By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
VINELAND — Dr. Priscilla Ocasio-Jimenez says she runs road races for fun and for causes, such as for autism in support of a son with the disorder, and for cancer, being a breast cancer survivor herself.
While admitting she’s not out to break any records in the 5Ks and half-marathons she has participated in, her new race could land her in the local history books. Ocasio-Jimenez is trying to become the first Latina to win a seat on the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners.
No one from the Latin American community has sat on the board which governs Cumberland County, even though Hispanics now make up 31.8% of the county’s population, according to 2019 U.S. Census figures.
Last month, the Cumberland County Democratic Party selected the longtime South Jersey educator to replace veteran politico Jim Quinn, who is running for his old seat on the Millville City Commission after six years with the county board.
Running to Make History
“As the first-generation four-year college student in my family and the first Hispanic administrator in my local school district, I understand the challenges that the Hispanic community faces,” Ocasio-Jimenez told Front Runner La Prensa.
“[Being on the board] would allow me to be a positive role model for Hispanic men and women. And just some of them understand and focus on cultural diversity. It would be an honor for me to be elected and make a more diverse Board of Cumberland County commissioners. I just feel like that I could make a difference.”
Ocasio-Jimenez has spent most of her adult life teaching South Jersey children as an educator. She started teaching Spanish in the Vineland School District before joining the Pittsgrove Township School District in 2001. She rose up the ranks to assistant principal and served as principal for Pittsgrove Middle School for about 15 years. She has led Norma Elementary for the past two years, a job she said she “loves.”
Ocasio-Jimenez earned her bachelor’s at Stockton University in Atlantic County and her doctorate from Wilmington University in 2012.
Making A Difference
She said she is aware of how her presence as a person of color in the hallways of her school in front of children and even parents can be a positive influence.
“It’s always encouraging,” Ocasio-Jimenez said. “I’ve tried to do it with all children. You could see the parents who may not be able to speak the language, how we have a connection because I’m fluent in English and Spanish. It’s very important for them to feel at ease. It’s been a blessing. I’m a strong believer in loving everyone.”
While this is her first time running for public office, Ocasio-Jimenez is no stranger to the public spotlight. She was selected as a board trustee to the Cumberland County College board before it merged to become Rowan College at South Jersey. She has also served on the board of a wide range of nonprofits that support young people over her past two decades-plus as an educator.
A Background of Service
Ocasio-Jimenez said her background as an educator and administrator along with her work with children for the past two decades would be of value to the county.
“I have knowledge discussing youth from early childhood through college and this includes, obviously, knowledge on how to effectively oversee governmental budgets and grants,” she said. “I’ve been part of the educational initiatives to provide safe neighborhoods and provide training to residents through classroom and trades.
“There’s just a lot of funding opportunities out there and a lot that could be done. As a commissioner, my goal would be to support the community and assist in any way I can,” Ocasio-Jimenez added.
“I worked with Joe Derella, the director, and I know we would have a good team,” Ocasio-Jimenez said. “When I was a Cumberland County College board trustee, I supported the mission and I knew a lot of things I had done was in the best interest of the youth. I thought [running for county commissioner] would be a good move.”
She has given service to the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern New Jersey, the Pittsgrove Township Arts and Education Foundation, B’nai B’rith International among others.
“I love interacting with people and I love doing stuff to help,” Ocasio-Jimenez said.
The Big Picture
Ocasio-Jimenez received the Hispanic Lifetime Achievement Award from PRAC and the “Men and Women That Transcend Global Leadership Award” from the Hand Foundation of Cumberland County.
While youth is her expertise, Ocasio-Jimenez said she has a wide focus on what she would like to accomplish if elected. That includes expanding workforce development, training, ways to decrease the unemployment rate and keeping students in school.
“I know that is a big topic, not just locally but nationally,” Ocasio-Jimenez said. “We understand that safety is a priority and ensuring an environment that is safe for our students. I can share what we’ve done in our district.”
Ocasio-Jimenez’s family includes three “wonderful” adult children, three dogs and one “grand-doggy.” Her daughter Linda works at Lowe’s in Pleasantville. Jesus Jr. has autism and his twin brother Julio works as a security guard.
“My father was an inspiration to my life,” said Ocasio-Jimenez. “He had a calling and a passion to work with youth. He was always part of a local church. He taught Sunday School, which is where I had the vision of teaching. He was born in Puerto Rico and my mother in the [mainland United States].
She said she can personally relate to the challenge of everyday people as a working mother, caring for a child with autism and surviving her own health scare with breast cancer. One of the committees she has worked on is the PRAC Breast Cancer 5K health awareness annual event.
As for running, Ocasio-Jimenez said she gets special joy out of doing it in recognition of her son and others who have overcome cancer.
“As for the 5K, I have done races mainly for fun; definitely not for racing purposes,” the principal said. “The longest race I completed was a half marathon. I did several of them. Most were Disney races. However, I have done some for a specific cause, such as to bring awareness for autism (for my son) and breast cancer, as I am a breast cancer survivor.”
Her next big race is not on the road, but for the trust of Cumberland County voters. Ocasio-Jimenez has spent a lifetime training for that one.
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