May 27, 2015

Days Work

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.

Washington D.C

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.

Exploring Ecuador

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.

October 15, 2014

All in a Days Work Shahid Abdul-Karim

Local Princeton Police Officer Shahid Abdul-Karim is well-known in the Princeton community. He grew up at Princeton Community Village (PCV) on Bunn Drive where he is often called upon to discuss his successful career path to teenagers about to embark on higher education and future career choices. His family has deep ties to Princeton, where his grandmother Doris Burrell owned a ladies’ hairdressing salon on Leigh Avenue. After attending Princeton schools and coaching basketball for the high school team, he realized a childhood ambition in 2009 by becoming a police officer. As a patrolman on foot through the streets of Princeton’s five policing zones, he sees a great deal of change in the town. Off-duty, he enjoys coaching high school basketball, working out, and spending time with his two young nephews. At 35 and single, he hopes one day to marry and have kids of his own. Here, in his own words, Officer Abdul-Karim speaks about his life and work.  —Linda Arntzenius

My family moved to Princeton when I was five, we lived with my grandmother for about five months waiting to move to our home on Butternut Row in Princeton Community Village up on Bunn Drive. Everyone knew each other there and I still have friends who lived next door. It was a very ‘homey’ place, a dead-end at that time, so anyone driving ‘up the hill’ was going to the ‘ville,’ as we called it. I have good memories of that time. As kids we always found something to do, catching fish in the creek, playing games of basketball, hanging out on the rocks, making bike trails through the woods.

Coming from Queens, we adjusted pretty well. My mom was a single parent but my dad was in our lives too. He lived in Brooklyn and we kept our New York ties. There were five of us, my two older brothers Khalil and Ibrahim, who were already teenagers, my older sister Najwa and my younger sister Munti. My parents converted to the Muslim religion when we were young and that’s how I was raised. My mom, Khadija, grew up on Leigh Avenue and lives there today with my grandmother, who is 94. So we have a lot of history in this town. My grandmother, Doris Burrell owned the Burrell Salon, part of the duplex where she lives now. My sister Najwa runs a make-up business there today.

All of us went to Princeton schools. We’ve all been successful and we’re pretty tight. Khalil and Munti live in New York City, Ibrahim is in Philadelphia, and Najwa is in Hightstown. I’m the only one still living in Princeton and I’m the only police officer in the family. My mom was a social worker and I was always intrigued by the police. I knew I wanted to work with kids and thought of being a teacher. While working as a teacher’s aide at John Witherspoon Middle School, I met Sgt. Bucchere who was involved in the D.A.R.E. program. That was in 2005. He said, “You would make a good cop,” and told me about the alternate route to becoming a police officer for someone like me who had a college degree. So I took the State police test and the Princeton Borough test. I failed the physical the first time when I completed only seven of the eight pull ups required. But I took the test again and then again. I applied three times before I got the job! I had tested all over the place, for West Windsor, the State police, in Florida. It was tough, but my mom always told me, ‘If you want something, you have got to go get it.’ That’s the kind of person she is and that always stuck with me. It’s true. It took me two and half years to get this job but it was worth it.

I went to Mercer County Community College and then to the Police Academy in Cape May. My undergraduate degree was at Springfield College in Massachusetts. The head basketball coach at PHS, Doug Snyder, had a great impact on me. The Athletic Director John Curtis was a Springfield grad and he told me it would be a good fit for me, and it was.

I’m a laid-back guy. I like to think I’m funny, charismatic, personable. Those are my strengths. My weakness is time management. That’s my biggest problem. Here at the Princeton Police Department, we are on the Pitman Schedule; we work 12 hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The overnight shift can mess up your sleep patterns but that’s the job, we all signed up for it. On any given day it can go from non-stop calls to just two or three during the night. Patrol officers go out on foot; we stop cars and enforce motor vehicle laws. We spend time responding to citizens’ complaints. It’s astonishing to see how Princeton has grown into something like a small city. It isn’t like Newark, or Trenton, or New Brunswick, but we always we keep danger in mind. Having grown up here, I know a lot of people in town and it can be uncomfortable to be called to the home of someone you know, for a domestic dispute, for example, or to have to arrest someone you know. But as a police officer, you have to put that aside, you have a job to do.

I’ve seen Princeton from every angle, from growing up here to teaching, to coaching, and policing. My perspective is a little bit different. I have pride in the town and in our policing of it. There’s a perception that the police are on a power trip. But I know the Princeton Police Department and we are all normal people, we all have families, many officers have kids.

