By: Gabrielle Mills, Follow South Jersey Contributing Writer
Jessica Padilla-Gonzelez, the new CEO of the Center for United Methodist Aid to the Community, or CUMAC, has known the importance of community since childhood. Born to Puerto Rican immigrants, Padilla-Gonzalez grew up in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. Her parents were staunch believers in helping others and uplifting their community. At the age of 23 her father opened his own meat market, out of which he provided food, advice and a listening ear.
“My dad was always the go-to for anybody who was in crisis, so was my mom,” said Padilla-Gonzalez. “They were always the pillars of their community.”
Her parents’ deep involvement in their community was instilled in Padilla-Gonzalez and her siblings early in life. Padilla Gonzalez spent her formative years in the garden state, attending Dover High School and studying at St. Elizabeth University where she earned her degree in psychology with a concentration in social work.
“I have always wanted to focus on making a difference and changing the lives of clothes,” said Padilla-Gonzalez. “It’s been a part of me. I saw how transformative it was when my parents would uplift others in their community.”
Padilla-Gonzalez is also a wife and mother of two and attributes her continued activism to her daughters and ensuring their future.
Working with nonprofits has always been a goal for Padilla Gonzalez. She says one of her undergraduate professors said something that has stayed with her.
“He had us write a paper asking ‘where do you see yourself in the next ten years?'” she said. “I said I wanted to be the executive director of a non-profit before the age of 30.”
Prior to her current role at CUMAC Padilla-Gonzalez reached this goal serving as the executive director at The Housing Project. During her time there she was the youngest Latina executive director in her cohort.
“Clients at my previous organization were already getting to us after they had overcome a lot of challenges,” says Padilla-Gonzalez. “They had already established stable employment; they had already done a lot of the legwork to get themselves to a place where they were ready to buy. I was always thinking about all of the challenges they had to overcome to get them where they were. I wanted to know what it was they were facing there and see how I could possibly bring some systematic change to alleviate the journey.”
Now, after 17 years of working to help low income people become homeowners, Padilla-Gonzalez has been named the new Chief Executive Officer at CUMAC. She feels this opportunity is the next step in her commitment to enriching her community. Since her start at the organization a little over a month ago, Padilla-Gonzalez has embraced CUMAC’s trauma informed approach.
“Learning those aspects of the work has been incredible, while I was doing it in my previous space I didn’t know there was a whole education and model.” Says Padilla-Gonzalez in reference to CUMAC’s use of TCIB or Trauma Informed Community Building, a system in which education and resources are provided based on an understanding of a client’s past trauma and current circumstances.
“They’ve done a great job,” said Padilla-Gonzalez of CUMAC’s staff. She says her main focus going forward is to see how she can bring in new partners that will propel the CUMAC’s staff to do what they do best. “My objective is to make sure they have resources.”
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