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Janet Gracia came to St. Paul's West Side as a young single mother of an infant daughter. She was immediately drawn to Neighborhood House, the center of immigrant life since it helped settle Russian Jews at the end of the 1800s. Gracia didn't need Neighborhood House's complete plethora of services — she was able to find work, housing and belonging over the decades. But Neighborhood House was a starting point for her as it is for thousands of others every year.

Early gigs at the American Red Cross and the Wilder Foundation — before the last 20-plus years with the Girl Scouts — prepped Gracia for her latest chapter. She will soon assume the role of Neighborhood House's president and CEO. Her work now? Continue and expand Neighborhood House's 127-year history of helping families from transition to stability.

Eye On St. Paul recently shared a cup of coffee with Gracia — she loves visiting local coffee houses — to better learn how she got here and where she hopes to take this organization. This story was edited for length.

Q: What brought you here?

A: I think it was the moons aligned. That's how I like to look at it. Neighborhood House was founded 127 years ago and I'm new to Minnesota in 1990. I'm certainly not an immigrant in the sense of people that it serves, evolving over time to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees, but also people experiencing poverty no matter who they are. I'm an immigrant from Iowa. I was getting divorced, and my very best friend lived in Minnesota, and I think that's why I picked Minnesota.

Q: How has the mission of Neighborhood House stayed the same? And how has it changed?

A: One of the things that they've been successful doing is connecting with families new to St. Paul. And I think that one of the things that has changed is that they are branching out and taking services into the community. And I want to even make more people aware of Neighborhood House, because I love the Paul Wellstone quote: "We all do better when we all do better."

Where Neighborhood House used to offer its services at its facility, it now [also] has family centers in five locations, they're in schools and in areas that have very high poverty. I see the Neighborhood House venturing out a little bit more — bringing training to them and partnering with organizations to get some skills and then kind of be a pipeline into employment at certain companies.

Q: What is a key priority of yours? What is your greatest need?

A: There are so many families experiencing food insecurity, just because of the economy and inflation, and the cost and demand for food has gone up. Really, so many services — everything from helping people get their GEDs, to teaching English as a second language, to [job] skills training — need funding.

Whether it comes from government grants, foundation grants, sponsorships, like getting a corporation or a business to sponsor a family center, or an increase in individual giving, that's the need. I firmly believe that there are so many people in St. Paul who want St. Paul to be a thriving community, but they don't know about Neighborhood House. So, I think that is a huge opportunity.

Q: It sounds like your previous jobs prepared you for this one, reaching out to other elements of the community and then pull them in.

A: When I heard that Nancy Brady was retiring [as Neighborhood House president], I kind of saw where I was at with the Girl Scouts. I'm really proud of the work I've done there, and I would not have sought this out if it wasn't Neighborhood House. And I thought what a great way to have kind of my final hurrah.

Q: What is your first phone call?

A: Well, I am connecting with the board, what do they envision? And also with the leadership of Neighborhood House. Connecting with the West Side Boosters, the Boys and Girls Club. It's not like one phone call. I'm calling the community. I'm reaching out to people I'm not connected to on LinkedIn.

I dream a lot about ideas, and one of the things that I think I would like to see different is Neighborhood House not only being that place where people know they should come when they need resources, but Neighborhood House also turns into a place that is a place of gathering no matter who you are. And it might be through events, through programming that partners with others, meeting your neighbors at the Neighborhood House. I see a dinner, where people from all walks of life sit at long tables.

And so that is one of the things that might look different: How can we also meet the needs of neighborhoods, whether it be West 7th, Highland, the West Side, the East Side, that will bring people together to just make St. Paul better?