UNION, N.J. — Erica Bell knows first-hand how important a local public library can be, but as manager of the Vauxhall Branch of the Union Public Library, she also knows that sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“I grew up in a single-parent home,” she said in an Aug. 20 interview. “It was my mom and me. I was a latchkey kid, so the library was kind of a safe haven for me. I was studying. My mom knew that I was going to go to the library, do my work and come home.”
Yet Bell’s career and community involvement extends beyond the walls of a building filled with books and computer terminals.
She is a licensed life and career coach, has her own nonprofit school, teaches college readiness workshops, arranges criminal record expungement seminars, has a woman-centered support group and recently became a board member for the local chapter of Girls on the Run, a national organization for girls in grades three through eight.
But the library is where she started — 25 years ago.
“Many times, I look at the kids in the community, and that’s one thing to stay true to because No. 1, I know how it is to have to need a space to work and, No. 2, have a little extra cash in your pocket,” she said. “And also have a mentor that you can trust, someone that can talk to you, someone that can guide you. Someone that’s not so much your family, but can become a role model.
“Someone that is real life; you can touch them, you can talk to them if you need. I consider myself to be a role model.”
Girls on the Run encourages pre-teens to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through interactive lessons and running games, culminating in a celebratory 5-kilometer run.
“When we started with Girls on the Run, my daughter was ‘the’ girl,” Bell said. “Girls on the Run was my way of saying to her, ‘Hey, let’s join an organization that can help the both of us.’”
She began walking with the team, and became more involved until she started coaching.
She considers herself a non-traditional library manager because she began her career as a page and worked her way up. A Union native, she has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Kean University.
She created a program called Pathways to Learning, which is registered as a non-public school in New Jersey.
“It is my way of giving back to the community and working with the community,” she said.
It doesn’t have a physical location yet, so Bell considers it to be mobile.
“I go to different organizations that already have locations and I’ll meet with them, and I’ll work with them on different projects,” she said.
Bell said Pathways to Learning gives her the opportunity to work with the community outside of the library. She organizes everything from a college and career readiness workshop to expungement workshops.
For her, the college and career readiness workshops explore different routes for high school students.
“And the other piece was, what would I need if I wanted to go to college? What would I need if I wanted to start working right after high school?” she said. “So then, I did a piece on writing a resume.”
She uses lessons and modules to help high school students. She also works to help individuals with convictions on their records consider expungement.
“I did several expungement workshops where I have a team of attorneys that come and they present information,” she said. “They don’t charge people to use that information to help them. So they’ll talk about rules and regulations where charges can be expunged.”
Bell believes that giving people second chances is “looking at the full person.”
She started “Girl Talk” as part of her life coaching in 2017.
She became inspired to start “Girl Talk” after several family members died and she was looking for outlets in her grieving process.
“I actually lost four of my mother’s sisters and my dad,” she said. “And I realized that I was grieving, but I needed an outlet. I needed to talk to other people who were going through the same thing. … I started leaning on my girlfriends, I call them my girl tribe.
“And we talked about getting together and doing a lunch, a transparent conversation about how the process works. It wasn’t just about grief, but empowering women to talk about their life.”
It was only one of the ways she was helping someone beside herself.