Latina Leaders: A social worker teaches to use your own experiences for empowerment

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago is not your typical clinical social worker, she works full-time as a program director for counseling in New York City public schools, she has a private practice, and offers workshops in self-development which has helped thousands of Latinas and families in the city. In addition to writing her own blog called, Latina Wellness, she contributes to Vidavibrante.com and SoLatina.com.

For Santiago, social work was a pretty obvious path, because she remembers clearly wanting to help others from as young as age 4.

“I was always a very sensitive, compassionate kid,” she says. “I would cry when other kids would cry. I couldn’t really see other people in pain without being impacted. It would kind of crush me.”

She grew up in a home where her step dad used to abuse her mom, emotionally and physically, and one of Santiago’s first roles as a social worker — after graduating with a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University — was working with battered women and children.

“I could think, ‘Oh I had a horrible life,’ that’s where a lot of people go,’” says Santiago, who instead learned from her experience — not to be a victim and to use bad situations to her advantage. “It’s a way of empowerment and dealing with life, because life is life and stuff is going to happen.”

Her life experience, trained her for her future career.

“I always loved helping people, but I didn’t like the models I was exposed to,” says Santiago, describing the theories she learned in school. “There was an idea that you start wherever the client is. There’s also this idea that you have to let people be, but just being doesn’t allow for change.”

So she says she made the decision to be innovative and started offering her patients alternative ways of thinking – at least to provide them with the opportunity to have another view. She would ask them, “Have you thought about this?” or “What if you shifted or reframed where you are right now?”

“That was very different from what I was originally trained to do, and that’s why I started coaching,” says Santiago. “I really believe in helping women, and people, be their best self.”

She says her job gives her complete joy. Her absolute favorite part is writing her blog, because of the fulfillment it gives her.

“My second favorite part is running the group coaching sessions,” says the 44-year-old. “There is such a wonderful tremendous energy I get from sitting in a gathering of Latinas who show up because they want to figure out how to live their dream life. They want to grow and change and improve. It’s so inspiring that I leave those sessions on a natural high.”

She says the other night 22 women came to her workshop, and it was so full of inspiration and energy that she had trouble sleeping afterwards.

“I was explaining to them how much I do, and over the years, I have not really thought about not being able to do it, but how to make room for it,” says Santiago whose typical day starts at her program director job counseling for schools, where she oversees about 24 people. “I’m not really in an office. I go out to the schools and move around. I do Latina Wellness and see clients in the evenings.”

She says she sees a lot of people wanting to make a change, but they feel stuck and don’t know how to start.

“Most people, when they are facing a challenge, will automatically think, ‘I don’t know what to do about this,’ but I help them think, ‘What are my options?’,” says Santiago. “There is always another way, but you have to be in a place to think that way to make that possible.”

Ultimately, she says everybody wants to live a life where they feel meaning and purpose, and that’s why she started Latina Wellness –  to give Latinas the tools to do that.

“I hear from women all the time that they feel empowered, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to live my dream, and what it means to help others live their dream,” she says.

This article was originally published on NBCLatino.com, and was nominated for a 2014 NASW Media Award.

Advertisements

10 tips for an emotionally healthy new year

Wellness expert/personal trainer/nutrition coach, Josette Puig, giving a group fitness class. (Courtesy Josette Puig)

Wellness expert/personal trainer/nutrition coach, Josette Puig, giving a group fitness class. (Courtesy Josette Puig)

It’s a brand new year, and you are anxious to start 2013 with vigor, but there’s a small problem –you’re feeling sluggish after about a month straight of holiday parties, drinking, and not eating right.

Not to worry; here comes wellness expert and author of “Frumpy to Fabulous: One Change a Week to a Healthier You,” Josette Puig, to the rescue. She says emotional health and energy are intrinsically tied to your overall health, as well as what you eat.

“People are so overwhelmed with so many diets, they don’t realize processed food is making them ill,” says Puig, whose own doctor gave her antidepressants before she learned it was processed foods and sugar which were making her feel unstable.

What inspired Puig to write her book was the frustration of seeing others not know how to eat as well — depriving themselves entirely of carbohydrates and meat. She recommends doing one change a week to improve your physical and emotional health.

