It’s a busy day at Neighborhood House. St. Paul’s sprawling West Side community center is hosting a small Wells Fargo business convention, and people in ties and business blouses are milling about.
Armando Camacho, the center’s 36-year-old president, is weaving through the crowd when he encounters a young janitor shoving a yellow service cart.
“Keeping up with the bathrooms today?” he asks. “Yeah,” the young Hispanic woman says with a resigned smile. “It’s going to be busy in this one.”
“Yeah, it is,” Camacho replies, commiserating. “The downstairs one, too.”
The conversation is notable for what it is not: It isn’t an imperious exchange between head honcho and minion—more like a friendly aside between co-workers.
That could be because Camacho knows what it’s like to grind it out in menial work. “If you don’t speak English or if your skin tone is not light, you have some challenges,” he says. “The struggles are on working, breaking that cycle of poverty, getting the skills you need. That is something that I am very familiar with and I can have empathy for.”
Once the state’s youngest school principal at age 29, Camacho two years ago took over Neighborhood House—a 113-year-old institution that annually provides a food shelf, adult education, agency referrals and many other social services to 14,000 low-income residents and immigrants in St. Paul.
Before any of that happened, however, Camacho was a West Side kid working hard to escape the crushing poverty he felt all around him growing up.
“From early on, I knew what my life would be like if I didn’t make that change in terms of getting an education,” he says. “I did not want to be collecting a welfare check when I am in my forties, fifties, sixties.”
An at-risk kid
Neighborhood House is the managing occupant of the four-year-old, 93,000-square-foot Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building, 179 Robie St. E.
Aside from the education, daycare and food shelf, it houses a fitness room, two large gyms that double as convention halls, a fully outfitted theater complete with professional dressing rooms, even a St. Paul Police Department sub-station.
It’s like a small city within the city.
For Camacho, taking the job was a major but welcome career detour. Having started as a teacher in St. Paul, he earned certification to become an assistant principal and then a principal in Minneapolis.
He’d also earned certification to become a school superintendent, which he was on track to do when he took his current job. It could still happen one day, he says, but for at least the next three years, he says, he is committed to Neighborhood House.
Camacho was born in Puerto Rico. His mother was too young to raise a child, so she gave the boy to her parents, Ramona and Anselmo Figueroa. In 1980, the couple followed Camacho’s uncle Ruben Hernandez, a migrant worker, to St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood after Hernandez enrolled in a local community college.
Camacho was 6, and spoke no English. Nor did his grandparents. But Anselmo Figueroa was able to land work as a janitor at Control Data Corp., in Bloomington, and his grandmother began taking English language courses at Neighborhood House.
Camacho enrolled in the public schools, and began playing football on Neighborhood House’s athletic field—which Camacho’s office now overlooks.
That’s when Gilbert de la O first noticed the boy.
The former St. Paul school board member and long-time Neighborhood House community liaison coached football there at the time. “On the football field, a lot of people took notice of him because he was a really tough kid,” de la O says. “He wasn’t afraid to come up and do that smacking.”
However, just as he was reaching high school, Camacho’s uncle Ruben died. With no other family in the state, his grandparents moved back to Puerto Rico, taking Camacho with them. But he could see no future there.
So at age 15, he moved back to St. Paul, alone.
“The condition my grandparents set was that if I came back I would have to support myself,” he says. “They didn’t have the money to send me clothing and food and so forth. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’”
Quickly, Camacho got a job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant on Robert Street. He lived with the family of a friend—actually, in his four years at Humboldt High School, Camacho lived with four families, one each year.
He also worked as a driver for Prom Catering, and spent some time working as a personal care attendant.
Camacho fit the classic profile of an at-risk kid—a teen-ager with no family supervision. Ramona de Rosales, founder of the Academia Cesar Chavez charter school in St. Paul, remembers Camacho.
“Can you imagine this young man on his own?” de Rosales says. “But he stayed on the straight and narrow.”
Camacho admits he was faced with the full array of urban teen-aged temptations, but he steered clear of them—he had no choice: “Often kids at that age don’t have a whole lot of responsibility so it’s easier for them to screw off because they have a safety net to fall back on,” he says.
“I didn’t have anything to fall back on. The pressure for me was on to get a job and study. The only way out of poverty and the low-income lifestyle I grew up in was to get an education and make something out of myself.”
Eventually, Camacho began working with de Rosales as a student teaching assistant for the Hispanic Pre-college Program, a University of St. Thomas-funded after-school program that was the precursor to Academia Cesar Chavez.
He graduated from Humboldt in 1993 and was recruited to play football at the University of St. Thomas, where he became a starting running back. He left, however, because the school did not offer an undergraduate degree in education.
So Camacho enrolled at St. Cloud State University, but because some credits didn’t transfer, he had to scramble, taking summer and night classes at North Hennepin Community College, Cambridge Community College, Inver Hills Community College, the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State so that he could graduate in four years and start his career as fast as possible—he’d been poor long enough.
After stints as a classroom instructor and assistant principal, Camacho was hired as principal of Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis in 2003.
During his four years at Whittier, the school improved from one of the lowest-performing schools in the state to meeting adequate yearly progress goals set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
He spent the 2007-2008 school year as assistant director of alternative learning programs for St. Paul Public Schools. Camacho then got the Neighborhood House job.
The upward trajectory of his career has been no mistake.
“I quickly learned that I had a skill set to lead and to have a greater impact,” he says. “My whole life is where can I have a greater impact on my community and society.”
His former mentor, de Rosales, thinks he’s having a huge impact on Neighborhood House.
For years, she says, the institution’s influence with the Latino community in the West Side neighborhood had been waning, its mission distracted by a steady influx of new immigrants from places like Burma, Laos and Somalia. Now, she says, Camacho is successfully balancing both interests, and drawing Latinos back in.
Newly appointed St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith agrees.
Smith, a longtime West Side resident and Neighborhood House board member, says Camacho was also instrumental in establishing a police substation inside Neighborhood House, something the community had long wanted.
The police chief says Camacho has also been a steady hand as the institution endured $2.5 million in budget cuts during the past two years, reductions that at one point forced 20 staff layoffs. Neighborhood House now operates on a $5.1 million budget and employs 62 workers.
“I am just totally enthused with what Armando has done since he became the president,” Smith says. “And living on the West Side, I can tell you that the energy there has just grown since he has taken over.”
De la O says Camacho’s success at Neighborhood House is driven by the example he’s set. “What a great role model, having the life that he had,” de la O says. “That old cliché about raising yourself up by the bootstraps? He did that.”