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Coworker Corner: Cynthia Velasquez
Cynthia Velasquez has a passion for social work. And while helping others is something that has been close to her heart for many years, it was her time at Mercy Home that helped her hone her skills and solidify that it was the right path for her.
Cynthia graduated from Dominican University with a degree in pastoral ministry. After a positive experience in youth group when she was in high school, she originally hoped to be a youth minister. But after interning in a parish youth group, she realized she wanted to reach more people than that position would allow.
“I wanted to reach and also support youth who are facing more adversity,” she explained.
Cynthia originally heard of Mercy Home at a career fair, where we were recruiting MercyWorkers. She came for a visit and “just fell in love with the mission.”
However, with the encouragement of her mentors, she ultimately decided that she needed to spend her year of service outside of Chicago. She joined the Dominican Volunteers and spent a year living and working in New York in the Bronx borough. During her time there, she worked at a shelter for young mothers as the activities coordinator, planning different activities like baking cookies, going to the zoo, and trips to Radio City Music Hall, as well as helping with educational workshops.
I wanted to reach and also support youth who are facing more adversity.
For her second year of service, Cynthia traveled to Northern California and worked at a multi-service nonprofit called the St. Francis Center. The center was located in an area with low-income families, many of whom were immigrants or first-generation. One of the services the St. Francis Center provided was ESL classes for both parents and kids.
“The expectation was that the parents would come for ESL so that they could improve their education and better their lives while the kids [could learn as well],” she said.
During her time there, Cynthia taught ESL classes, as well as helping in the food pantry and clothing room. She also helped in the after-school program, tutored third and fourth graders, and acted as the academic enrichment coach, where she helped kids who were academically struggling.
After completing her two years of service, Cynthia decided she wanted to finally seek a job at Mercy Home, and originally applied for a position in Friends First. However, during her interview with Katie Keller Smith and Mary Quinn, they told her that she felt she would be a better fit in youth programs and connected her with Kari Sikich and Ari Bernstein, the then-program manager and supervisor of Bosco Home. She took a job as a youth care worker in Bosco, working with high school aged boys.
During her year in Bosco Home, Ari and Kari both challenged her to learn more about trauma and the reasoning behind certain actions the young men in her care would take.
“Ari and Kari, they are amazing clinicians,” she said. “In my supervision with Ari, he would always challenge me to think what the behavior was [and] get curious about what was happening, what was going on in their brains.”
Cynthia was fascinated during the ARC training and learning about how trauma impacted the brain. She was thrilled to finally be able to put words to the many things she had experienced during her two years of service and her time at Mercy Home.
“I saw the cycle of poverty, I saw the women [at the homeless shelter] experiencing mental health issues, but … I didn’t have the words for it, the entomology for that,” she said. “And through supervision and through the trainings here at Mercy, I started to learn more about it … so that’s what really sparked, inspired me [to apply for a master’s program in social work].”
Ari was the first person she told when she was accepted into Loyola’s social work program.
“It was really cool to share that with him because he was the one that really inspired me to continue pursuing my education,” she said.
For two years, Cynthia worked as support staff at Mercy Home while earning her master’s degree in social work. After graduating, she knew immediately that she wanted to work in AfterCare. She was hired as the therapeutic supervisor and has held that position for two and a half years.
As the therapeutic supervisor, Cynthia wears many hats. Her duties include being the point person of intake when our kids are transitioning out of residential care or wanting to reconnect with our Home and connecting them to a care manager, as well as handling therapeutic care management for AfterCare members who are experiencing mental health issues. She also does short-term therapy with members, supports with drop-in hours, and represents AfterCare on various committees, including the Recovery Committee and Mercy Model Committee.
Another important part of her job is working with Manager of Aftercare Sam Villasenor on team building and team development activities.
“We plan the retreats, as well as doing different things like group supervisions for the care managers,” she said. “[It’s] really being intentional about developing the team and learning about our strengths, doing our strengths finder, our Kobe, and our Enneagram. [It’s] really building on those various that help us learn about ourselves so we’re an informed team. [Then] we can understand where someone’s coming from [and] that really helps diffuse conflict.”
Her favorite part of working in AfterCare, however, is when former residents “pop in” for a visit, especially those Cynthia has known since her time working in Bosco Home. She recently reconnected with a young man who she met in Bosco Home. He’s now in college and an AfterCare scholar.
“Just seeing the growth that he has gone through and how he’s matured as a young man, it’s just a wonderful thing and really, it’s rewarding,” she said.