Q&A with Erica Sandoval, LMSW, MSW ’11

Erica Sandoval headshotErica Sandoval, LMSW, MSW ’11, is the Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at enCourage Kids Foundation. She is also the President of the National Association of Social Workers, New York City Chapter (NASW-NYC); serves as Treasurer for the Latino Social Work Coalition and Scholarship Fund (LSWC); and is a Virtual Mentor and Vice President of Education for Prospanica New York.

Tell us about enCourage Kids Foundation’s work.

enCourage Kids is an incredible nonprofit that has always been inclusive, diverse, and supportive of communities of color and other vulnerable communities. The way that we do that is through supporting pediatric programs within hospitals and after kids are discharged. These include pet therapy, creative arts, and music therapy, which help kids understand what is happening to them and reduce their anxiety. And we really look at the kids in a holistic way, working with child life specialists as well as medical professionals, because we know it’s not just the medicine that helps kids heal, but everything surrounding the medicine. The trauma, anxiety, and stress that kids feel when they are hospitalized is real and without these programs, it would be a much scarier place for them. And we are passionate about health equity and access. Many of our hospital partners around the country are public, like NYC Health + Hospitals, and wouldn’t have the budget for these programs if it weren’t for us.

What does your role entail?

When I joined enCourage Kids from Make-a-Wish in late 2019, I was brought in to oversee programs and strategic partnerships with a focus on creating a very successful corporate social responsibility arm. With the coronavirus pandemic, things have shifted. We now have someone else overseeing programs and I have transitioned to more of a development role, where I am in charge of fundraising and corporate partnerships. So I am connecting with employee resource groups and business resource groups, and developing new relationships to help the foundation continue our vital work for children facing serious health challenges and their families. As you can imagine, it entails a lot of research, a lot of networking, and a lot of “virtual coffees.”

How did your clinical training at NYU Silver prepare you for this organization-level work?

I developed incredible clinical skills that help me do the mezzo and macro level work that needs to be done. I am always drawing on my understanding of where people are and where they are coming from, am making sure that we have developed a mutual relationship, and that I’m engaging in active listening. But it’s not just about training. I think relationship building is a part of who I am. Since I was a young girl, my mom used to always tell me that I was the first person to make friends, the first person to greet someone new. I have always thought the more friends the better.

How has enCourage Kids Foundation’s support grown in the nine months since you started there?

We have established a number of new relationships with employee resource groups, which are focused on ensuring that employees of color are represented, have a voice, and have their needs met in their organizations. I have developed new corporate relationships, which I hope become partnerships, with Nickelodeon, HBO, Etsy, and others, really looking at it from a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, because enCourage Kids is really walking the walk. I am also connecting more with business resource groups. I have been asked to be a part of an upcoming leadership summit for business resource groups, collaborating with incredible Latinas dedicated to providing access to all. This will open new doors for us. And I continue to meet incredible people who really feel very passionate about what I feel passionate about to build allyship and support for our work.

Is it correct that in addition to being a non-profit executive you are a practicing therapist?

Yes, I’m still a clinician with a caseload of 15 clients. In fact, I was accepted to a fellowship at the Karen Horney Clinic for Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. So I see my clients at the clinic in the evenings Monday through Friday and I receive psychoanalytic training at the clinic through the fellowship. People can’t believe the hours I keep, but I have to say, I love it. Right after I speak with someone and I connect, and I listen to what is happening in their life, and I provide support, I feel like I am doing something that’s impactful and meaningful ‒ especially now while I’m sheltering in place and working remotely. 

You also hold volunteer leadership positions with NASW-NYC, LSWC, and Prospanica New York, not to mention the fact that you’re the mother of a teenage daughter. What drives you to take on all this extra work?

Whenever I join anything, I really try to think about whether it aligns with my values. And as long as it is supporting communities, and really helping to empower, advocate, and help them move forward, I’ll do it. So for example, Prospanica. How could I say no? It’s an incredible organization of Latinx individuals that have their MBAs, and it makes me feel like I've arrived when I see they’ve arrived. It’s the same thing with Latino Social Work Coalition. We provide scholarships to ensure that Latinx students can continue with their social work education. It is so important that our profession become more representative of the communities we serve. And it’s important for me to continue to mentor Latinx students and Latinx young professionals to push them forward because it’s harder for us.

And with NASW, I think there is so much work to do right now. And as a profession, as social workers in New York City, we are really being called to task. And we have to respond and take a stance and deliver as a unified front. I want to be at the table to be able to share my thoughts, and my ideas, and to have a voice, and to be a voice for others, and to really ensure that everyone is seeing with a very wide lens, including the systemic racism in our own profession. We need to acknowledge that and really be accountable and become anti-racist activists.

You mentioned that you are an immigrant. How has your work been shaped by your personal experience?

