Ileana Schirmer (center) stands with her parents, Lazaro and Genoveva Hernandez, outside the Hernandez’s home. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)

Schirmer: my upbringing guides me

Ileana Schirmer recalls the airplane ride. She remembers a fancy building with a white marble staircase. She can relive receiving a Colgate toothbrush and toothpaste.

In 1970, at age 3, Schirmer boarded a flight in Cuba with her family, and set off for the United States. Her mother, Genoveva Hernandez, was pregnant with a son.

They landed in Miami, and were legally accepted into the country at a building called the Freedom Towers. There, Cuban immigrants would receive their documentation, along with immunizations, clothes and some toiletries. Most people—including Schirmer and her parents—came with nothing.

From there, the Hernandez family moved to New Jersey, to Union City, to start their lives as Americans.

Although Schirmer does not fully recall the journey she took as a young child, the Hamilton Township councilwoman has been shaped by it. She considers her life story “boring,” but Schirmer has derived from it a well-defined sense of what is right and wrong, what is worth fighting over and what is not worth her time. Schirmer is one of two candidates running this November for the two years remaining on Mayor Kelly Yaede’s unexpired council term.

Schirmer’s father, Lazaro Hernandez, would tell his children, “You came with nothing, but you earned everything,” and would do whatever odd jobs he could find, whenever he could get them. He eventually landed a full-time job working at a factory in Hackensack. The steady work empowered Lazaro and Genoveva to stop accepting government assistance, even though they qualified for it.

“That’s how we were raised,” Schirmer said. “We take nothing. We don’t even take a dollar from a friend.”

Schirmer also learned to rely on herself, studying hard in school. She couldn’t ask for her parents’ help with schoolwork; no one in the Hernandez family spoke English. When Schirmer entered Kindergarten, she only knew a few English words she picked up watching television. Lazaro eventually took English classes; Genoveva speaks Spanish.

She went on to attend Richard Stockton College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She met her husband, Phil, at Stockton, and the couple married in 1989, after Schirmer graduated. They moved to Hamilton shortly thereafter.

Phil is now a pilot, working out of the Trenton-Robbinsville airport. They have two children: Nina, 16, and Kenny, 9. Nina attends Notre Dame High School. Kenny is a student at Our Lady of Sorrows School. Schirmer’s parents have since retired and also live in Hamilton. Her older brother, Lazaro, is a lawyer in Florida. Schirmer’s younger brother, William, died as a teenager, from a brain aneurysm. Schirmer calls William’s death in 1986 “my biggest event.”

“When my brother died … I saw life for what it is, for what’s important for me,” Schirmer said. “I don’t have time for BS. It’s really amazing. That’s why I keep my circle very small, because I don’t want BS.”

Schirmer entered the workforce, strengthened by the lessons life had provided her. She turned a job as a laboratory technician in a hospital into an extended career in pharmaceuticals, working for major companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson. While at BMS, in 1998, she started her own pharmaceutical staffing firm, running the company in her spare time. By the mid-2000s, the staffing firm had grown larger than what she and Phil could handle, and they sold it.

Schirmer left the pharmaceutical industry completely, and bought a Goddard School child care facility in 2005. The school had been struggling financially, but two years after taking it over, Schirmer had transformed it into a million-dollar business. Goddard School officials recognized that effort during the company’s annual owners’ meeting, naming her director of the year. Schirmer sold the school in November 2012.

“She saw how hard her father worked,” Phil Schirmer said. “Nothing came easy. Nothing’s been handed to her. She’s had to work for everything.”

Schirmer believes this has earned her a voice, and does not shy away from sharing her opinion.

“I am opinionated,” Schirmer said. “I’ve earned it. I’m 46-years old. I’m not changing who I am to please you or anybody else. I don’t have to. Faith is very important to me, and I only have to please God. I have to do what’s right for my life.”

Her upbringing has also molded her political leanings — most notably a strong belief in fiscal conservatism.

“I don’t mind paying more [taxes], but what am I paying more for? For people that are sitting on welfare, doing drugs or whatever? No, I don’t want to pay for that. When you come from nothing, and you’ve earned your money, you don’t owe people anything.”

Schirmer hopes to spread the message to Latinos in Hamilton, and has tried to offer herself as a role model. She has spoken to school groups, such as a bilingual organization at Nottingham High School. Her message has been simple: if you work hard, depend only on yourself and take advantage of the opportunities presented to you, you’ll succeed.

“I don’t know about the immigrants that come into this country thinking, ‘I come in. I’ll work. I’ll get paid. I’ll get Social Security, and I’ll get this and that, and the government will help me,’” Schirmer said. “No! That’s not the way it should be. Come here, and we’ll help you get going. But you’ve got to have some motivation.”