STAMFORD, Conn. -- Ivonne Zucco’s road from Chile to her position as executive director of the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis and Counseling in Stamford was paved with potholes, detours and an assortment of menial jobs.
But Zucco, a longtime Greenwich resident who now lives in Norwalk, found good mentors every step of the way. From her professors at Sacred Heart University, to Stamford lawyer Alex Martinez and Cathy Malloy, who preceded Zucco as the leader of The Center, many people played a part in helping a young, ambitious woman from an impoverished neighborhood in Santiago reach her full potential.
“I’m very honored and grateful for things that have happened. I’ve been able to find the right people in my path and taken the opportunities given to me.” said Zucco, who has held the post since 2011.
Zucco’s ascent was swift. She joined the nonprofit organization in August 2009 as a bilingual counselor and was promoted to director of operations in January 2011. Six months later, she became executive director, replacing Malloy, who moved to Hartford when her husband became governor.
- Did you know? Ivonne Zucco, a native of Chile, ascended to her role at The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis and Counseling after working with the organization for less than two years. She replaced Cathy Malloy, wife of Gov. Dannel Malloy
- Learn more: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Visit The Center's website ( click here ) for more information.
- The Center serves eight towns : Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport, and Wilton.
“I wasn’t exactly looking for a job at the time,’’ Zucco said. “I was working in financial services and a friend of mine saw an ad that they were looking for a counselor; she insisted that I apply. I had just graduated and did not even have my resume ready.”
Zucco, who followed a long, arduous path to obtain degree in psychology at Sacred Heart, loved her work as a bilingual counselor. “It was rewarding meeting with clients and hearing what life was like for them,’’ she said. “Seeing their improvement as you talked to them each week provided lots of good reinforcement. It’s rough, because the stories are sad, scary. You learn how to deal with it and look at the bigger picture.”
Zucco’s business skills helped her move up the ladder rapidly. She owned a sign business with her ex-husband, and gained office management skills from other jobs before coming to The Center.
“I would do my counseling, but I would stay late to fix a computer or organize a file,’’ she said. “I was also looking to see how we could improve our programs. Having the opportunity to do every single job, including prevention education, gave me a broad view on how we could move forward.”
Then Malloy asked her to become the executive director. “It surprised me and everybody else,’’ Zucco said. “I could not say no. I was honored.”
Zucco, who went on to earn her MBA from the University of New Haven, now works with The Center’s Board of Directors to ensure compliance, develop programs, raise funds, talk to donors and supervise financial reporting and legal matters.
“One of my goals was to improve our prevention program,’’ Zucco said. “With prevention, we had to do a lot of research to improve on best practices; we only had programs for some school grades, now we have one for every grade. Today we are leaders in specialized sexual abuse counseling and prevention programs.”
Zucco’s rise at work parallels her journey from Chile. She came to the United States in 1995 at 22.
“I always dreamed of coming to the U.S.’’ she said. “In Chile, while growing up, everything was controlled by the military government. I used to watch all these movies about how life was here. I saw people had the freedom to express what they thought. I wanted a life like that.”
A friend of her mother’s knew of Zucco’s desire to go to America. She persuaded Ivonne to come with her. “A few months later I left,’’ Zucco said. “My mother was not too happy.”
Although, she studied at a culinary school in Chile and worked in the hotel industry, when came to the U.S. her first jobs included taking care of dogs, babysitting, being a nanny, and house cleaning.
She also enrolled at Sacred Heart and worked as a paralegal for Martinez. “He challenged me to go above and beyond,’’ Zucco said. “He pushed me out of my comfort zone.”
Conscious of her accent and English skills, Martinez helped by hiring a woman to help Zucco improve her pronunciation. “I was very insecure about making phone calls. She asked me who my favorite actress was, and I said Meryl Streep. She said every time you make a call, imagine you are Meryl Streep. It worked out wonderfully. It never crossed my mind again.” Zucco said.
All along, she never stopped learning. She acquired business skills at the sign business, managed an office for a securities firm and returned to school shortly after having a baby.
“I can’t tell you how many students started after me and finished before I did,’’ Zucco said. “I was in school for a very long time.”
But when she reflects on her path from a young woman with big dream in Chile to becoming an advocate for women in one of the wealthiest areas of the world, she feels pride.
“Sometimes I cannot believe my life has turned out this way,’’ Zucco said. “I took advantage of the opportunities offered to me, and had a lot of help along the way. I am honored, and very grateful.”
For more information about The Center, click here to visit its website. www.thecenter-ct.org .