It’s only a five-minute walk from her office in downtown Anaheim to the Packing House, the upscale food court housed in a renovated citrus-packing house built in 1919.
For Elsa Covarrubias, community engagement manager at Anaheim Fire & Rescue, the historic building is much more than a convenient lunch spot for Canadian-French specialty fries, pumpkin-spice crêpes and other hipster edibles.
It’s a monument to her fourth-generation past in Anaheim.
Covarrubias’ great-grandfather, Plácido Miranda, and her grandfather, José Miranda, packed citrus at the warehouse, a remnant of Orange County’s agricultural past that in its day was a hub of commerce on Anaheim Boulevard.
Her mother, Maria, grew up picking strawberries in Anaheim and her father is a retired truck driver. They instilled in Covarrubias and her three siblings the importance of working hard and giving back to the community.
“From elementary school, I’ve always had a desire to serve the City of Anaheim,” says Covarrubias, 36, who now is in the ideal position to do just that.
“I just grew up with a love for this city,” she says. “It always offered opportunities for my family. For us, Anaheim has been the American Dream. It really has.”
Covarrubias has a 2½–year-old son, Aaron.
Her husband, Bernie, is a bridge carpenter.
In her position at Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Covarrubias is bridge-builder with the community.
With the help of two full-time staff members, she works to understand the diverse needs of Anaheim when it comes to fire safety. Covarrubias also educates the community about what Anaheim Fire & Rescue has to offer.
For example, in some Anaheim neighborhoods where pool safety is a concern, Covarrubias focuses her efforts on drowning prevention campaigns.
And in Anaheim’s east end, where wildfires are a concern, she focuses on AF&R’s “Ready, Set, Go” campaign, which educates homeowners to be prepared to evacuate in the case of wildfires or other emergencies.
“It’s a relationship,” she says. “My job involves taking the pulse of the community and Anaheim’s micro-communities, and strategizing accordingly. We have great relationships with Anaheim’s schools and we know the city’s demographics very well.
“It’s all about building strategic partnerships with community stakeholders.”
Covarrubias, a former high school teacher, joined AF&R in March 2016 as a community engagement specialist.
Six months later, she was promoted to community engagement manager.
It’s a dream job for the Anaheim native, whose father discouraged her from going to college because he didn’t believe she needed an education beyond high school.
“I was a rebel for going,” says Covarrubias, who grew up on Philadelphia Street and attended Thomas Jefferson Elementary, located just down the street from AF&Rs Station 1
Covarrubias attended Anaheim High School, where she threw herself into every extracurricular activity possible.
“I grew up in a strict household and wasn’t really allowed to go out, so school was my comfort zone,” she says.
Although her father didn’t exactly encourage her to go to college, her mother always stressed the importance of education to her four children.
“Her biggest desire was for us to have an education,” she says. “She did everything within her limited capacity to give us those opportunities, and that definitely fueled us.”
After graduating from Anaheim High School in 1999, Covarrubias took classes at
Fullerton College at night while working for the city 30 hours a week, doing clerical work in the Building Division.
In 2001, Covarrubias was accepted into UCLA. She had wanted to be a Bruin since touring the university while in high school.
At UCLA, Covarrubias majored in Spanish with the hopes of becoming a Spanish teacher. After graduating in 2004, she earned her teaching credential from Chapman University and a Master’s Degree from Whittier College
Throughout college, Covarrubias maintained her employment ties to the City of Anaheim, working during the summers.
“I’ve always had a passion for my city and for serving,” she says.
Covarrubias taught Spanish and English as a Second Language for five years at a high school in Orange County before leaving the teaching profession during the recession of 2008.
That same year, she landed her first full-time position with the city as a coordinator in the city’s building division.
In 2014, she transferred to the Utilities Division, where she engaged in community outreach, promoting energy saving programs to residents and energy efficiency at schools, before she was hired by AF&R in 2016.
In late March this year, Covarrubias celebrated her two-year anniversary with the agency.
A sign in Covarrubias’ office reads:
Go the extra mile, it’s never crowded.
It’s a testament to her dogged determination to set and achieve goals.
“When I have a goal in mind,” Covarrubias says, “I give it my all. I’m almost obsessive about it.”
In her meticulously organized office, color-coded tasks are listed on a whiteboard, spreadsheet style.
“I just believe in systems, because it releases mental space to focus on what’s important,” Covarrubias says.
Among the many tasks she currently is juggling is planning for AF&R’s promotion and graduation in May, one of the agency’s biggest events of the year. There’s also a wildfire preparedness day open house in May, and a grand opening for Station 5 in August.
On any day, Covarrubias may find herself in front of a kindergarten class talking about bike helmet safety, or to high school students about careers in the fire service.
It was Covarrubias who piloted at AF&R a high school boot camp to educate teenagers about firefighting and related jobs.
“I see community engagement as economic development,” Covarrubias says. “You get the kids interested in this career, they get jobs they love, and they invest back into their community.”
Also in Covarrubias’ office is a case containing three vintage typewriters, each with a single piece of paper with a typed inspirational message, such as:
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Covarrubias owns 10 typewriters, which are important to her in two ways:
She’s written two collections of short stories she’s considering making public, and the typewriters harken back to her younger years and advice from her mother.
“Mom told us, ‘If you learn to type, you’ll have a better job than I have,’” Covarrubias says. ‘”If you work indoors, you’ve got it made in life.’”