Emily Bonilla was born and raised in the northeast, and she’s called Orlando home since 1998. An alumnus of Valencia College, UCF, and Full Sail University, she has served as Orange County’s District 5 commissioner since 2016. The district covers College Park, Winter Park, and Maitland as well as UCF, Research Park, and much of the east side of the county near Bithlo and Christmas.
You’ve lived in central Florida for 20 years now. What brought you to Orlando?
As soon as I graduated high school, I came to UCF in 1995. But after the first semester, I got homesick and went back. I was with my husband since sophomore year high school. I came down. I left him back there. And I think that was part of my homesickness.
You were high school sweethearts? What is it like to be together for that length of time?
We got married in 2000, and it’s really interesting being with someone that long. We basically grew up together, and we saw each other go through changes. We changed together, going through different stages in our life, and we matured. Well, I imagine I matured faster than him. We’re best friends as well, and we love each other.
What was it like growing up in your family?
I don’t like to talk about it, but I’ve been talking about it more recently. I didn’t have a really safe environment. Growing up, I was basically raising myself and my two younger brothers. The house was filthy, to the point where it was infested with roaches. If my little brothers left the box of cereal out, we couldn’t eat it anymore because it was infested. I would try to find change in the sofas to get money to go buy stuff like cans of SpaghettiOs or Chef Boyardee from the corner store. The kids and I would collect cans and turn them in for money. We were between the ages of 6 and 10 finding money to feed ourselves. As a child, my friends and I figured out these places that we could go to. The YWCA was one of them. We had Big Brothers Big Sisters through the school. And there was a church bus that would go around and pick us up on Sundays and bring us to church. There was this small shelter called Bread and Roses. And we would go there once a week for bread. It would be all gone by the time we got home. Those were children services that were out there, that helped us escape what we’re going through and help teach us there’s other options out there for us.
You discussed this at a February board meeting*. How does this experience affect the policies for your district?
The only reason I decided to talk about it is because we have children out there who are going through what I went through. That’s one of my biggest things, is to get these children to realize that what they’re going through is not normal. That’s not a healthy environment to grow up in. There’s increasing drug use in Bithlo and Christmas and it just continues getting worse. If they don’t see anything better than what they’re growing up in, it’s going to be a cycle. This is going to continue in the next family and the next generation. That’s what’s been happening out there, it’s a core of generational poverty. It just continues, and those who do end up doing better escape and don’t come back. It’s going to continue happening until we could fix the problem there. Iwanttofocusoneconomicdevelopment in that area because you help children when you bring jobs to the area. There’s a whole commercial property corridor there that can be utilized for economic development. Jobs could be brought in so that these children grow up and do better, they could stay. That’s what happens in a lot of rural America; once they grow up, even though they want to do better, they can’t stay because there’s no jobs there. They end up leaving, and then the cycle of poverty continues in that area.
You’re two years into your first term. What are your biggest takeaways so far?
I believe there’s a reason for everything. God puts us into situations to prepare us, and I feel that those first two years were probably the best two years that God could throw me into, so I could learn as fast as I could. Whatever I do, there has to be a greater purpose to it. Although getting into politics was situational, it gave me the opportunity to bring that purpose into what I’m doing, and serve the greater good.
Becoming county commissioner was a big change for you career-wise. How was the transition for your family?
It was a big transition for all of us. At the same time, my youngest son started middle school. My oldest was going into college. You know how it is just entering middle school. It’s that time in your life that you’re transitioning from a child to preteen. And then my oldest one, going from high school as a teenager to an adult. So I’m dealing with both those transitions of both my kids, and then for me, going into this job that’s 24/7. My husband was my campaign manager. He also had to go through a transition where he spent eight months of his life working on this campaign.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s looking to run for office for the first time?
It depends on what situation you’re in, and it’s a little bit of an art form. When we have good candidates in office, don’t run against them. People hate to hear, “Wait your turn.” There are term limits; let that person serve and then get their support to run, reach out to them. Build that relationship and have them become your mentor. If there’s someone in there that’s really unsavory, run against them and get them out. Don’t wait your turn and do it.
*Editor’s note: You can watch an update of the Community and Family Services Department, including Commissioner Bonilla’s comments, in the Orange TV video archive on OCFL.net. It is from the Feb. 12 Board of County Commissioners meeting.