For Carmen Rodriguez, life has been a journey of obstacles and achievements, from her roots
in Puerto Rico, through her family’s journey to Philadelphia and Camden, to her life as a wife and mother of four – who is also a three-term Camden County Freeholder and a high school science teacher.
Her family worked hard to build a future for themselves and their children. Her younger brother had cerebral palsy, so Carmen understood from an early age that life isn’t fair to everyone, and that those who are strong should help those who need support. She also learned the value of education, graduating from Camden’s Woodrow Wilson High School, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Science with a minor in Spanish from Rutgers University as well as two Master’s Degrees: a Master of Education degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from the College of New Jersey and a Master of Chemistry Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working to complete her EdD.
Carmen’s weekdays begin at dawn at her Merchantville home, where she gets her children, ages five to 16, off to school before leaving for Brimm Medical High School, the Camden magnet school where she teaches chemistry, physics and environmental science. After school she’s often at her Freeholder Office in Camden, working with the County departments she oversees as Freeholder Board liaison. Those include the Department of Health and Human Services, the Board of Social Services and the Department of Children’s Services. In the evenings she can find herself at community events or meetings in her role as an elected official, while juggling family dinners and homework supervision.
When everyone is asleep and the house is quiet, she will sometimes end the day with lesson plans or working on her EdD.
“Juggling all those roles is definitely a challenge,” she says. “You need a lot of family support. I have that, so I can do everything. My children are at the center of my life. To be a good parent, you need to always be loving and never lose your temper – unless it helps strategically to get their attention and make a point about the importance of an issue. You also have to talk with your kids whenever the opportunity arises. You need to find those ‘teachable moments’ and grab them when you can.”
She brings an analytical and collaborative approach to goals and problem-solving, tempered with a strong dose of compassion, to her role as freeholder.
“It’s all about caring about people and having compassion for them,” she said recently in an interview in her office in the County Courthouse Building. “It’s about listening to people, being sensitive to their wants and needs, and then taking the advice of people around me to make good decisions on policy and how to implement policy.
“I got into politics to bring balance and to give people an opportunity to be heard,” she said. “Over the past two years, with state and federal cuts to health and social services, it has been a great challenge to continue to provide important services that people need without overburdening taxpayers.”
Right now, she and the County’s Health Department are immersed in the planning of Camden County’s annual Women’s Health Conference, scheduled for Saturday, September 29th at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees. The all-day event includes a complimentary continental breakfast and box lunch, workshops, exhibitors and keynote speaker Erika Von Tiehl, co-anchor of CBS 3. The costs of the conference are paid for by sponsorships from the private sector.
“The Women’s Health Conference is an excellent example of a service the County brings to County residents,” she said. “This year, we’ve formed a Women’s Advisory Committee for the conference, with stakeholders from the health and financial industries, non-profit organizations and government to advise on the workshops we do and the subjects we cover. For example, we will be adding a workshop on pre-teen and teen girls’ identity and goal-setting issues and how they can find their own path. It is women networking with women about health and other issues.”
Several years ago, she spearheaded the drive to have the County form a Covenant for Children, where parents, children and youth came up with a mission and goals for the children of the county. Working with the non-profits, The Covenant for Children encourages programs and approaches that strengthen families and opportunities for kids.
She has a passion for quality education and is a founder and trustee of a new charter school, called City Invincible, that is planned for Camden. This is a totally volunteer role for her.
“The beauty of charter schools is they allow you to create a vision of what a successful school would look like,” she said. “What is unique about this model is that it uses social constructionist education theory, introduced by American philosopher and educationist John Dewey in 1917, so that children learn from each other as well as from teachers, have a sense of community and community engagement and learn how to make positives happen in their communities,” she said.
Carmen brought that philosophy into her environmental science course at Brimm, where this year her students have constructed a greenhouse, planted a garden patch and completed a rain garden at the school, all as class projects that helped them to understand the roles of technology, healthy eating, water quality, soil contamination and air pollution as aspects of environmental science. It also showed them that, working with non-profit agencies and others in the community, they could find the resources they needed to complete the projects.
That helped them to understand a personal credo that the Freeholder lives by. “Everyone encounters obstacles in their lives,” she said quietly, looking out her office window at the streets of Camden spread out below. “We are defined, not by the obstacles we encounter, but by how we overcome them.”
That is the approach she is taking with the latest obstacle in her life. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She applied her analytical skills to the research on causes, remedies and treatments.
“I decided I could have languished or I could take control,” she said. “I took control, looking at all options, new, old, traditional medical remedies and alternative ones, including healthy eating, exercising, chiropractic treatments and other areas we have yet to explore. I discovered that the mind is the most powerful healer. It’s another opportunity to overcome an obstacle,” she said.
As seen in Camden County Woman