Community Leadership: El Centro's Roberto Hernandez recognized for community engagement

Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

Roberto Hernandez, director of El Centro, “is kind, and humble, no doubt, but he is no roll-over,” according to Dave Brown, associate director of the John H. Pace, Jr. '39 Center for Civic Engagement. Speaking to why Hernandez deserves the 2019 Pace Community Engagement Award, Brown highlighted Hernandez’s dedication to his service, ability to unite people to work for the common good, and constant willingness to do more for others. 

The annual Community Engagement Awards are given to Princeton University faculty, administrators and community partners who in the past year have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to service and social justice that transcends the classroom. Individuals who have inspired others on campus to join their efforts and who through their service to humanity have responded to needs in the world are especially recognized.

Hernandez was honored for his many contributions to service, notably his role in the creation of Anchor House, a youth outreach center that offers support, housing to New Jersey youth in crisis. At Anchor house, these at-risk youth are given the resources and assistance they need to thrive. “Roberto was key in it not only being built, but being accepted. But he has been doing this work for so long and has accomplished so much this doesn’t even make the conversation...That is because Roberto has an approach to the work where he develops relationships, makes things happen, and deflects the credit. I love the idea of giving him some now,” said Brown.

Roberto Hernandez

Roberto Hernandez, director of El Centro in Trenton, NJ, with the Community Engagement Award from the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. Photo by David Kelly Crow

In introducing Hernandez at the award ceremony at Prospect House on November 5, 2019, Brown recounted Hernandez’s journey from growing up in Puerto Rico, to attending The College of New Jersey, Rutgers University and Seton Hall Law School, as well serving in the U.S military, where he taught basic survival skills as well as offered counseling to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hernandez also founded El Centro, which has been a trusted resource in the Trenton area’s Spanish-speaking community for those seeking help with basic needs, job training, English as a Second Language (ESL) training, parenting classes and immigration services. For more than 16 years, Princeton student volunteers have provided free ESL classes as El Centro has connected clients to the services they need to become better integrated into the community and local economy. 

“You would be hard- pressed to come up with a better way to help improve someone’s lot in life than to help them learn the language of their new homeland,” said Brown. 

Gabriela Rivera '20, one of the student leaders for El Centro with the Student Volunteers Council, noted how Hernandez and his partners at El Centro “care so much about the people they serve, and they are always accommodating and grateful for our work with them...We are so grateful for his leadership.” Another student volunteer, Hyojin Lee '20, praised how “Roberto has made his facility (El Centro Catholic Charities in Trenton) available to the student volunteers of Princeton and the community members of Trenton. This has led to stable ESL classes for the community.”

Ares Alivisatos '21 teaching at El Centro

Princeton students, like Ares Alivisatos '21, teach English as a second language classes at El Centro. Photo by Isometric Studio

Hernandez himself has spoken about the communal effects of the ESL classes that El Centro offers. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the relationships that we make," he said. "When the volunteers touch one individual, they touch the whole family ... They can be better advocates for their children and themselves because they are more empowered. They are better parents, better neighbors, and better community members based on the fact that they know better English.”

Brown concluded his speech noting how consistent Hernandez has been in his work: “This has been no coincidence. This has been a lifetime. And for that, Roberto, we thank and honor you. Congratulations.”