CEO of Camillus House credits degree for her success

Hilda Fernandez, CEO of Camillus House
By Michael R. Malone

Hilda Fernandez, CEO of Camillus House

CEO of Camillus House credits degree for her success

By Michael R. Malone
Hilda Fernandez, a University alumna, attributes her studies in communications as the foundation for a dynamic career in local government, media, and leadership.

A communications maven and respected local leader, Hilda Fernandez is often invited to career fairs to share her tips for students and aspiring professionals. Her top-three list includes to get a solid education, remain flexible and consider all options, and keep your passion burning for whatever you decide to do.

That professional trinity of recommendations has served Fernandez better than any three-leaf clover, staking her to an impressive career that has spanned 22 years in local government in a variety of capacities and 14 years in the homeless arena—where she has played a major role in developing a system of holistic care that has made Miami a national model.

“The skills that I learned in my undergraduate communications studies were my foundation and incredibly useful in supporting me as I went in so many different areas,” said Fernandez, who earned her degree from the University of Miami in 1987. “I consider myself to be immensely blessed to have been able to do so many things that have fulfilled me professionally and personally.”

Prior to assuming leadership of Camillus House four years ago, Fernandez’s career positions have included Miami-Dade County communications director, Miami Beach assistant city manager, assistant director and director of the county’s Homeless Trust, campaign director for the successful initiative to create the county’s transit tax, and vice president of advancement at St. Thomas University, among others.   

Born in Cuba, Fernandez was 4 years old when her parents brought the family to Miami in 1969. She attended public school, excelled at Hialeah High, and earned a Henry King Stanford Scholarship that allowed her to attend the University.

The School of Communication opened in her junior year and, while the name of her major shifted a few times—“telecommunications” at the time of her graduation—Fernandez envisioned a career in broadcast journalism, one that would start at a small TV station and hopefully progress to reporting in a major city. 

She worked locally at WSVN-7 News for five years and was considering a transition when she interviewed for a communications position with the Miami-Dade County Public Library System.

With a background in television, Fernandez was just the right woman for the job as the library's systems marketing director wanted someone to launch the library’s television programming—which she did, highlighting the library’s assets in her role as public information officer.  

Jacqueline Menendez, today vice president for University Communications, was working with the county's Communications Department at the time and had met Fernandez when the two, both television journalists and University alumnae, were out covering stories. Menendez suggested that Fernandez contact a new county department—the Homeless Trust—that needed some help.

Following her own advice to consider all opportunities, Fernandez accepted an invitation to become assistant director at the Homeless Trust—a position that introduced her to what has become a passion. Created in 1993, the coordinating agency for services to homeless individuals and families is uniquely funded in part by taxpayer dollars (a food and beverage tax). Her communication skills and effective collaboration with the board and elected officers earned her the directorship when the post was vacated. Fernandez went on to serve for nine years as director, advancing the mission and scope of the operation.

She took a leave of absence, at the request of the then county manager and mayor, to manage a second transit campaign—the first had ended in a 70-30 unfavorable public vote. Fernandez’s expertise in messaging and familiarity with the county infrastructure and personnel proved essential for this second go-round and the grassroot effort earned a mirror opposite result of the first vote: 70-30 in favor. At the conclusion of the campaign, she returned to the Homeless Trust and to a brief stint as director of the Citizens Transportation Trust.

Her communication skills were to be fully exercised when she was then named communications director for Miami-Dade County, serving as spokeswoman and managing all avenues of marketing and media. The training, too, in emergency management for hurricanes and other calamities proved invaluable.

While she thrived in the 24-7 position, when the opportunity to work as an assistant city manager surfaced—true to her nature—Fernandez did not hesitate. The idea of heading to Miami Beach offered plenty of plusses. 

“At that point I had been working for 13 years at the county, and it made sense to expand into public administration and city management to broaden my portfolio,” she remembered. “The Beach is a super dynamic city and, though it was very challenging, I just loved it.”

With a political change on Miami Beach, Fernandez returned to the Homeless Trust, replacing the retiring director that she had hired—10 years previously. After a few years, she accepted another invitation to shift course and spent the next three years as vice president for advancement at St. Thomas University. In 2017, she decided to return to her passion, this time as chief executive officer of Camillus House.

“Though I had never run a nonprofit—it wasn’t in my educational or professional background, I had worked in the homeless arena twice for a total of 12 years,” she pointed out. In that previous capacity, she had helped to develop the county’s system of care that now encompassed Camillus House.

Through its hospitality and direct care ministry, the nonprofit provides some 40 programs and services that serve as a full continuum of care for approximately 12,500 men, women, and children annually. While philanthropy remains critical, a dedicated source of funding, in place now for 25 years, has made the county’s system of homeless care a model—and the envy—for other cities. Recent statistics indicate that on any given night in Los Angeles the city must manage as many as 66,000 homeless—in Miami that figure is closer to one thousand.

When the pandemic hit, Camillus House doubled down on its strategies to safeguard its vulnerable population. To date, and now 15 months since the onset of the pandemic, only 65 clients—from the thousands served in the congregate living facility—have tested positive for the coronavirus and none since Feb. 16, according to Fernandez.

How did Camillus House manage the situation so effectively?

“You have to stay on top of it, and at the end of the day we stepped up,” she said, crediting her “awesome team” and the extensive emergency management training she has received. “With all the career paths I’ve taken, I was able to implement those approaches. So when COVID-19 came, we followed the same model.” 

Fernandez recognized that homelessness has become more visible in Miami in the past year, mostly because of the tents that were distributed early on with the intent to provide social distancing on the street. The local homeless system continues to pay close adherence to Centers for Disease Control guidelines that prohibit shutting down encampments.

“Everyone is very cautious and working within the guidance being received to make sure there’s not a public health emergency being created by going in and trying to help these people and place them in a shelter,” she explained.

Fernandez continues to be impressed by all the improvements and academic advancements at the University. In her talks with aspiring professionals, she often starts by acknowledging how her solid learning foundation has served as the bedrock for her career.

She has even added a fourth tip—develop your networks and use them—to the top three she’s been espousing for years. With much gratitude, she looks back to the helpful advice and invitations extended to her by colleagues such as Menendez, among many others. 

“I have so enjoyed all the years that I’ve spent helping in the homeless arena, and it’s something I’m passionate about,” Fernandez said. “And it wouldn’t have happened if not for the fact that someone contacted me and said, ‘you know, you’d be great for that’—and that someone happened to be Jackie.”