An Unforgettable Ride Continues for Celena Roldán

February 9, 2016 | Chicago, IL

Celena Roldan

Celena Roldán will leave Erie House in March to become the new CEO of American Red Cross of Greater Chicago & Northern Illinois. FILE PHOTO

Ambulance lights danced in the twilight air outside of the Erie Neighborhood House child care facility in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Although not an uncommon sight at 1701 W Superior St—the building also houses a bustling family health clinic—this visit hit closer to home for the Erie House child care staff.

Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) personnel accompanied the first responders, following up on an abuse and neglect report filed by the social work team at Erie House. The children in question were to be treated at a local hospital and eventually taken into custody of the state.

Without hesitation, three Erie House staff members—Celena Roldán, director of child care; child psychologist Elizabeth Yelen; and social worker Gabriela Basurco—climbed into the ambulance. Dressed in high heels and formal wear, Roldán had been scheduled to attend a reception for the nonprofit community that evening. Yelen and Basurco would have been going home at this hour any other day.

“They literally thought we were going to hand over these kids to the ambulance,” recalls Roldán, who cancelled her plans in order to stay with the children that evening at the hospital. “I remember the DCFS investigators saying they couldn’t believe all three of us were there until 11:00 o’clock at night.”

That was in 2006. Roldán had only recently advanced to the position of director of child care at Erie House, having served as social worker for the agency for the previous six years. She would serve in that role for 5 years before being named executive director in 2010.

“The greatest challenges I had as a social worker were around abuse and neglect of children and the trauma that I had to see and navigate,” she says from behind her executive director’s desk, now in the last month on the job before entering her new role in March as CEO of American Red Cross of Greater Chicago & Northern Illinois. Her experiences granted her invaluable perspective as executive director.

“It’s easy to forget what you’re fighting for,” says Roldán, reflecting on leading an organization that employs 145 individuals and serves 5,000 community residents each year. “You’re spending a lot of time dealing with cash flow projections or finance numbers or talking about money,” she says. “I always benefit from that fact that I know these kids and these families.”

Erie House Becomes a Place of Growth
In many regards, Roldán was well-groomed for the roles she has played at Erie House over the past 15 years. The daughter of Hipolito and Ida Roldán, she grew up in nearby Oak Park, a Chicago suburb that, well, shudders at the suburb label and places value on progressive social views and its commitment to multiculturalism. Her father is the CEO of Hispanic Housing Development Corporation and a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” recipient; her mother, a licensed clinical social worker whose doctoral dissertation addressed the experiences of Puerto Rican individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

Celena Roldan

At a 2013 immigration rally against U.S. deportations, Roldán was arrested for committing an act of civil disobedience. FILE PHOTO

Roldán credits her upbringing with shaping her vocational path. “The example my parents set—showing compassion, celebrating diversity, giving back to the community—helped guide my hopes and aspirations,” she says. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from University of Wisconsin–Madison and worked for a transitional housing program before landing at Erie House.

“I felt immediately welcomed,” recalls Roldán. “I never once felt like there weren’t people there to support and help me.” Roldán immersed herself in her role, working alongside Yelen and other staff members to coordinate and deliver services to low-income families enrolled in the child care and school-age programs at Erie House.

Roldán’s passion and leadership skills did not go unnoticed during those early years at Erie House. When she applied for the position of director of child care in 2006, then executive director Ric Estrada asked her if she could see herself in his role during her interview. “I’ll never forget that,” says Roldán. “Erie House is a place that really lets people grow. I value that the organization sees potential in you—maybe before you even see it in yourself.”

Estrada, who left Erie House in 2010 to work for the City of Chicago before becoming President & CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, believed Roldán would succeed in whatever role she played at Erie House. “Celena came to Erie House as an amazing, caring social worker,” says Estrada, “and she has become a leader and champion for human rights—both in Chicago and on the national level—and an example of the boundless talent found within the Latino community.”

During her tenure as executive director, Roldán has guided Erie House through countless challenges related to funding for its vital programs and services. She has also ensured that the organization remains a leading voice on issues impacting the community it serves, immigration reform and education most notable among them. Roldán’s external commitments have included service on the City of Chicago’s Community Development Commission and as a board member for National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization; fellowships with the Leadership Greater Chicago and German Marshall Fund programs; and a host of other task forces and commissions.

