Since coming to Princeton two years ago to become executive director of the municipality’s office of human services, Elisa Neira has been putting her bilingual skills to good use. Originally from Ecuador, Ms. Neira immediately began partnering with local police to improve community relations with minority residents, particularly those whose first language is Spanish. She spearheaded Princeton’s commitment to the Affordable Care Act, manages the Family Support Services Department and has developed a newsletter with resources and information for families. Among other good things, she collaborates with local schools and food banks to provide a supplemental weekend food program for children, the Send Hunger Packing Program, known as SHUPP. Interviewed in her office in Monument Hall, Ms. Neira, who is 27, tells me she’s an “open book.” Here, in her own words, she talks about the job she loves and about her recent love affair with the land of her birth.
“I grew up in coastal city of Guayaquil, where my Dad ran a business he inherited from his father. He was an engineer and traveled a lot, doing electrical work. His family has been in the United States since the 1950s and when I was a child we often visited my grandma and my aunts in the summers. There was always the possibility of my family moving to the United States and I was in an English language school since I was five, at an all girl’s Catholic school. I came here with my Mom, Teresa, and my Dad, Walter, when I was 11, in the spring of 2001.
We first settled in Bridgeton, South Jersey, but I spent the first summer visiting cousins in Canada—I have family everywhere—and when I got back my parents had moved to Woodstown, where they thought the schools would be better for me. My parents still live there and they love it. I like to spend as much time with them there as possible.
Coming here as an immigrant myself and being bilingual, I found that it was natural for me to be helping other immigrants. I grew up in a town that had few minorities and learned how helpful it was to be bilingual in Spanish and English. I did a lot of volunteering. After graduating high school, I went to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. My bachelor’s degree is in social work and Spanish translation and interpretation. As an undergraduate, I was clueless at first, not knowing what to study. I took courses in biology and in French and literature and sociology. Then I took “Introduction to Social Work,” which not only introduced the concepts of social work but also offered experience in the field. It was taught by Duwayne Battle and he became my mentor. I am a doer and social work is much more hands-on than sociology. After that I went on to take a master of social work, client center management at Fordham University in New York.
My first job was with the New Jersey Association of the Deaf-Blind. I was a department of one and so I learned a lot over the four years I was there. Then one day, I saw the Princeton job described on a blog. Although I had experience working for a non-profit, I didn’t have any in local government but I applied. I didn’t believe I would get the job and when I did, I was amazed. It happened; they trusted me!
When I first came to Princeton, I heard people ask, why is there a social services department in this wealthy town? What is there to worry about in Princeton?. I learned very quickly from the nine-member Human Services Commission about the challenges, even here. Still, I wanted to hear about the needs of community,from the people themselves and shortly after I arrived I began a community needs assessment (CNA).
Being a social worker, I knew all about needs assessment and that was my first challenge. I was fortunate that a volunteer who arrived from London about a month after I came here, Deanna, is great with statistics. We did this together. We researched other models and found one in Snohomish in Washington State. We had very helpful conversations with them.
This was, for me, the best way of learning about the community, local organizations and community leaders. We spoke with 200 households, and with people in public housing, affordable housing, and we had four focus groups: Latinos, Seniors, Singles, and Families. The CNA is about to wrap up and we will be presenting a report to the mayor and Council. It’s a long report but it’s important as it will allow us to better serve those in the community who are most vulnerable, people who may have limited resources and, in some cases, limited access to education.
Every day is different. The first business day of the month I meet with those on public welfare assistance, about 35 clients currently come in for cash assistance and/or welfare checks, their only income. For those in need, we may also pay rent or cover their mortgage for up to 12 months, help with transportation, gas money for medical appointments, for utilities. But we don’t just hand out checks, we help with finding jobs, dealing with applications , connecting with other services.
People who qualify for this help may be out of a job and have exhausted their unemployment benefits; they may be physically or mentally disabled and have exhausted or for some reason not qualified for disability relief or they may be in the process of applying for Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability, which can take a long time.
Since I began, the members of the Human Services Commission have provided me with invaluable support and much has been accomplished because of them. This is a team effort and we now have the Send Hunger Packing Program, the ‘Serving Princeton’ newsletter; we have founded the immigration subcommittee and tackled the issue of wage theft, which resulted in getting the landscape workers ordinance in place.
Earlier this year, I went to Washington with Mayor Liz Lempert with the My Brother’s Keeper Challenge program. When I got the email from the mayor about the visit to The White House, I couldn’t believe it. We met with White House staff, although we were hoping, of course, to meet with President Obama, but it wasn’t to be. Traveling by train was great; it allowed us time for debriefing on the way back; there was a lot of information to take in that day. Liz and I felt very blessed to be working in Princeton, which, although it has its challenges, it doesn’t have the serious problems of violence that are faced by other municipalities. After that visit, I came back to Princeton wanting to do more for kids through the My Brother’s Keeper program.
There are so many people doing great things in Princeton. We want to support them and maximize their efforts. One way we can do that is by identifying gaps and help them in measuring outcomes—that’s one thing that busy organizations don’t always have time for, measuring the effectiveness of their efforts.
I live in Lawrenceville near the Lawrenceville-Hopewell trail and I enjoy riding my bike there and kayaking on the Delaware and Raritan Canal and on the lake in Mercer County Park. This part of New Jersey is great for access to New York City. In December of 2013, I went back to Ecuador for the first time in 14 years. It was wonderful and I’ve visited four times in the last two years, traveling the country seeing as much of it as I can. When I lived there with my parents, the coast and Quito was all I knew. Since then, I’ve discovered beaches, mountains, and the Amazon rain forest. I have fallen in love with Ecuador and my goal is to get to know it better. This October, I plan to visit the Galapagos.