Q&A with Monika Estrada Guzman, MSW ’16

Monika Estrada-GuzmanAs the founding Program Director of Nido de Esperanza (Nido), a faith-based early childhood intervention program in Washington Heights/Inwood, Monika Estrada Guzman, MSW ’16, has built a place of hope, community, and support for poverty-impacted and immigrant families with infants and toddlers ages zero to three. In 2019 she received the Latino Social Work Coalition’s Leadership Award and in 2020 she is being recognized with the NASW-NYC’s Aquamarine Leadership Award and the Auburn Seminary’s Lives of Commitment Award for her transformational work.

Tell us about Nido’s work.

Nido works with families from pregnancy through their child’s third birthday to change the directory of their child's life. Our work is grounded in a two-generation approach that recognizes if the mother thrives, so does the baby. We utilize an empowerment model that fosters self-efficacy and resiliency among participants so they can better cope with stressors related to poverty, immigration status, and motherhood. Our evidence-informed, bilingual programs include one-on-one coaching for expectant and new parents; weekly mutual support groups, Las Orugitas-Parent and Me groups; a weekly family reading program called The Reading Corner/Rincom de Lectura; access to clothing, nutrition and other essentials; and English classes, Trauma Informed Yoga, and other educational programs for parents.

When you started at Nido De Esperanza, right after you earned your MSW, it was a brand new program. What did your role entail?

You can basically say I was given the keys to the doors. From the beginning, we were trying to figure out what Nido De Esperanza would look like. I spent that first summer just getting to know the community, canvassing the other community agencies, attending health fairs, tabling, connecting with key stakeholders in the community, and getting insights into how to recruit families into our program.  

I worked with our founder Lara Theriault and our Executive Director Holly Fogle to build the program from the ground up. In addition to creating an intake form and recruitment flyers, we created cohorts and mutual support groups for parents with children close in age, and we further developed a Saturday literacy program, and tailored what the one-on-one interventions would look like, and how to introduce our families to the notion of mental health. We worked on what it would mean to come to a wellness visit, how we could make our language more inclusive and holistic, and how to ensure that we had a strengths-based model.  

From our community outreach, we knew that many of our families were experiencing food insecurity so we made sure that nutrition became a part of our program. Also, culturally, a lot of our families are of Latino descent. Being able to break bread helped to break down walls and create a therapeutic alliance. To reduce the cultural stigma associated with mental health, I drew on our cultural beliefs about processing stressors in our lives with food and of offering our guests a cup of coffee, tea, water, or food, as a welcome gesture, saying "Come have a cup of coffee or tea with me -- lets catch up and discuss what is going in your life.”

I often joke that my first year here I was over-caffeinated and had really good bone density because we serve our moms a healthy snack of Greek yogurt to ensure their health and well-being, and always have coffee in case they haven’t had time to finish a cup before coming in for their groups or their one-on-ones, which is a particular problem for our moms who also have older kiddos they have to drop off at school first. So we are really focused on meeting our clients where they're at and just breaking down the barriers and addressing the innate needs that they may have.  

Our aim is really creating a safe space for our families, a place where they can come and they can learn about their child's development and help them hit their milestones. But our rule is that we come alongside them. We're not here to dictate what they should be doing, or to judge whether what they are doing is right or wrong. We are here to be their assistant coach to highlight their strengths and reassure them that they are already doing a great job!  

How has Nido De Esperanza grown since you started three-and-a-half years ago?  

Our program started with just two full-time social workers. We subsequently hired two additional social workers and a program coordinator who has a BS in social work. We also created an educational and field placement opportunity for NYU Silver undergraduates and have welcomed seven NYU interns over that time.

Our program has grown from serving ten families to a total of 89 families now. In 2019, we graduated our first cohort of three-year-olds. Our twelve kiddos who came to us when they were four- to six-months-old, are now attending 3-K programs here in Washington Heights and they are thriving. One of our kiddos became student of the month last September and I have heard from other moms that their kiddos are able to use Legos, blocks, or other toys to have more creative play than their classmates that perhaps did not have that space to come and play and learn.  

Is there an aspect of your program about which you are particularly proud?

I am really proud that our first cohort of children are in 3-K programs and that their families were able to build community and to become a close-knit group of friends. That is our hope. We are a faith-based agency. We believe in loving your neighbor as you love yourself and really extending that and creating community within our cohorts.  

We know that motherhood can be very isolating and a very hard transition no matter your circumstances. But on top of that, when we think about women who have immigrated, whose social networks or social extended family may not be here with them but in their country of origin, it is especially important to build that community and reduce that isolation. I am proud of our mutual support group cohorts, where our families can communicate, and can learn with one another, and share their resources whether they are first, second, or third-time mothers. Our groups create that sisterhood so no matter where or what background you come from, there is a commonality of being a woman, of being resilient, of being able to thrive, and of being able to give your child every opportunity that they deserve.

How has your work been shaped by your personal experience?

I immigrated with my mother at the age of seven from Guatemala. Seeing my mother navigate a new country, learning a new language, adapting to a new “role”, dealing with her loss of familial connections, identity and attachment to her birth country, were part of my journey. At a young age, I witnessed how my mother relied on her Christian faith, her resilience, and strength to create a home for herself and a sanctuary in our own home for recent migrants and family members to arrive and find work. Along our journey, we also found people that would do the same for us, creating safe spaces and sharing their human capital and connections to support us. Being part of this cycle of never-ending love and kindness for one another, and my personal experience growing up bicultural, undocumented, and unafraid for the majority of my years, and facing systemic barriers, inspired me to pursue MSW and the work I do with our families at Nido de Esperanza.

How did your NYU Silver education prepare you to take on this ambitious position?

I had amazing professors, who brought their wealth of knowledge and professional experience into the classrooms. They challenged us to think and they created space for us. For example, I had Policy One with Dr. Alma Carten, who is now retired. I didn’t know what a powerhouse she was in the world of child welfare. I would go to see her in her office to challenge the curriculum or the status quo, and she was welcoming, loving, and empowering. Once, I told her that I was interested in how my West Coast Latinx immigrant experience was different from that of East Coast Latinx immigrants. She said "oh I know people that I can contact" and suddenly I was getting emails back from all these women who had created their own programs, who opened their doors for me to go see the work that they had done. Two years later, it was through Dr. Carten and her network that I found my job at Nido de Esperanza.  

Another formative experience was being able to take Dr. Vincent Guilamo-Ramos’ course in Puebla, Mexico, which focused on unaccompanied minors and the migratory push-pull factors, which was of great interest to me. And then, I was fortunate to be able to study abroad for a full semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A lot of the principles I learned in my field placement there at Hospital Rivadavia with social workers that had been there more than 20 or 30 years helped me shape the program here. Seeing how those women were a part of their clients' lives for decades, how they checked in and shared mate with them, how they created a safe space, and were true community social workers and advocates for their clients, especially during the HIV epidemic…I think of them a lot. It was a great educational experience that inspired a generation of MSW students. Gisselle Pardo, who coordinated the semester abroad program for the School, has been a tremendous friend and mentor to me and is now Nido’s Clinical Supervisor.

What advice do you have for incoming MSW students?

Don't be afraid to talk to your professors. If there is someone that has a similar trajectory or is doing research or is working in the field that you are interested in, go and speak to them. They are the ones that can guide you and can help you think outside the box. And you never know the connections you might make as a result. Think about how you can use your social work degree in different service sectors. Dream Big!