Jennifer Velez smiles and drops her head into her hand when she eyes the large framed baby photos of her two children that sit on top of a file cabinet. Those pictures make it seem like she still has babies, she says with a laugh, when in fact they're now in ninth and seventh grade.
The framed preschool-era art projects and newspaper clippings on her wall are slightly tilted. She grabs the corner of one and straightens it, laughing as she laments the fact that her office is a bit of a mess.
The coffee table is a little dusty. The piles of paperwork on her desk are a mile high. Her outbox is empty. Her inbox is full of files. But when your job is to run New Jersey's Department of Human Services, hands down the largest agency in the state, the general condition of your office is the furthest thing from your mind.
"We're always here. A lot of us are. We're here; we're available all the time," Velez said. "Inevitably, just from the institution perspective, something happens — I was going to say nearly every day but really every day — that I need to be aware of."
For the past seven years, Velez has been at the helm of Human Services, serving as commissioner through both Democratic and Republican administrations. That puts her in charge of an $11 billion budget, one she is managing as the department wades through a time of significant change.
And it's the reason she is in the No. 1 spot on the NJBIZ Health Care Power 50.
The department has taken responsibility for seniors in recent years. The state is making a controversial push to close more state-run institutions, putting the focus on keeping the elderly and disabled in the community. And the Affordable Care Act has meant major shifts when it comes to Medicaid in the state.
In short, the job is a huge responsibility — one Velez takes very seriously and one that still leaves her in a state of disbelief at just how far she's come.
When Velez was very young, her family depended on welfare and food stamps. Her mother had divorced her father and found herself suddenly a single mom with two mouths to feed. They didn't need the help forever, but for a while, it was vital.
Her mother eventually remarried, and the newly minted family no longer needed public assistance. But things still weren't easy.Velez's teenage years were spent in a Moonachie trailer park. She went to Wood-Ridge High School, where her classmates almost never talked about college. Her neighbor across the street was a prostitute.
Back then, all of that was motivation, for Velez to work hard and make for herself a better life. It wasn't until she joined the state Department of Human Services, which administers those life-sustaining services, that she realized all that hardship had groomed her for a very tough job.
"I think that was probably an instructive part of my life," she said. "You just learn to grow up with no judgment about anybody and their circumstances."
When she graduated Wood-Ridge High, her guidance counselor suggested she go to Drew University in Madison because a few former students had gone there in the past.
Velez spent those years studying — she majored in economics — and working. She cleaned office buildings, worked at the mall, held a job in the student housing office. Fear was a real motivating factor: She was scared of not being able to finish college. And she was scared of what that might mean for her life in the real world.
When she did finish, she spent a disappointing year in the underwriting department of an insurance company before going on to Rutgers Law School. She practiced labor and employment law in the firm now known as Day Pitney. But it wasn't a fit.
She didn't know what she wanted to do, but she knew she hadn't found it yet.
One Sunday, Velez picked up a copy of the Sunday Star-Ledger and read a profile on Bill Waldman. At the time, he was the longest serving commissioner in the history of the Department of Human Services.
The profile showed her a job that was all about working with people who needed help, people like Velez when she was just a girl in a Moonachie trailer park.
"I remember asking my husband, 'Who does that sound like?' And he said, 'It sounds like you,'" Velez recalled.
Velez made a few calls and landed an interview with John Farmer, who was then chief counsel under Gov. Christine Whitman — a position in an office Velez had never heard of but one she thought could be a foot in the door of state government.
"He asked the obvious question, 'Why do you want to work in counsel's office?'" Velez said. "I didn't have a great answer because I had never really heard of the office. But I said, 'This sounds corny, but I really want to make a difference. And he said, 'That's perfect because that's why I came to Trenton.'"
She got the job — and asked to be assigned to Human Services.
Raymond Castro, who worked with Velez when she was in the counsel's office, said her commitment to the job was evident even then.
"One thing that stands out, she was just enormously committed to vulnerable people," said Castro, now a senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective. "And that shows in what she does. I believe she's an attorney. She could get a lot of better paying jobs elsewhere."
Velez moved into the role of deputy commissioner in 2006 and was confirmed as commissioner in 2007.
Over the past seven years, Velez has maintained that reputation of being a passionate advocate for those she serves, even when the issues at hand are controversial.
One of those issues has been the push for more in-home care, both for the developmentally disabled and for seniors.
Evelyn Liebman, associate state director for advocacy for the AARP, said Velez led the push at the federal level to get approval for a comprehensive waiver that will give seniors access to services and support that will keep them in the community and out of nursing homes, whenever possible.
"It's an example of how she is accessible. She responds to good information and figures out a way to operationalize the changes that need to happen to actually reform the system," Liebman said. "She's a true believer, I would say, when it comes to supporting people's desire to stay in their homes and in their communities."
That same commitment is playing out in Velez's work with the intellectually and developmentally disabled. This year, the state is closing two developmental centers, North Jersey Developmental Center in July and Woodbridge Developmental Center in December.
That reflects an effort — one Velez champions — to keep more of those with disabilities in the community, when possible.
"The least restrictive environment would mean that even someone who is completely nonverbal and has serious self-care challenges can still be served in a group home, can make some preference selections about bedding and what they like to do during the day," she said.
And Velez said she's seen that model work.
Not too long ago, she visited a group home in Union County. One of the residents there had limited verbal skills, but he absolutely had preferences about his room. So Velez spent the day helping him hang pictures on his walls.
"He had choices," Velez said. "It was his room. So it was really good to be a part of that, and he really felt a lot of ownership about it. That was a great day."
But there are hard days, too, and the long ones.
Most of them start around 6:20 a.m., when Velez wakes up and immediately checks her email. She's on calls starting at around 8 a.m., if not before, and that continues throughout the day. At times in her career, she's made a habit of lingering in the office until 9 or 10 at night. In fact, one of the framed pictures on her walls includes a handwritten note from her daughter.
"I think it says, 'Dear Mommy, can you call me when you're on the Turnpike?' Parenting by phone," she said, shaking her head at the memory.
She's made changes since then. Every weekend over the winter, she escapes with her family to the Catskills for snowshoeing, skiing and snowboarding.
During the week, she tries to leave the office around 7 p.m. these days, while still keeping her Blackberry close. She hates the fact that she struggles to put it down, even during family time. But the way she describes it, the work of the department never ends. Something happens literally every day, something that seriously impacts the well-being of one of the thousands her department serves. So when she sees the email notification light on her cell, she's compelled to check it.
"(My kids) understand what the department does, and that for them has been helpful — and for me — because they know that I never choose work over them. But work is very important, so they understand how it fits into their lives," she said. "They're my top priority, but they know the job is demanding."
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