Club, a youth development agency ensuring that the young people in our community have access to services dedicated to their mental, moral, and physical development during critical periods of growth and leadership development. With a special interest in meeting the needs of low-income community members, the program offers arts and crafts, counseling programs, and homework help programs. Shirley’s commitment to the children of her community has driven her to champion for their safety and protection in Imperial Beach.


Shirley Nakawatase and six others standing next to a tractor in front of Mar Vista High School. Three of the others are holding shovels and a rake.
Headshot of Shirley Nakawatase in a green Kiwanis shirt holding a can of Coke

Alongside this, since 1991 Shirley has been a longtime member of the Kiwanis Club, which is a global organization of local volunteers working to improve the world, “one child and one community at a time”. The Club puts together local events and scholarships for students aimed to support their growth and success. Shirley and her husband have welcomed the Club to their own community garden in order to bring neighborhood children and their families together to socialize and do good things.

Shirley is the Immediate Past Chair for the San Diego Regional Center and works to connect people with disabilities and their families to resources that aid them in living a more fulfilling and independent life. The Regional Center works in collaboration with the community to identify each individual’s needs and works to develop new ideas and services in order to reflect the unique cultural and ethnic diversity.

She went on to complete her Accounting degree at San Diego State University before becoming part of the adjunct faculty at Palomar College.

In 1990, she started her successful CPA business in Imperial Beach which continues to support many locals, businesses, and organizations to this day. Her work connects her to the community in another aspect that allows her to support her neighbors and her town. Boasting a 5-star rating on Yelp, many reviewers note Shirley’s trustworthiness, attention to detail, and professionalism as to why they are long-term or plan to be returning customers.

Shirley Nakawatase and two of her co-workers poking out from behind the brightly colored see through arches of the Imperial Beach sign.
Eleven people wearing business casual style clothes stand next to one another and are facing the camera. Shirley Nakawatase is on the far right in a black business casual suit.

Shirley was appointed to the Design Review Board by Mayor Mike Bixler in 1991 where she served until just a few years ago. The Board is charged with the review of certain proposed development projects to determine whether or not the proposed development conforms with the policies of the City’s General Plan, Certified Local Coastal Program, Zoning Standards and Design Review Criteria. The Design Review Board plays a large role in protecting the Classic Southern California atmosphere of the City. Within this position, Shirley’s local government experience alongside her own personal experience living and working in Imperial Beach made her a strong voice for preserving the culture and experience of the city.

In 2014 she and Leah Goodwin brought back the Sun and Sea Festival, the renowned Imperial Beach Sandcastle event that originally began in 1981 which grew into the largest sandcastle competition in the United States, and has held a special place in residents’ hearts ever since. The three day affair includes local food, music, and vendors- some of which are well known faces in the community that so many look forward to seeing. Shirley has worked hard to ensure that the Imperial Beach community could continue to hold onto such a long held tradition and will continue to give her support towards putting on the yearly festival.

Shirley Nakawatase and Leah Goodwin stand back to back holding hands in front of a fence around a large sandcastle being built.
Shirley Nakawatase and her husband, Leon Benham, in front of their community garden bed next to the estuary. They are both wearing shirts with kiwanis logos on the front.

She raised her daughter, Mariko Nakawatase here in Imperial Beach and married another native, Leon Benham (Farmer Leon). The couple live in their home near the Tijuana Estuary with their small flock of chickens and a beautiful community garden tended by Farmer Leon. The garden project is a place where people can come together, plant, socialize, and do good things. They welcome the community to come by and visit any day.

  • Plank Owner of the Mar Vista NJROTC
  • Lifetime Girl Scout
  • Past President Imperial Beach Boys and Girls Club
  • Distinguished Kiwanis member 30 years (Governor’s Cabinet and Lt Governor)
  • Member of Daughters of the American Revolution
  • Member Imperial Beach Woman’s Club
  • Member Chula Vista Woman’s Club
  • South Bay Union School District Bond Budget Committee
  • South Bay Union School District School Closure Committee
  • Immediate past Chair of the San Diego Regional Center
  • 25+ years Chair of the Imperial Beach Design Review Board 
  • Treasurer for SANCAL for the County of San Diego 
  • Co-Chair Sun and Sea Festival
  • President Mar Vista Alumni Association
  • Partner of HNK CPAs in Imperial Beach and El Cajon