Police need to have a sense of compassion and understanding. You have to have a human side and know how you are going to affect someone’s life. Nothing in this job is black and white. We deal with situations. I believe that you can’t treat everyone the same since every person and every situation is different. As patrol officers we have some discretion, not when it comes to criminal activity, of course, but for things like car stops, whether to give a ticket or not, or for juvenile shoplifting, for example. We call it curbside adjustment. But for adults, it’s different.

Every profession has bad apples, but police are here to help people and we love to have positive interactions. We are good upstanding individuals who try to do the right thing and so national media coverage can sometimes get you down, like the current ‘police bashing.’ We are a pretty young department and Chief Sutter is leading us in the right direction. Patrolmen are known as the ‘backbone of the department.’ I like that and I like the freedom and variety that comes with policing ‘the road.’

August 20, 2014

dayswork

When Bob Bruschi went off to college in Ohio, he was so homesick for Princeton that his parents had an issue of Town Topics mailed to him weekly. It seems fitting then, to mark the popular town administrator’s retirement with this interview. Although he admits to finding it difficult to be leaving his desk at Witherspoon Hall just at the moment when several civic projects that have been close to his heart for years are beginning to take shape, he’s looking forward to his new role as an organizer of golf-centered events for a nonprofit organization that will take him to Palm Springs this January.Linda Arntzenius

 

“The job I do now was never on my radar as a kid. Back then I wanted to be a professional baseball player until reality set in and I realized it was never going to happen. I grew up in Princeton; my father worked for a time in the comptrollers office at Princeton University and my mom had her hands full raising me. I went to Littlebrook, Community Park, and Valley Road School — there was no John Witherspoon Middle School in those days — and then to Princeton High School.

For my undergraduate degree, I went to the University of Dayton, in Ohio. I’ve no idea why but it seemed a good idea at the time. I studied physical therapy and education with an eye to getting a job but when I graduated in 1974 there were no teaching jobs so I went directly into a master’s program at Springfield College where I studied public administration with a focus on parks and recreation. After that I taught phys. ed. for a couple of years and also coached baseball and football at Princeton Day School. When West Windsor Township created a new position in recreation, I left teaching. The job was part-time at first but I managed to persuade them that it should be full-time. And the rest is history, as they say.

Early on in my days with the Borough, the biggest challenge was an austere budget and a lot of things to accomplish. By the time the Borough of Princeton and the Township of Princeton consolidated [January 2013], the Borough had a solid budget and brought a surplus of some $5 million to the “marriage,” if I can call it that.

There are two high points of my career here in Princeton. One is the building of the downtown parking garage and mixed use residential building. That whole redevelopment was regarded as highly risky, politically and financially, and it’s one that I take pride in; probably one of the single biggest things of my career. That and consolidation, which is a feather in everyone’s cap. I was always in favor of consolidation. Even as a kid, I could never understand why there were two Princetons. I take great pride in my role and in being here to usher in the change.

The Future for Princeton

There are several projects that I would like to have seen to completion. One is the PFARS [Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad] rebuilding project, which will leave a great opportunity at its old site by the Princeton Shopping Center. As I see it, this would be perfect for affordable housing. Second, is the expansion of the fire house, which has been talked about for some three years. Princeton’s three fire companies do well with the separate facilities they have but it would be great to have all three merged and functioning as one and I would have enjoyed working with the volunteers on that, especially because I was an active member of Mercer Engine Company 3 for 25 years. I started after college but I don’t do very much these days; I’ve been more of a social member these last 15 years. The third project is the lot on Franklin Avenue, which the municipality will be receiving from Princeton University. That would be another great opportunity to partner with the Princeton Housing Authority and Princeton Community Housing.

Affordable Housing

My wife Linda and I first met when we were both working for the Princeton Recreation Department one summer. Linda retired from teaching at Riverside a couple of years ago. We’ve been married for 39 years and have two daughters, Amy and Kristen. Amy has two kids, Emma, three and Will, who is five and a half going on fifteen. Kristin is expecting her first child in December.

When we were starting out, my wife and I wanted to live in Princeton but there was nothing we could afford. We didn’t earn enough to be able to buy even the cheapest $79,000 house that was available on Harrison Street at the time and we earned too much to be eligible for a subsidy. That always gnawed at me and I believe that affordable housing is an important issue for Princeton.

If Princeton values the diversity that makes it such a unique place to live, then anything the local government can do to provide housing options should be embraced. That’s what a local authority should be doing. Unlike many other towns in New Jersey, Princeton has always looked for an opportunity to create affordable housing, something that needs to be subsidized. It is a tremendous asset to a town to have its police officers, teachers, firemen, and other employees living in the town where they work. It gives them an attachment to the town. Speaking from a personal point of view, my job has never been work. I grew up here, I’m part of the fabric of Princeton, and I believe it is very important to keep those who work here living here.

