Heroes every day: North Bend Citizen of the Year Nela Cumming gets daily inspiration

Hours before Nela Cumming was surprised with North Bend’s Citizen of the Year honors on January 15, she’d been reflecting on life in her chosen city.

“Look at that mountain,” she told her 10-year-old son, Jacob, as they drove down North Bend Way, “isn’t it beautiful? And look how cute North Bend is. Aren’t we lucky to live here?”

Cumming, the Director of Pediatric Therapy for Encompass, and a six-year resident of North Bend, is well acquainted with the blessings in life, and with the lack of them. It’s why she embarked on a 25-year career in social work.

“Like most girls, I wanted to be a ballerina and a veterinarian at the same time,” she said, laughing, “But I knew I wanted to be a social worker when I was a little girl,” she said. “I loved helping people. I’ve done social services work, and loved it, as long as I can remember.”

Growing up in Oak Ridge Tenn., Cumming was inspired by books about people overcoming tragic situations.

“Reading was my salvation,” she said, explaining that she’d been a shy, unhappy teen, taking refuge in books, especially biographies. The stories she read got her wondering about “what made people successful,” she said. She also had a real-life example for inspiration in her mother.

One of 10 children, Cumming’s mother grew up in “dire poverty” during the Great Depression, and was determined to get an education. “She really just felt that education was her way out, and her siblings’,” Cumming said, so each of them helped the others through school.

“They didn’t let their birth circumstances dictate what their lives would be like,” Cumming said.

Nor do the people she works with today, either through Encompass or through her volunteering as a Spanish translator at North Bend Elementary School — her mother is Puerto Rican, so Cumming grew up bilingual. She is extremely proud of the people she helps.

“They’re just heroes,” Cumming said. “People in severe poverty who just love their kids to pieces.”

In her career, Cumming has worked with the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, homeless, addicts and children. She began helping at a mental health clinic in high school. With all her energy focused on her goals, she finished college in three years.

She began her work with Head Start in New York, where she also worked for Children’s Village, before being offered the statewide directorship of Early Head Start programs in Washington in 2005.

“That was my dream job,” she said.

So Nela, husband Brian, and Jacob, moved to Kent and she started her job in Auburn.

It took a little longer to find the perfect place to live, and the perfect commute, but after “we found Snoqualmie and North Bend on day hikes,” she said, and after she heard about Encompass, things fell into place.

Cumming started as Encompass’ Director of Programs in 2010, and moved to the Pediatric Therapy clinic when it opened in October, 2011.

When Jacob started school, she also started helping with translations for Spanish-speaking parents in the school.

“I think I just offered to do it because I saw there was a need,” she said, adding that Principal Jim Frazier was “fantastic” about making sure teachers knew she was available as a resource.

She started helping teachers as needed at conferences, she said, “then once I got known, the parents would ask for me,” she said.

Now, she takes advantage of her flexible work schedule to volunteer during her lunch breaks, plus she helps at conferences and translates school documents into Spanish, but she wishes she could do more.

She sympathizes with the parents, who want to stay informed about their childrens’ education, but can’t, because of the language barrier.

Cumming nearly cries when she talks about one mom. She speaks only Spanish, but takes every school bulletin her child brings home and types it into a translator program. Shaking her head, Cumming says “sometimes I have a hard time even reading through all that stuff, and she retypes it!”

That mom, and parents like her are Cumming’s inspiration now. She says she gets so much more out of her volunteer work than they possibly can.

“I get to see that, that people can be like that.”


Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

Nela Cumming is surprised with the 2012 North Bend Citizen of the Year Award by Mayor Ken Hearing.


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