At American Red Cross—one of the world’s most recognizable, impactful nonprofit organizations—Roldán will oversee a chapter that encompasses 12 million people throughout the region. She joins a litany of past Erie House directors who have carried on a legacy of service to others after leaving Erie House. Her predecessor, Estrada, was named to the prestigious Crain's Chicago Business 2015 “Who’s Who in Chicago” list in recognition of his leadership at Metropolitan Family Services. Other former directors Merri Ex, Rafael “Rafa” Ravelo and Esther Nieves have also remained active advocates for justice in leadership roles after departing Erie House.

But beyond the list of accolades, Roldán acknowledges what she will forever cherish are the relationships she has built over a decade and a half.

When she clicked “send” on the email to her staff to announce her resignation, the first reply she received was from child care family worker Alissa Viesca. The two had first met at Erie House when Roldán became the social worker and Viesca was ten years old and enrolled in the school-age program.

Viesca describes herself as “difficult to work with” when she was younger, but insists Roldán never faltered in providing her with the support she needed. “She was my counselor,” she says. “She has been there for me throughout the years—even now. I feel like I have known her my whole life.”

Fifteen years later, Viesca is a graduate of DePaul University and serves as the family worker in the early childhood education program at Erie House.

Celena Roldan

Even as executive director, Roldán made an effort to stay connected to the participants impacted by the programs and services Erie House provides. FILE PHOTO

“Through some of the most challenging times in her life, Erie House was able to intervene, take care of and support her when she needed to be here more than anywhere else,” says Roldán, who counts hiring Viesca as one of the moments she will never forget.

“I know in my heart,” she says, “that I’m never going to work with people the way that I worked with people here.” After saying this she pauses, the emotions associated with this declaration visibly impacting her. “The level of investment and dedication of the people who work here, who give so much of themselves and are willing to do whatever it takes to serve the community and carry out the mission of the organization—that’s invaluable.”

A Vision of Continued Impact
The Erie House board of directors is currently engaged in an extensive search to hire a new executive director. Board president Patty Perez feels has no doubt the organization will continue to thrive. “Erie House is so much bigger than any one person,” says Perez, who said as much to staff members gathered for an agency-wide meeting in January. “We are going to miss Celena, but the mission of Erie House—to promote a more just, inclusive society—will be carried on by the outstanding staff and volunteers who have made us successful for the past 145 years.”

Estrada echoes this sentiment. “Erie House’s strength remains in its board of directors and staff,” he says. “The organization has always found capable, caring and committed leaders. There is no doubt in my mind that it will continue to thrive.”

Upon Roldán’s resignation announcement in December, the board of directors appointed Erie House senior director of development and communications Kirstin Chernawsky to serve as interim associate executive director. She possesses a strong knowledge of the organization’s mission and structure, has built relationships with key stakeholders and has the capacity to secure continuity for Erie House as it prepares for the transition.

“It has been such a privilege for me to work alongside Celena,” says Chernawsky, who joined Erie House in 2013. Her development department has secured increased individual giving and foundation revenue over the past three years—a critical achievement in light of the state budget crisis that has threatened the human service infrastructure in Illinois. “Celena’s passionate leadership and commitment to working on behalf of immigrant families are an inspiration to me and to so many others—both here at Erie House and within the broader nonprofit community,” she says.

Chernawsky also served as acting executive director in spring 2015 during Roldán’s month-long German Marshall Fund fellowship. Perez and her fellow board colleagues view this experience as an asset as they continue their search for a new executive director, confident that the organization is in good hands and that a seamless transition awaits.

Celena Roldan

Roldán's last day as executive director will be at the Future of Promise awards dinner on March 3. PHOTO COURTESY ZUNO PHOTOGRAPHY

Roldán, whose last day on the job will be at the annual Future of Promise awards dinner on Thursday, March 3, is eager to watch her soon-to-be former colleagues continue to provide programs and services that empower Chicago’s immigrant community. “Erie House is going to be great,” she says with a tone of confidence. “The success of Erie Neighborhood House is grounded in our mission and the people who work here.”

That ambulance ride is something that has stuck with her throughout her various roles, and it will probably remain with her in future endeavors as well.

“No one here walks around with their job description in hand,” she says, leaning forward with her hands clasped on her desk as she reflects on the culture of Erie House. “This is what people do because they know it’s important to the work we do for children and families.”


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