A dedicated and passionate family woman by nature, Yolanda keeps it real and leads by example. The major focus of her work providing Latina women and their families with the resources they need to live normal, healthy lives. As the only social worker at an HIV/AIDS clinic in San Antonio, Texas, in the early 1990s, she discovered the need for a support group specifically designed for Spanish-speaking HIV-positive women, and thus Mujeres Unidas was created. Not only was Yolanda actively involved in the development of this groundbreaking support group, but she was also instrumental in transforming Mujeres Unidas into the only women-centered AIDS organization in San Antonio.
She currently serves as executive director of the organization, now known as Mujeras Unidas Contra el SIDA, which has become a beacon of hope for many Latina women. There she provides clients with one-on-one counseling, facilitates four different support groups and oversees various educational and outreach programs that reach out to numerous women in need.
From her perspective, the greatest frustration of an executive director for an AIDS organization in 2005 is the political turf war that has resulted from a scarcity of resources available for agencies that serve people living with HIV.
But, no matter how challenging the work, Yolanda is convinced she is right where she should be. She sees her work as a ministry, not a job. The rewarding feeling that comes from helping others is what makes her happy.
How long have you been working with people living with HIV?
For the last 17 years.
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
There are more resources available to clients. There are more medications available, which in turn offers more hope for people to continue to live their lives because they realize that we are closer to a cure. In contrast, with the available medications, some people have taken on a lax attitude. They think that if they contract HIV, all they have to do is take medicine and they can live normal lives. They don't realize how toxic these medications can be.
If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?
I provide one-on-one counseling services for people living with HIV/AIDS and facilitate four different support groups. One is for Latinas who are infected and/or affected with HIV/AIDS. Another is for monolingual Spanish-speaking gay Latinos. I facilitate another for children whose lives are impacted by HIV/AIDS (some living with HIV and others with a parent, sibling or other loved one who is living with HIV). And, lastly, there is one for families who share in the struggle of having a loved one who is living with HIV/AIDS.
I also write grants and reports to keep our doors open to continue offering the services that we have at Mujeres. I oversee other educational programs, such as the Madrina Project -- a peer education model where a woman who is living with HIV/AIDS is educated about the virus so that she can then reach out to a newly diagnosed woman. In doing so, she teaches her how to navigate the system in order to ensure that both her medical and social needs are met. They also teach about HIV/AIDS and work with the family members of those women.
Another project is one that allows outreach workers to go and teach at-risk Latinas the facts about HIV/AIDS by reaching out to them using nontraditional settings, such as "platicas" or get togethers.
And lastly, I oversee a project teaching young volunteers to become peer educators. They learn to teach other youths in the community about HIV/AIDS by using theater as a venue. I supervise social work student interns as they are placed at Mujeres to do their required internship.
What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is when I hear clients say that coming to the agency I founded and participating in the groups I facilitate is what has changed their lives. It is such a rewarding feeling when they consider Mujeres to be their second family or even the only family they have.
What's the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing about my job is that there are not enough resources to go around to help everybody. Oftentimes, there are political turf wars because of the limited funding available to do all of the work that is needed in our communities. This causes competition and dissension among programs that are struggling to survive.
What have been your greatest successes in your work?
The greatest success in my work has been taking a small women's support group for Latinas and having them become leaders in their own right. Another success has been turning the group into an organization that is the only women-centered AIDS Service Organization (ASO) in our community. Other successes include the many grants I have written that have been funded to help grow our program and take our services to another level. Lastly, we know we have been successful when we are invited to apply for or are handpicked for certain grant opportunities.
My greatest failures have been my inability to reach everyone who needs to receive the prevention message. Due to the lack of funding, we don't have enough outreach workers to go out and do the work that Mujeres is here to do. Another failure has been my inability to find a way to keep the lines of communication open with other ASOs since there is so much competition, which creates dissension among the groups that are trying to meet the same goals.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a case manager/social worker? Would other people in your profession give a similar answer?
The biggest challenge that I face as a social worker is that there is not enough funding for the services needed for our clients. Therefore, I am faced with finding creative ways to help people in need. I believe that other social workers and case managers would agree with me that what we can offer to our clients is dictated by how much funding the programs we work for have available.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
The biggest risk factor for HIV is a general lack of information about the facts. There still remains that lack of awareness about how HIV is contracted. There are women who do not think they are at risk because they do not fall into any of the high-risk categories. What they fail to realize is that their partner may be the one who is participating in risky behavior and, as a result, come home and infect them. Not enough emphasis is placed on developing culturally competent educational materials to reach certain populations.
What is the most memorable thing you have learned from the people you work with?
The most memorable thing has been learning about the multiple challenges/struggles people have to face in living with HIV/AIDS and yet they still are able to live their lives with dignity, strength and courage. The resilience that they have to be able to survive and go on living is remarkable! This has been a lesson for me when I face challenges and struggles of my own. I gain strength from them.
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
The deep faith and spirituality that I possess helps me to stay focused and maintain a positive outlook. The fact that I can continue to help one more person in his or her struggle helps me to go on.
If you weren't doing what you are doing now, what would you be?
I would be teaching. I would want to be able to expose social work students to all of my life-changing experiences through my many jobs and roles as a social worker.
Do you work with any particular population of people?