I came to this country from Ecuador as an undocumented four-year-old girl with my mother and my grandmother, so there are so many things that I have gone through. From migration and integration into society, to having my father unify with us when I was six or seven, to becoming a U.S. resident, while my sisters were born in the U.S., so they are citizens, and then having my parents go back to Ecuador when I was 19 and I stayed In New York City by myself. So I think just in that experience alone, I probably can really empathize with and understand the traumas of some of the clients that I work with.

It was hard to integrate and handle all the transitions, but I became a self-sufficient, self-made individual without any doubt that resilience is true. I do have mixed feelings about the word resilience. Why should individuals of color be resilient? We shouldn’t have to suffer so much,  but this is our story and I look at my story and I am resilient. I am a go-getter. I take whatever comes to me and try to look at it with the perspective of “can I learn and grow from this?” So I think helping my clients, the communities that I care about, really translates for me. So now you can understand why I am part of all these groups. I feel comfortable in them and they provide comfort for me.

What are some of the ways you have been an agent of change in your career so far?

Wherever I went, I did what I was doing very passionately and thoughtfully. So in my role at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) as Program Coordinator for the Charla de Lupus program, I thought, how am I going to facilitate a group, not knowing what the members are experiencing? And it challenged me to learn group facilitation, and to be humble to the communities that I was serving and learn from them. And I did that, and seven years later there were hundreds of new people that became part of that group. When I left, I was proud of what I helped create with partnerships, like Project Sunshine, Make-A-Wish, and enCourage Kids. Our kids now are being referred to these programs. The rheumatology clinics in New York City, my co-facilitators, and social workers at HSS continue the great work of providing access to all these programs.

And then I transitioned to Make-a-Wish Metro New York and Western New York, where I was recruited to help generate more referrals and reach more kids to grant wishes. In my six years there they brought in more relationships and reached more kids in all boroughs than ever in the history of Make-A-Wish. I helped destigmatize the wish experience so that people knew it is not for a child that is dying but for a child that is experiencing a critical illness. I educated a great deal, and created great relationships, and I know many, many kids have had wishes because of the work I have done. And a wish literally changes you, and makes you feel better, and creates memories, and is very therapeutic. It is about access and equity; how can we be change agents? Share with others information they do not know that will benefit them. Be the change you want to see. The Community Councils that were formed were my proudest work. I used my social work community organizing skills to create relationships with leaders in the Bronx and Brooklyn. This helped us recruit more volunteers to serve the kids we reached all over NYC.

And, now, at enCourage Kids, I am trying to help increase brand awareness and reach more people to help them learn about the organization and increase funds for our vital programs. So I don't know how many people I have touched in my life, but I do know I changed spaces through collaborations and relationships,  ‒ I’m not counting ‒ I just know it feels good to do this work. This field is challenging, and sometimes makes you question your commitment to it, but NYU Silver will make sure you are prepared to take on these challenges.

What led you to pursue your MSW at NYU?

I always wanted to go to NYU. It was my dream school since I was a kid but I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t go to college until my daughter was born when I was 27. I left an incredible job at a music label to wait tables while I earned my BS degree. And then afterwards, when I was working at a hospital, all of my colleagues and friends were social workers. They are the ones that encouraged me to become a social worker. And I said, “well, I can only apply to one social work school, and if I don’t get in, it’s not meant to be.” And I was accepted to NYU, and it was the best day of my life.

Was there a particular class, professor, or experience you had at NYU Silver that you always remember?

I will always remember Virgen Luce, an amazing Latinx woman who is now the Assistant Dean for Field Learning and Community Partnerships. She was one of my two favorite professors along with adjunct Dr. Paulette Landsman. And the Dean at the time gave me the opportunity to participate in a grant-funded research project in which I interviewed Spanish-speaking families in a program in the Bronx and translated their responses to English. I loved doing that. It was an incredible experience.

Because I was an OYR student and was working full time while raising my daughter, I wasn’t able to partake in all of the extracurricular and social activities. But the beauty of NYU is that you’re still connected even after you graduate. So I’ve stayed engaged with the School. I am a Field Instructor for NYU students, and last fall, I was a guest speaker in Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant’s community organizing class, so now I am thinking about whether I want to teach as well. I have also been working with Associate Director of Career and Professional Development Sonia Bhansali, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Richeleen Dashield and Associate Director of Inclusive Engagement and Student Life Angie Kim to support efforts to create better experiences for students of color. I love giving back with time, which is so priceless. This field is challenging, and sometimes makes you question your commitment to it, but NYU Silver will make sure you are prepared to take on these challenges.

Is there anything else about your NYU Silver experience you would like to share?

I am proud to say that one of my friends from NYU is Kenton Kirby. We sat next to each other in class and one day he looked at me and said, “I hope we stay connected” and I looked at him and said “we will, and we’re going to do big things one day.” And now he’s on the NASW-NYC executive board with me and I said, “I told you it’s going to happen.”

NYU attracts an incredible body of students and one of the other things that I love about NYU is that it’s one of the best clinical programs of social work. I think that I came out really, really well trained, and it was the beginning of lifelong learning. And I’m so proud to say I’m an NYU Silver alum.