Retirement

My philosophy with respect to retirement has never been to think of it as a time of not working. A couple of years ago I got interested in events centered around golf and I’ll be involved in a PGA event in January in Palm Springs, California. The Humana Challenge Tour was formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic and I’ll be working on it as soon as I leave my desk here in Witherspoon Hall, which should be around the end of October. Just think, no snow shoveling for me this January.

As for what I will miss? I’ve been blessed to have an incredible staff who have Princeton’s interests to heart and who have supported my initiatives. This is far from being an 8-hour-a-day job; you spend a lot of time with the people you work with, sometimes more than with your family. People make sacrifices for the job. I’ll miss the whole daily routine and those personal interactions. One thing that I will not miss, however, is attending meetings of the governing body. I’m ready to go, especially as I am young enough to make a contribution to where I’m headed in the future.

August 14, 2013

Pam Ruch 1

Pam Ruch might be a horticulturist but Morven Museum and Garden staffers think of her as a “superstar.” For more than 10 years, she’s been taking care of the gardens and guiding a team of dedicated volunteers. So it might come as a surprise to those who know Pam’s classes on nature journaling or her regular “Helping Gardeners Grow” blog to discover that prior to exercising her considerable talents in the outdoors, she worked for many years indoors doing tax preparation. Now that she has found her natural niche, she has been spreading the word about organic gardening through writings in magazines, newspapers, and via radio interviews. Here, she talks about her work in her own words.

—Linda Arntzenius

“I grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Berwyn and I definitely did not get my love of gardening from my parents. My father was a mechanical engineer working for a pharmaceutical company. My mother was a scientist with a master’s degree in bacteriology. I was one of seven and I set out to be an artist, attending the Tyler School of Art. I did watercolors for a time but eventually I got disillusioned about making something that I then had to find a place for. Gardening satisfies my creative impulse. The work I do now is exciting and, at times, challenging.

I’ve always been interested in gardening but I never thought it would become my career. When I was 40, I went back to school to become a horticulturist. It was my goal to get my degree by the age of 50, which I did. [Editor’s Note: she graduated summa cum laude from Temple University in 2000] Then, a couple of years ago, I took an online master’s in environmental science at Green Mountain College, Vermont. The program emphasized writing and I discovered field journaling which brings art, science, and horticulture together. With that, I found my mission, a way of helping people care about and delve into the environment.

Field Journaling

Field or nature journaling is about recovering the outdoor experience, about exploration and observation. Journals can include drawing, data, prose, poetry. The practice deepens your relationship with nature. In my own journal, I’ve written about ants trying to take an earthworm underground, about violets having another underground flower. That’s their ace in the hole, so to speak, allowing them to propagate widely.

I love the details of nature and I would love to lead more people toward that kind of involvement. I find nature fascinating and fascination can be infectious.

When I graduated from Temple, the restoration of Morven was underway and I became the curator of landscape, overseeing the garden restoration, while also working at Organic Gardening magazine. Thursday is Morven’s volunteer day and I usually arrive around 9:30 a.m. Volunteers are a real treasure. We figure out what needs to be done, mostly propagation and weeding, and do it. The intern program that I set up with Isles has just ended. Many of the interns live in the city of Trenton and find nature to be a scary place with spiders and bees. At Morven we try to replace fear with fascination. Everything in nature has its place.

Because Morven is an historic landscape we are restricted with respect to plantings. The Colonial Revival Garden dates to Helen Hamilton Shields Stockton [1864-1949]. With no exact list of her plants, we asked the Nature Conservancy for advice. Period photographs helped identify plants and I did some reading, especially the work of the American landscape architect Ellen Shipman [1869–1950], to get a feel for what a gardener of the period would be thinking.

A garden isn’t a static thing and what we are aiming for is not an exact replica. Because of contemporary conditions and pests that wouldn’t be possible. But what we can do is capture the spirit of a Colonial Garden from the early part of the 20th century. That’s the challenge at Morven.

Understanding Nature

My blog is a way of writing for myself. If others enjoy it, so much the better. I also write web articles for the Home Garden Seed Association and grow vegetables for the farm-to-table restaurant at the Glasbern Inn in Fogelsville, Pa. When you understand how nature works you are in a better position to work with it. Right now we are having a lot of rain late in the growing season. We really need sunshine for the next three weeks to avoid blight. Because of the pathogens out there just waiting for such wet conditions, many farmers are growing tomatoes in cold frames to control the amount of water and maintain dry leaves.