I work with Latinas and their families. I work with children, adult women and families of Latinas who are living with HIV/AIDS. In the last three years, I have also been working with Latino gay men and have learned a lot about this population and their special needs.
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
I would not hesitate in dedicating this award to the many women who have touched my life. There are many strong women in my family who helped to shape the person that I am. My mother has been my inspiration. I have followed her example in helping others. The other women who have left a lasting impression on me have been the women who have passed on due to complications with AIDS. How they lived their lives with great strength and dignity! They are my unsung heroes!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I always thought I wanted to be a teacher until I was in college. I switched my major to social work. I was sure that I wanted to have a job where I could help others and I think I chose the best profession to meet my goal.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My father was an aircraft electrician and worked civil service at Kelly Air Force Base, one of five military bases in San Antonio. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who babysat and was always there for me and my sister. I always say that she was the first social worker I ever met because she was known for helping others in our neighborhood and in our family.
When did you decide you wanted to be a social worker? What was your major in college?
I began taking classes in early childhood education at a local junior college and received an associate degree in child development. When I transferred as a junior to the University of California at Berkeley, I ended up exploring other options and decided on a major in social work. I received my bachelor's in social work and then went on to earn a master's in social work. Currently, I am working on my Ph.D. in social work.
What other jobs have you had?
I have worked in Child Protective Services with sexual abuse victims and their families. I have also worked in a medical setting as a medical social worker. I have worked as an outreach worker for the Department of Defense in preventing child abuse and spouse abuse at a local military installation.
What made you decide to do this kind of work?
I volunteered to help set up a clinic for pediatric AIDS patients in a medical setting. After helping the doctors I met through this work, I was recruited to work as part of a multidisciplinary team to provide medical and social services to pediatric patients and their families. I quickly felt that I had found my niche in working in the social work profession. After 17 years of this work, I know that I am where I need to be.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
What do you do in your spare time?
I like to spend it with my family. I love to go shopping with my daughters. I love to go to the movies! I love to spend time with my women friends.
Who are the important people in your life?
My husband was my childhood sweetheart who I have loved since I was 15 years old. He is an attorney in private practice. I have four children, three daughters and a son. My daughter, Desiree Castillo, who is 31, works for the medical school Department of Psychiatry, with schizophrenic patients. She is married and has four children of her own, three daughters and a son. Another daughter, Felicia Escobar, who is 27, works for the first Latino U.S. senator in Washington, D.C. She went to Yale as an undergraduate and went on to the JFK School at Harvard University to earn a degree in public policy. She loves her work and has a passion for whatever she believes in. My son, Manuel Rodriguez-Escobar, 21, is a senior at Colorado State University who will be graduating with a bachelor's degree in rhetoric. He would like to go on to graduate school after spending some time in Mexico. And finally, my youngest daughter, Analysse Escobar, 18, is a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio. As the youngest, she has a tough act to follow, but I'm sure she will find her way. She is a lot like me, so I think she will probably end up doing similar work.
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like about it?
I live in San Antonio, Texas, in Central City. It is mostly a Latino community. My husband and I always wanted to live inside the loop of 480. We never wanted to buy into becoming members of suburban life. We have always wanted to be close and in touch with our community, the community we grew up in and love to serve.
If you could live anywhere else, where would you live?
The Bay Area! I really like Northern California. I wonder what it would be like working in HIV in the Bay Area. I know the prevalence rate is much higher there, as opposed to San Antonio, so I know that I would be challenged a lot more. The good part, I guess, is that there are more resources there.
What's the best vacation you ever had?
We found this neat little place in Mexico called Akumal, just south of Cancun. It is a great little undiscovered place that is just wonderful.
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
I was at a conference in Albuquerque with my sister and one of the founding mothers of Mujeras. We met a group of Native American women who wanted to take us on a spiritual journey. Without knowing where we were going (and I still can't even tell you the name of the place), we just went. We went to this place, a gorge, where these two women go and just pray. They took sage and candles. We formed a circle and held hands and prayed. It was such a peaceful and tranquil experience. The woman that I was with is HIV positive and she told me that when she dies, she wants me to spread her ashes over that place. It was a spiritual journey, but it was an adventure as well ... just trusting that God was guiding our paths.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
I am also a student, so I have a book that I am trying to finish called Troubling the Angels: Women Living with HIV/AIDS. It is helping me to get in the right zone to finish up my dissertation on Latinas living with HIV.
Also, there is Doing Business by the Good Book: 52 Lessons on Success Straight from the Bible.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
And The Band Played On by Randy Schultz. It covers the historical perspective on this pandemic that I have been working with for the past 17 years and it reminds me how difficult it was to get through those early days. It also reminds me of how far we have come, especially as far as ending the prejudice and stigma. We still have far to go but we have made some strides.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
I like blues, jazz and, when I'm in the mood, salsa music. I also love the oldies (especially Motown people). I like Carlos Santana and this new band called Juanez. And I also like Mark Anthony.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
I am driven by passion. When I'm asked, "Aren't you tired?" or "Aren't you burned out?," I say no, this is where I need to be. I look at my job as a ministry. If I were doing anything else, I wouldn't be happy. My job is very rewarding. When I see women coming back to good health and becoming empowered, when I see traditional Latino men embracing their gay sons, those are the things that make it all worthwhile.