Armando Camacho is a young man who clearly loves his new job as president of Neighborhood House. It is a homecoming for Camacho, who came to the West Side from Puerto Rico with his grandparents when he was six years old. Early on, his family connected with Neighborhood House, and today Camacho credits the services they received there with keeping him “off the streets” while he was growing up.
Camacho participated in a number of the programs at Neighborhood House including youth leadership and English Language Learning. On occasion, his family used the food shelf. His mentors included West Side legends Gilbert de la O, Don Luna, and the late Harry Gaston. Camacho says that his mentors encouraged him to work hard, saying all it takes for a young child to succeed is to have someone to encourage him and listen to him.
Camacho brings to the job a wide variety of life and educational experiences. A graduate of Humboldt High School (Class of 1993), he became interested in special education while volunteering as a teaching assistant. He went on to attend the University of Saint Thomas and graduated from Saint Cloud State University with a degree in special education. He also holds a master’s degree in education from Saint Mary’s University, is licensed as a principal, and recently completed his Director of Community Education and Superintendent Licensures. His wife, Angela, an immigrant from Colombia, is a 6th grade teacher. They are the parents of two children.
Most recently, Camacho was Assistant Director of Alternative Learning Programs for Saint Paul Public Schools, and assisted with the opening of the new Gordon Parks High School. Before that, he was a principal in the Minneapolis schools, including leadership of Whittier International Elementary School. While Camacho was there, Whittier earned International Baccalaureate (IB) certification and its enrollment went up by 70 percent.
Camacho is learning a whole new set of acronyms as he goes from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) to AMOW (Asian Meals on Wheels). He is keenly aware of the challenges he faces as head of the large organization and he admits “the learning curve is huge,” as he makes the transition from education to the non-profit world and social services.
Neighborhood House is a complex organization in terms of the number of programs – there are nine programs, with 95 different categories, including Neighborhood House West, on West Seventh Street, which focuses on English Language Learners (ELL), early childhood programs, and other seasonal programming.
Funding such a large organization is a challenge. It costs $1 million a year just to maintain the building at a basic level. Neighborhood House has always relied on grants from local foundations as a major funding source. As times are changing, foundations have shifted their focus and look to more concrete outcomes with data-driven results. In the future, Camacho says that the organization “can no longer rely on historical funding streams,” and in the future will have to look to national, possibly even international funding.
With new mission, vision, and values statements in place, and a revamped strategic plan, Camacho says that in his first year he hopes to stabilize the organization, maintaining it at the level it is now, with no new growth. He hopes to create “short-term organizational solutions with long-term benefits.”
Neighborhood House has 90 employees and 500 volunteers. Camacho says his goal is to establish a productive, positive culture where they “feel valued, respected, and feel as if they’re giving back to the community.”
During the two years that the old building was being demolished, and the new one was being built, Neighborhood House programs were offered at scattered sites, not all of them on the West Side. Camacho says it is essential that Neighborhood House re-connect with the community, saying, “My focus will be reaching out to the community. I want to be culturally reconnected to meet the needs of the immigrants and the refugees.”
“I understand the community,” Camacho says. “I know a lot of the community leaders. I was a participant.” He believes the Board of Directors made a strong statement by bringing in someone with local ties.
The annual “Embrace the Dream Breakfast” fund-raiser, says Camacho, is a way to re-connect with the larger community, raising money while telling its story. This year’s breakfast will be held on September 19.
The day that I visited, Camacho led me on a tour of the building. When we reached the El Rio Vista Recreation Center, we were literally surrounded by hundreds of kids of every culture. Some were just hanging around talking to each other, some were eating their afternoon snack. In one of the two gyms, a basketball game was going on.
As we watched the kids, Camacho emphasized the importance of programming for youth. He remembers when he was involved with athletics at Neighborhood House and at the Boys and Girls Club, and later in high school. He believes that being involved in activities, such as sports, can make a difference in the lives of the kids.
“It is critical that youth be connected to the community in some way,” Camacho says. “When they are connected they are less apt to cause damage. When they are connected they take ownership … that is so important nowadays as our community continues to change demographically.”
Looking back to his childhood years, Camacho says he was the perfect example of the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” With his mentors and others showing the way, Camacho learned to work hard, make sacrifices, and to set goals. For Camacho, leading Neighborhood House is the fulfillment of a dream. And in living that dream, Camacho says he believes that he is in a unique position to serve.
“I have been preparing for this all my life,” Camacho says. “I’m passionate about this. Right now, I hope to have a long tenure as president.”
Mary Thoemke, Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.