I live my life differently from most. My security is in my skill set and I’m always looking to add new skills, to make sure I’m useful in multiple ways. That allays any anxieties about the future. I volunteered to write and edit Morven’s newsletter. It’s work that I find satisfying in the same way that tax preparation once was. It’s like a puzzle, someone brings you a mass of complicated stuff and it’s my job to give it order and present it in a pleasing format that makes everybody happy.

By the way, never ask a gardener for her favorite plant. Favorites change constantly. Right now it’s a Farfugium but I’m also keen on several varieties of succulents, a dwarf evergreen, and several vines. The list could go on. As for dislikes, there’s a particular weed here at Morven, a pinella, a narrow plant with an underground corm that I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

 

April 18, 2013

JonCrossTall and slim with curly dark hair, Jon Cross has a craggy look that most actors would kill for. Add a gravelly voice and you’re tempted to wonder why Mr. Cross has spent his life in the restaurant business rather than on the stage. And then he tells you. As a matter of fact, he is in the acting business. When not tending bar at the Alchemist & Barrister (A&B), Mr. Cross might well be learning lines for a voiceover commercial, a film, or a stage play. Just don’t ask him for specifics, like most actors he’s a tad wary of jinxing his next part. Here in his own words, is what he is willing to say.

—Linda Arntzenius

“I was born in Los Angeles and grew up there until the mid-60s when my parents moved to the Princeton area. My father, Aaron Cross, was a developer and he was drawn to New Jersey because of the housing boom. He bought land and developed Rossmoor and Clearbrook at a time when communities for the over-50 age group were a new idea. My mother, Marian, ran the Lamplighter Christian Bookstore that is now next to Hoagie Haven. After I graduated from Princeton High School I went straight into the restaurant business. In fact, I’ve been working in the business since I was 14 and it has taken me all over, to St. Croix in the Caribbean, to Florida, California, and to South Carolina. I co-owned a bar/restaurant in Atlantic City for a time, called 12 South.

I settled back in Princeton in order to raise my son, Jon, who’s now 28. His mother, Patty, and I met at Good Time Charlie’s, where she worked for a while. It was a landmark in Kingston back in the day. We lived close to the Princeton Shopping Center where I had a small cafe, known simply as The Cafe. It’s now Camillo’s. When people around town or here at the Alchemist & Barrister recognize me but aren’t sure from where, it’s most likely from my days at The Cafe, which did a lot of business. I met a lot of people there.

My son now lives in Los Angeles and is an actor and sommelier. He combines both on his television show Through the Grapevine, which goes out on the Bite Size Network. He introduces wines for young people looking for good wine at a good price. He loves what he does and is very good at it.

That goes for me too. I love Princeton and especially working here at the A&B. Since I settled back in Princeton about five years ago — my Mom lives in Hopewell and it’s nice to be near her — I’ve been working on and off for chef/co-owner Arthur Kukoda. Artie and I go way back to when he was chef at Scanticon in Forrestal Village, and I’ve been coming to the A&B since before he opened 40 years ago. It’s a place that attracts a real cross section of the community, locals and people who’ve been at Princeton University and come back to visit. It’s a real bar. We get students as well as professionals and construction workers. And even though Artie’s constantly making changes to the restaurant menu and extending the space — a renovation of the dining room is in the works — there are some things that have stayed the same and people like that continuity. Besides Artie makes great food. When I’m here, I eat lunch and my favorite is Artie’s hamburger. It’s a custom blend of meats that I’m not sure I should divulge but it’s made with ground chuck, short rib, and hanger steak that is raised in the mid-West and is grain-fed. Artie tells me that if you want flavor, it has to be grain-fed.

Because of The Cafe and working at the A&B three days a week, I know a lot of people in Princeton. That’s how I got into acting. One day a fellow from McCarter Theatre came by for lunch at The Cafe and told me I had a great voice. He said I should do voiceovers. So I took him up on it. I did some commercial work. Then, one day, I met two filmmakers, brothers, who needed some voice work done. I was recommended and it worked out. One thing led to another and they offered me an on-screen role in their small independent film. Since then I’ve done a few films. In Benny the Bum, I played a bookie. I always seem to get seedy characters, but I enjoy playing bad guys. Having been in the restaurant business I’ve met a lot of characters with stories to tell and I can draw on that history. I hate to talk too much about upcoming projects in case I jinx the work, but I will say that I’m now working on a part in a play. I think of my late-blooming acting work as a hobby that has become a part-time career. It’s fun and I love it. Even as a kid, I admired actors and filmmakers, so it’s a great to get calls from casting agents. When they’re looking for ‘a world-weary older gentleman,’ they come to me. All the wrinkles I acquired in the restaurant business are finally paying off!”