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.