In January of 1984, Shaina Gonzales was born. You probably know women like Shaina – you know the ones – the ones who give new meaning to strong yet gentle, passionate, brilliant, well-read, determined, devoted to community service, bilingual, talented, and whose connection to her closest family and friends is her top priority. She is the woman who you know you can call if you get in a jam.
I met Shaina when I worked at Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver. She was one of the young professionals, a case worker studying for her Masters in Social Work, serving the youth at Mi Casa’s Neighborhood Center at Lake Middle School. In the 2009/2010 School Year, 94% of the students qualified for the Federal free and reduced fee lunch program. The median family household income in the neighborhood around Lake in 1999 was $29,808. Today, Lake Middle School has a student enrollment of 568 children, of whom 476 are Latino/a.
What made you want to become a social worker?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to help people. When I was in college at the University of New Mexico, I began volunteering with a crisis center on campus. This is where I think my journey really began. I loved being able to listen to people and help them through emotional crises. I also conducted a lot of community outreach for the agency and learned a lot about the non-profit world. During the time that I started volunteering, I also took a Sociology 101 course. This course was instrumental in me becoming a social worker. I learned so much in this class about our society, systems, issues that face the poor, and issues of race and gender. I was in love. I knew I had found my niche. Over time I learned that I was much more interested in the applied side of sociology and working with people directly. My senior year in college is when I decided I wanted to become a social worker and pursue higher education. I began my graduate work at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work in 2009 and graduated in 2011 with my master’s degree.
What makes you enthusiastic as a woman about creating a better community locally?
Women are powerful and wonderful. There are micro finance companies that work overseas and give the money to the women to create community change because research has shown that women are more likely to keep the money in the community and use it for the benefit of the community. Women in our country are still not equal with men. A lot of movement has been made towards gender equality, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. That being said, there is a lot of work that needs to be done towards creating equality in general in our country whether it is gender equality, marriage equality, racial equality, etc. Being a woman I guess in some ways is what makes me passionate about making the world a better place for other women and for the disadvantaged.
What drew you to women’s empowerment as a social issue? How does it relate to your professional work with youth?
I have been passionate about a lot of social issues in my young lifetime. My passion in the social services field initially started with suicide prevention and then I moved on to working with kids and families. Currently I am employed full time in the area of child welfare and continue to work with children and families. I was drawn to women’s empowerment issues when I worked with Project WISE for my second year graduate school internship. I loved my work with low income women because I saw firsthand how truly strong women are. The women I worked with had been through many personal problems, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, etc. But I witnessed their ability to overcome these issues, focus on making themselves better people, going to back to school, and focusing on how to become the best possible mother they could be. I still feel passionate about women’s empowerment in relation to my work in child welfare. I see so many single mothers who are struggling and end up catching a child abuse case for either domestic violence or poverty related issues. I feel strongly that these women need mental health and empowerment services in order to overcome these challenges.
What year did you start your own business, Puentes LLC? Do you have a partner? Tell me a little about her? Is she a social worker too? What made you two decide to do this together? What was the tipping point to help you make that the year you became a business owner? Tell me about your business and who its clients are?
I started Puentes, LLC in 2011 after I graduated from graduate school. I had several friends asking for me to help them to study Spanish because they felt so strongly that they needed the skills to better serve the community. A friend of mine gave me the idea to start a business teaching Spanish. It was all pretty quick. Luckily, my sister had just recently graduated with her Masters in Business Administration, so she helped me a lot in terms of organizing the structure of the business and getting it started. I began enlisting the help of many of my friends and family members, to make Puentes a reality. For example, my cousin is a graphic designer and created the logo. It’s been a fun project!
The mission of Puentes, LLC is to provide human service professionals with tools, education, and resources to better serve and engage their Latino clients, while also reaching Spanish language competency in areas related to their practice. We are committed to inspiring these professionals to become powerful agents of change in order to meet the diverse needs of the Latino community. Currently, we offer basic Spanish courses for service professionals who seek to be able to communicate better with their Spanish speaking clients.
The course is not designed to help folks become fluent, but rather give them tools to help begin to bridge the language divide in our community. I am the sole owner of the business, but I have a colleague from graduate school that helps out with teaching, curriculum building and outreach. Her name is Alice Wheet. She is a social worker who also holds a degree in public policy. Her social work and professional practice is macro and community focused and she, like me, is very passionate about issues that relate to the Latino community in our country and passionate about helping to bridge the language divide.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit? Or is it new for you?
I have not always had the entrepreneurial spirit and it is definitely new to me. I never thought I would own my own business. It is challenging and is a skill set that I am not sure comes so natural for me. Social work feels like a much more innate skill that I have. Being a business owner is a whole new territory for me!
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve addressed in community service? The biggest accomplishment?
I had addressed many challenges in community service so it is hard to pick just one. Over my career thus far I have addressed issues related to suicide, youth and women’s empowerment, poverty, homelessness and now child abuse and neglect. Social problems are found in nearly every facet of our community. One thing that I love the most about being a Social Worker is that I can work in many different areas and do not ever need to tie myself down to one specific social issue. So many of the issues are also related in very intricate ways. For example, the rates of child abuse increase drastically when there is domestic violence present in a household.
My biggest accomplishment thus far has probably been establishing Puentes LLC as a business and holding two successful courses in which I taught basic Spanish to roughly a total of 20 students. It was inspiring to see students with very little Spanish experience be able to communicate enough to conduct a basic intake with a potential client by the end of the course. I truly feel that these classes made a difference for the students and in the long term will hopefully have a larger community impact the more that I offer them.
Would you comment on what you intend to keep doing as the 2013 begins, in terms of your community service?
I am excited that we will be starting a new round of Basic Spanish for Service Professionals courses starting Wednesday, March 20. The course will run for 8 weeks and will be two hours each night. There has been a lot of interest in this course and I am excited that so many folks are enthusiastic about gaining language tools to better serve their Latino clients. It’s truly exciting stuff.
If you saw a newspaper headline 5 years from now that meant your community work had been successful, what would it say?
“Research now shows that more Americans are becoming bilingual in English and Spanish.”
One of Shaina’s favorite quotes makes great sense to me, having met so many special people who also happen to be social workers. "Social work isn't something you do--it's who you ARE." - Professor Deb Ortega, University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
Shaina is also an active volunteer mentor for the Wise Woman Network of Project WISE. To learn more about how you can volunteer to mentor other women, call 303-765-5879.
Readers, who are in the human services field or who are simply interested in learning Spanish in a smaller, warm, supportive setting, should check out the next series of Puentes LLC classes starting next month on March 20 on Wednesday evenings. Classes will be held at Project WISE which is centrally located near the Auraria Campus at 13th and Kalamath. Plenty of free parking is available adjacent to the Project WISE building.
I like re-reading all of Shaina’s favorite quotes but this is the one by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that I will leave readers to consider.
"The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough to those who have little."