Here are her 10 tips to an emotionally healthy year:

1. The most important thing to do first is detox. — Cut out sugar, processed foods and alcohol from your diet for a good month, at least. They are depressants, physically and mentally; they suppress your immune system. Puig recommends Stevia if you need a sweetener, as it’s natural and it’s not going to harbor any sort of side effects like other sweeteners do. Certainly, if you can keep this up as a lifestyle, even better.

2. Start your day with a motivational quote. — Whether you stick them on your nightstand or your Facebook wall, it triggers something and changes your frame of mind. Puig says that’s one of the biggest things that have helped her, especially in becoming a motivator for others. You can subscribe to receive them daily in your e-mail, or even download a free app for your smartphone.

3. Exercise — even if for as little as 10 minutes. — It releases endorphins, and they make you happy. Ideally, it is great to do first thing in the morning to kick start your day, but get it in whenever you can get it in. Even if you turn on your radio while making dinner, that’s better than not doing anything at all. If you enjoy running, swimming — whatever you enjoy doing, that’s what you should do in order to keep it up.

4. Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. — It can be something as simple as wheat toast with peanut butter. This will set your energy and pace for the day — not just physical, but emotional energy, too. If you start your day by skipping breakfast, all you are doing is slowing down your metabolism and your emotional energy, as well. If you are not hungry, that’s a huge sign that your metabolism has shut down and not working properly. Puig says it took her four months to get my metabolism working properly like a well-oiled machine. She says if you skip breakfast for long enough, you’re going to start storing fat in places you used to not store fat — this is a red flag.

5. Increase your Omega-3 intake. — This can be found in walnuts, avocados, olive oil and fish oils. Omega-3 helps with the brain, metabolism and helps you lose weight. Puig highly suggests fish oils before bed, as they will help you sleep and feel better. They also help people with depression, as they improve emotional energy.

6. Say “yes” to good carbs. — Make sure you have complex carbohydrates at breakfast, lunch and dinner. This includes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat bread – and then fit in your snacks with omega-3s in between. You want to stagger it to keep your energy stable all day long. This is better than having coffee and a doughnut for a midday snack, which will give you a sugar high and then crash. Puig maintains great energy the entire day by eating apple slices with natural almond butter, or avocado and sliced turkey roll-ups. As a national fitness competitor, she says she eats six to seven times a day — even Greek yogurt and an ounce of crushed walnuts and honey before bed — which helps her sleep better and helps keep her metabolism up.

7. Drink a lot of water. — The key is drinking at least half of your body weight in ounces of water. If you weigh 150 pounds, you need to be consuming 75 ounces of water. And drink more, if you are trying to lose weight. When people are tired, they think, ‘Let me eat a candy bar,’ but sometimes all they need is water. For every ounce of caffeinated beverage, you are taking away an ounce of water. It’s also great for your skin and relieves headaches.

8. Get rid of the deadweight friends. — Negative people can drag you down emotionally and be very draining. Determine who is anchoring you down, and your real friends pushing you forward. You have to take care of you first. Puig says she has had a better life after doing this and feels she’s setting an example to her four children. She says to surround yourself with positive people, because in this day and age no one is looking out for you but you.

9. Sleep. — So many people aren’t getting enough sleep and that affects their emotional well-being. Not many people know how to turn off the light and roll over anymore, causing them to burn out. Start turning the television off and putting your phone away an hour before bed. Puig says she has noticed her children unwind much better after doing this. She says it’s just a habit that most people have lost in this era of technology. Find something else to do to unwind like reading, meditating, or chatting with your spouse. Have some sort of routine to re-learn how to turn off the light and go to sleep.

10. Set short-term goals. — These help with emotional well-being. Puig says she lost 40 pounds in 2004, by setting short-term goals. She says making one change a week, such as doing pushups on her toes instead of her knees, helped her keep pushing herself. Two years later, she was in a fitness competition. For every day she works out, Puig also puts a dollar in a jar. With the money she saved at the end of the year, she was able to take herself on a cruise for her 40th birthday. It’s just a little thing to keep you going.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.