New leader at Heart of Camden: 'Housing is a right'
Lisa Kiernan vividly remembers the moment 14 years ago when she handed the keys of a newly constructed house to a Bridgeton single mother.
"Her name was Ramona, and she would stand there across the street watching the construction with her two kids. The day it was done, it was a beautiful thing," Kiernan said, her throat catching slightly, "giving somebody the chance to home ownership."
Kiernan, 49, has been working in community economic development as a homebuyer and lending specialist at the Tri-County Community Action Agency based in Bridgeton. Last week she started her newest job as executive director of Heart of Camden.
The nonprofit organization, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has renovated and sold more than 250 affordable homes and completed dozens of community development projects in Waterfront South, including planting thousands of trees and renovating parks, a greenhouse, theater, and gymnasium.
Kiernan replaces interim director Meyer Pincelli, who took over when Helene Pierson stepped down over the summer. Pierson, who enlarged the organization over her 12 years of leadership, took a job in Salem County.
Kiernan, a jovial mother of two with a hint of a British accent she acquired while living in the United Kingdom as a child, has been described by friends as a "capitalist tree-hugger."
"I believe in doing everything for the people, but there should also be money at the end of the day so the money comes back to the people," she said from her new office last week.
Kiernan has a master's degree in community economic development with a specialization in affordable housing from Southern New Hampshire University. She also completed the senior executive leadership program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
She worked with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla., for two years - after years of nonprofit work she said she wanted to see how the other side operated. Before that, she worked for the Community Development Financial Institution in Columbia, Md., the Economic Development Commission in Williamstown, N.J., and the Greater Germantown Housing Development Corp. in Philadelphia.
Born in Sacramento, Calif., to an Irish mother and a British father, Kiernan traveled often when she was younger, spending 10 years in London and summers in Ireland. She has also lived in Florida, Maryland, and New Jersey. Kiernan currently lives in Moorestown with her 16-year-old son, a sophomore at Moorestown High. Her 22-year-old daughter is in the Navy, stationed near Chicago.
"One of the beliefs I have is, housing is a right. It's not a choice or a gift," she said. "It's something that everybody should be able to have, to be able to afford the roof over their head."
Much of that passion comes from struggles she faced as a single mother.
"They say education, education, education, but if you're working full time and you're a single mom, when can you go back to school to get that education? And if you don't have the education, how can you get the job to afford the child care? It's a circle."
In Camden, two of every five households live below the poverty line, and unemployment is 13percent - nearly twice the national average.
Ben Hill, chief engineer at WIP-AM (610) sports radio and board president of Heart of Camden, said Kiernan's experience and amicable personality got her the job.
"She has an impressive resumé of financial and community development work, a lot of passion. She was very, very energetic and knowledgeable on the subjects," said Hill. "Also she's a real caring person."
Hill said Kiernan started researching grants even before her start date Jan. 13.
"With tighter budgets, the things that get cut are things that have to do with people and the communities," Hill said. "Things that affect people with the least amount of political clout."
Kiernan said her first goal was to get a community planning grant and ask the residents what they need. "You can hire the large groups and you can do the big-scale projects, but sometimes you really just need to do a community meeting, do a survey, go door to door, ask them."
Heart of Camden is renovating an old firehouse to become an art studio space and is completing a writer's loft and cafe. The organization also has 15 renovated units available for home ownership and is expanding recreational activities offered in its gym.
"I've seen a lot of different things," Kiernan says. "I'm hoping I'm bringing not only experience to carry on what's been done, but new ideas so we can do more."