INDEPENDENCE — Dec. 31, 2019, holds a lot of meaning for Jennifer Hernandez. It is her 10-year wedding anniversary and will mark 10 years of sobriety.
As the portfolio asset manager for Polk Community Development Corporation, she manages 11 properties with a total of 109 units. But she was once homeless and addicted to drugs.
The journey wasn’t easy and she didn’t do it alone. Now she is doing what she can to help other people who have similar struggles.
Hernandez started dating her husband in October of 2008.
“By December of 2008, he gave me the ultimatum of, ‘You’re either going to stop what you’re doing or I’m not going to be with you. Or you could go with me and start a new life.’ And that’s what I chose,” Hernandez said. “From the beginning of 2009 all the way until December of 2009, I was off and on using. It was very like, every two months use and then get back on the wagon and stay clean for a certain amount of time.”
She and her husband set goals to better their situation.
“We would set a goal and we wouldn’t set a date because, as an addict, when you set dates and you don’t achieve them, you feel like a failure,” Hernandez said. “So your first instinct, especially when you’re very early in recovery, is to go back to the behaviors. We would set a goal and just work hard and conquer that goal.”
The first thing on the list was to “get off the street,” she said.
“We got into our first apartment in Salem,” Hernandez said.
It wasn’t the best location, she said, and things were tight, but it still met their goal of being off the streets.
Her husband was working part-time and she got a job at a chicken farm in Woodburn.
“We started with not very much, but we had goals set,” she said.
She and her husband both advanced in their places of employment.
And Hernandez took classes at Chemeketa Community College.
“I knew the harder that I worked, the more I could be there for my kids,” she said.
She had children from previous marriages.
Hernandez said she is grateful for the experience at the chicken farm, but she knew that she could offer more because of her life experiences.
She came upon the job at Polk CDC because she is friends with executive director Rita Grady’s niece.
“I have probably known (Hernandez) for at least 20 years or more,” Grady said. “Then I lost track of her. She was going through some rough times.”
There was a vacancy and Grady reached out to Hernandez.
“She didn’t know a thing about property management,” Grady said. “My philosophy is you give them a good education first.”
For Hernandez in her new role, that meant about a month of training.
“We use federal and state money and those come with a lot of requirements,” Grady said. “She picked it up quick.”
While she needed some training in property management, Hernandez had other skills Grady thought would fit well with the position.
“What she saw in me was my knowledge in that lifestyle and what I could bring to the table,” Hernandez said. “I have every tenant memorized — 109 units. I know them by their names. And I really build relationships with my tenants.”
Grady said Hernandez has been great.
One of her charges has been to establish working relationships with all of the service organizations in Polk County that work with the same people so there is a wrap-around connection, Grady said.
“Everybody has to work together,” she said.
Hernandez said she has worked to build those relationships.
“The one I was really afraid of was corrections, because they knew who I was then,” Hernandez said. “I thought to myself, ‘How am I ever going to build that trust when they knew me to be this way?’”
It was important to her to build those relationships with corrections, child welfare and Polk County Community Health.
“I didn’t want them to see me as who I was, but as who I am today,” she said.
Not being afraid to tell her personal experience is something people appreciate about Hernandez.
“I know there have been people who have come back and said, ‘Thanks for telling your story. Thanks for believing in me,’” Grady said.
Whether people are dealing with addiction, gambling or just trying to dig their way out of poverty, it takes people supporting and caring, Grady said.
“Because I run transitional housing, the folks who knew me back then, and then they see me today, (they say) I’m strict,” Hernandez said. “Change can happen. When I start hearing excuses, it’s like, ‘Oh I used to give those excuses.’ There are two types of mindsets. You’re either going to be a victim or you’re going to be a survivor. And I chose to be a survivor.”
Hernandez has only been at Polk CDC for three years, but says she has grown so much.
“And all because Rita took that chance on me,” Hernandez said.
“We believe in second chances, but you have to do your share of the work and Jennifer knows how to get that out of people,” Grady said. “I would hire her again in a minute.”