Jenn Ochoa Is Building Trust and Bridges with Basic Needs and Housing Support at SPS
What is the title of your new position?
Basic Needs and Housing Social Worker
What attracted you to this position?
I started out as an early childhood educator in Chelsea and Winthrop, and I became an administrator there. Then I came to Somerville and worked with the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative as a family liaison at East Somerville Community School. In this role, I saw firsthand what obstacles students and their families were facing. Especially during the pandemic, I got to know the ESCS community well and worked closely with families. They remembered if I had helped them in the past. I found that more in-depth work with families really rewarding, which is what I am able to do now as the Basic Needs and Housing Social Worker. This is what I’m most excited about.
What does your typical day at work look like?
We don’t have any typical days here, but I can share some things that can come up that we help address. Our day starts before 7 a.m. because our office is the first point of contact if any transportation issues, like bus delays, come up for our students on their way to school.
We keep in regular touch with the social workers and case managers from the Department of Children and Families so we are all on the same page and understand what our unhoused students and families need for support, and relay that information to educators and staff as needed.
We also work with the Enrollment Office to identify students new to the district who might need assistance with basic needs. And we attend student support services meetings across the district so we fully understand the academic and social needs of our students. Other local partners we coordinate with are the SomerViva Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Somerville Food Security Coalition, among others.
We work with families in crisis and emergency situations, like if they’re suddenly evicted. We connect them with the Somerville Office of Housing Stability to figure out what housing and shelter options are available to them. Affordable housing is incredibly scarce in Somerville and so it’s important to regularly follow up with families on the waitlist for permanent housing because their situation is continually changing. Policy changes at the state level happen frequently so we try to keep in the loop to be sure we’re following regulations that best serve our families.
And then we make sure that every student who receives transportation services makes it home safely at the end of the day. Like I said, there’s no such thing as a regular day.
What do you like about working in Somerville?
Everyone I work with in Somerville truly connects to people and are passionate about the work they do.
Are there any initiatives at SPS that excite you?
I am really excited to see this district’s commitment to supporting student and family mental health. Several new people have been hired who are, like me, bilingual and bicultural. We can use these skills to build connections to provide support for students. Being an immigrant is not my lived experience—I am, however, the daughter of immigrants. So I know how essential it is to students that the adults around them in the school community are reflected back at them.
What does a great day at your job look like?
A great day is one where I can provide relief for a family. Something as simple as delivering a box of groceries, or diapers, or clothing can make a huge difference—you can see it on their faces. I know that we can’t solve every problem, that most of the challenges are complex and long-term. But having my job be to help even a little is incredibly rewarding.
What are your plans for the coming year?
I see this as a foundation-building year for my role here. I’m also in my last year of graduate school for social work. We are meeting families and students in difficult, sensitive situations in their lives. To do this work well, it’s essential for families and students to trust us. They need to feel comfortable letting us know what they might need. So I plan to get to know more students and build on relationships I’ve already made, especially with students at Somerville High School.
I went to Chelsea High School where 88% of the students are Latino. Everyone spoke Spanish. We all ate the same foods. Then I went to Bunker Hill Community College for my associates degree in childhood development, and then on to Lesley University. On campus there was the first time I felt out of place. Not many people on staff or in my classes looked like me. I want to work to combine my lived experience and my educational background and skills to help students in Somerville feel welcome here.
What gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about?
What gets me up in the morning is knowing that the need is always there. I don’t know if it will ever go away, but I feel a duty to show up and be there for families and students.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I really enjoy cooking. During the height of the pandemic, I started to prepare my family’s traditional Central American dishes. I’d try to get a dish as close as possible to what I remember my mom cooking for us, things like carne guisada and arroz con pollo. For exercise, spin class is my exercise of choice because it allows me to completely disconnect.
What else would you like to say to the Somerville Public Schools community?
I would like to say that families in this district are in a school community filled with people who are passionate about their work. And we all keep children and their families at the center of what we do every day.
---Abby Luthin, Grants and Communications Specialist