On a busy weekday morning at non- profit Neighbors Link Northern Westchester in Mount Kisco, Carola Otero Bracco greets a group of day laborers taking an English class and then stops to say hello to young mothers bouncing babies on their laps at a parenting workshop. Bracco, executive director of the organization—which has a mission to strengthen the community by facilitating the integration of recent immigrants—seems to have been born to serve in her current position. In fact, the Mount Kisco resident was inside her mother’s womb when her parents immigrated to the United States from Bolivia 53 years ago.
Bracco was the second youngest of nine children, the oldest of whom was in high school by the time she was born. She was raised in what she calls “a very Latino household,” in a Maryland suburb just outside of Washington, DC. Her father was a lawyer for the Inter-American Development Bank, which helps reduce poverty and inequality in the Caribbean and Latin America through development financing. Her mother raised their family and often traveled with them to Bolivia to visit relatives. “My parents were my role models,” she says. “They always stressed the importance of being proud of their roots and giving back to the community.”
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, she recalls heated conversations around the dinner table among her immediate family and a constant stream of visiting relatives. “I listened to many discussions about social justice, right and wrong, and important political issues, and it made me want to give back and get involved in community service,” she says. (Interestingly, one of her siblings was an under secretary of state under Hillary Clinton and another is a deputy mayor of DC.)
Instead, Bracco, a brunette with a big smile, followed the advice of her siblings and headed into a career in business. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland and her MBA at Duke, and then climbed up the corporate ladder during the 12 years she spent in financial management at General Electric, Time Warner, and Ford Motor Company.
Even though she enjoyed working in the corporate sector, Bracco felt deep in her heart that she was destined for another, more fulfilling type of job. “I knew that all that learning and experience would someday pay off,” she says. “And I was willing to wait and be very patient for the right opportunity.”
It was after getting married to her husband, Andrew—a former CPA who’s now in the nonprofit health sector—in 1992, settling in Mount Kisco, and starting a family, that Bracco had a life-changing experience. While juggling part-time work in New York City and raising her two young children, a Neighbors Link NW board member approached her in the preschool parking lot. The board member convinced her to drop by for a visit to see what the nonprofit was all about and to help with a volunteer project. “I went to stuff envelopes for a mailing and just couldn’t believe this organization existed,” she recalls. “I met moms and dads, heard their heartbreaking stories, and it affected me profoundly. I knew right away that this was where I wanted to be.”
As her commitment to the organization grew, Bracco started volunteering regularly and was asked to join the board of directors within several months. One of the board’s tasks at the time was to hire a new executive director. With her finance background, skills as a bilingual speaker, and devotion to the organization, Bracco was a perfect match. And when the board asked her to take the position in 2004, she unequivocally decided to accept.
Working at an organization that is open 7 am to 10 pm, seven days a week, every day of the year (including holidays) means Bracco is constantly on call. She supervises 11 full-time staff members and dozens of part-time workers who teach classes and facilitate programs, along with 300 volunteers. Working together, they help Neighbors Link NW provide services to more than 2,600 immigrants per year. Neighbors Link NW, now in its 15th year, has programs that range from “Learning Links,” an after-school program at Mount Kisco Elementary School to help at-risk children of low-income families, to adult education classes in language and employment skills.
When asked about the anger some people have about undocumented immigrants, she manages to stay calm but can’t help but let her emotion shine through. “We need to help people that come here break the cycle of poverty,” she says. “Wouldn’t any one of us do anything we could to provide a better life for our children?”
Bracco tells the story of a young mother from Peru living in Mount Kisco with her three young children, the youngest of whom is a newborn baby. Her husband, who is a skilled carpenter with no criminal record, was recently deported (just six months before President Obama’s executive order on immigration, which would have prevented this). “It’s really so sad,” she says. “The couple came here for a better life. Now the young children have no father here, and their mother has four part-time jobs, yet is barely making ends meet. Neighbors Link is helping her by providing diapers and clothing, and she’s taken our parent education and financial literacy programs.”
“What also touches me is talking to parents who’ve had to leave their children behind,” she says. “It really takes an incredible amount of fortitude and courage. They feel the sacrifice is worth it for the next generation.”
Despite conflict in the community surrounding the issue of undocumented immigrants, Mount Kisco Mayor J. Michael Cindrich cites Bracco’s ability to stay calm, open-minded, and unbiased while remaining very devoted to what she’s doing. “If she wasn’t as passionate as she is, she wouldn’t have the staying power to be the leader of this group,” he says. “She’s constantly exposed to the heartbreak of people having a difficult time. It could either take a toll on you, or, in her case, motivate you to do more.”
Bracco is committed to taking Neighbors Link to the next level. She is CEO of Neighbors Link Network, an affiliate whose mission is to spread the organization’s successful immigrant integration model to other communities. Neighbors Link Stamford is three years old, and the goal is to open more locations in the near future.
So, just what does this community advocate do in her time off? She admits that one of her guilty pleasures is to watch reruns of sitcoms like Friends and Modern Family with her family. She also enjoys cheering on her family as they run in 5K and 10K races or play baseball and basketball.
In addition, Bracco is constantly in touch with her siblings, and she visits her family whenever she gets a chance. Bracco’s mother is now 87 (her father has passed away), and she has 20 nieces and nephews and one grandniece. “Coming from a huge family, it’s hard for me to be so far away,” she says.
However, Bracco says she loves living and working in Mount Kisco, and doesn’t want to change a thing. “It’s a complete honor to work at Neighbors Link, and I have no regrets,” she says. “I just thank my husband and two children for supporting this work.”