Columbia People: Clara Leon, Medical Center Assistant Director of Community Affairs

Georgette Jasen
March 19, 2014

WHO SHE IS: Assistant director of community affairs, Columbia University Medical Center


WHAT SHE DOES: Leon coordinates the use of space on the CUMC campus for community projects and special events, everything from small meetings to big galas, health fairs and the annual HBO Latino Film Festival, which for several years attracted hundreds of people each summer for the premiere of a Latino film that later was shown on HBO. She also organizes donations of used computers and office furniture to community groups. Leon is responsible for the Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides jobs for New York City residents ages 14 to 24, most of them from the community around CUMC, and she helps arrange scholarships for youngsters attending summer sports camps sponsored by Columbia. “It’s about making a difference in someone’s life,” she says.

ROAD TO COLUMBIA: Leon was born at Columbia’s Sloane Hospital for Women, now part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She lived in the Dominican Republic from the age of 6 months to 6 years, when she returned to New York speaking no English. Leon was a freshman at Fordham when a friend of her mother’s told her about a job as a translator for CUMC’s Department of Pediatrics. She started out working several hours a week translating interviews for a study of mothers who had used crack and cocaine during pregnancy and the effects on their babies. Leon later did interviews herself and helped analyze data. When she was hired full-time by the University in October 1992, she rearranged her schedule so that most of her classes were at night and she graduated with a B.A. in English literature in 1995. She later worked in the Department of Neurology, doing intake interviews and neuropsychiatric evaluations for research on stroke, and then was program coordinator for a pediatric neurology study. Leon joined the Department of Government and Community Affairs in 2001 as program director for a sports and education program for girls in the community and was appointed to her current position in 2004.

BEST PART OF THE JOB: “Being able to work with the community where I grew up,” says Leon, who lived on West 178th Street, just blocks from CUMC, after returning from the Dominican Republic. “I feel like I’m giving something back.” She and several colleagues went to elementary school at the Incarnation School on West 175th Street, a school that gets support from CUMC’s neighborhood fund. She also values the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. “I never know what will be in my in-box when I come in,” Leon says.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS: Seeing people she supervised in the Summer Youth Employment Program who are now working full-time at Columbia, some of them in her own department. They often thank her for getting them started, she says. The program had about 30 participants when she started working in Community Affairs and now has about 100 every summer.

IN HER SPARE TIME: Leon enjoys spending time with her family, which includes taking her 15-year-old daughter, a high school freshman, to activities like soccer and bowling. She and her husband own a pharmacy in Inwood, where she handles the finances and inventory management. Leon often stops by the pharmacy after she leaves her office at CUMC. “My husband and I have quantity time and quality time,” she says.