Jennifer Muniga has been executive director of Cameron Community Ministries, an Urban Outreach Community Center in the Lyell-Otis Neighborhood, since 2011.
In that role, she sees first-hand the impact of poverty on youth, as 98 percent of neighborhood residents live in poverty, and her work at Cameron is devoted to addressing that issue.
Muniga, a 2017 Forty Under 40 honoree, recently answered questions about her career path and her work in the nonprofit world.
What was the career path that led you to Cameron Community Ministries?
My degree is in developmental psychology and my background is mental health counseling. I always thought that I would be a child psychiatrist. I started working at the Center for Youth Services in 2006 and realized that I loved this population. I then spent nearly five years with CPS at Bivona Child Advocacy Center before taking a leap of faith and coming to Cameron. I’ve been at Cameron for over eight years now.
What made you want to get into the nonprofit world in general and Cameron Community Ministries in particular?
If I’m being honest, I didn’t intentionally get into the nonprofit world. I remember telling my parents that “I want to help people,” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. From an early age I’ve always known I wanted to help people and that I wanted to work with children, I just didn’t know in what capacity. I started working at the Center for Youth Services here in Rochester right after grad school, and it was there that I fell in love with social justice and helping the vulnerable and disadvantaged. In 2011, I came to Cameron Ministries where I’ve been able to work with children and families in need for over eight years. I’ve learned so much along the way and really enjoy nonprofit work. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I now teach a class on Overview of Nonprofits at St. John Fisher College.
What do you consider to be your biggest successes at Cameron?
The biggest success for me at Cameron has been the recent addition of our Teen Center. For over 30 years, Cameron has served children 5-12 years old, kindergarten to sixth grade. However, after the completion of sixth grade when kids really need positive spaces and adults in their lives, there was no longer any Cameron programming available to them. This gap was always troubling for me, particularly when I’d been here long enough to see a cohort of kids begin in kindergarten then age out right before my eyes. With these kids as motivation, we were able to launch and complete a capital campaign in order to build a Teen Center on our campus that serves youth 13-18 years old, seventh through 12th grade. I can sleep a little easier at night knowing our kids have a place to continue to come to and grow. Seeing the final product of this has been the proudest moment of my career.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your time at Cameron?
The biggest obstacle I’ve faced at Cameron is the little resources available to nonprofits. It costs a lot of money to feed hundreds of people per week, operate three buildings and hire and retain good staff, (paying them a living wage is crucial). Over the past eight years I’ve written hundreds of grants in order to secure funding to offer the incredible programming that we do. In addition, we engage in speaking opportunities at churches, businesses, groups, and individuals, anyone who will listen in order to garner support. All of this to (sometimes) just break even can be exhausting. We know that the neighborhood benefits tremendously from the programming provided by Cameron, and without it many families would fall through the cracks. Even with programs like Cameron, the poverty issue in Rochester is not getting better; this is definitely a daily obstacle.
A lot of Rochester’s nonprofit organizations are led by women. Does that help you feel like you have people you can reach out to if you need help figuring out a problem?
Absolutely! I am all about women helping women, the “Roc Girl Gang” is a real thing and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. When I was a new executive director, I joined the Council of Agency Executives (COAE), which is a large group of all the nonprofit leaders in town. After a couple of years, I joined a small subcommittee of COAE so that I could get to know people more intimately. This was the best thing I ever did. Sitting around the table of women (and a couple men) who have done the work in this community for a long time, and done it well, is a huge benefit. I am usually one of the youngest, and I learn so much from listening to my colleagues. I frequently lean on the group for advice. I’m now a member of the COAE board of directors and have gained mentors and friends galore. I’m extremely thankful for that.
Leading a small nonprofit is a stressful endeavor that provides satisfaction based on the good that you’re doing in the community. How do you gauge that balance between stress and satisfaction and what do you do to make sure the scales aren’t tipping too far toward the stress side of the equation?
In this work, you have to celebrate the small successes. Because poverty remains so pervasive here, it can be incredibly stressful and frustrating. The way I look at it and encourage my staff to as well, is that every day, we have the opportunity to make someone’s day. We meet folks where they are and provide basic needs: a food basket for a single mom who just can’t make ends meet this month, hygiene products for a man just released from jail trying to do things right this time, a hug for a child who had a rough day at school. These small things can have a huge impact on someone’s life. Although we cannot help every single person in a big way, the little things add up and we have to take the opportunity to celebrate those things. We’re all here because we want to help people, and we are; keeping that perspective is huge.
How are you and Cameron adjusting to deal with the COVID-19 crisis?
Cameron has suspended all services except for serving a to-go lunch to neighbors in need. It’s been extremely difficult to send staff and volunteers home, who just want to help be a part of the solution. Cameron is essentially dealing with two public health crises at the same time: coronavirus and hunger/food insecurity. Finding the balance to lower the risk and meet the need is tough.
On a personal level, finding the balance between being a working professional and a mom has come with a steep learning curve these days (note, it’s always hard!). I have to weigh going in to help serve meals at Cameron with then potentially bringing the risk home to my family. I’ve decided to do both (carefully); some days I’m at Cameron and others I stay home to work while conducting homeschool with my children. I feel that I’m needed in both places so for now that’s what I’ll do.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about Rochester?
I love Rochester! I grew up in Wayne County and have been here since 2006. I love the Rochester vibe, the people, the spirit of philanthropy and especially the fall time here. My least favorite thing about Rochester is the snow; I could do without that.
The Women Who Lead Q&A series features women in leadership roles discussing their careers and their roles in the community. If you or somebody you know is interested in being featured, please contact RBJ Editor Ben Jacobs at [email protected]