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Pregnant with the first of her two sons in the 1980s and living on the street at age 14, Irma Mendez felt she could approach her difficult situation with one of two mindsets: Treat her pregnancy as the worst thing that could have happened—or use it to change her life for the better. Later, when her son, Joseph, was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at age 7, Mendez knew she needed education, information, and support to be best mother she could be.
The challenges that Mendez, who went on to attend Boricua College, faced as a low-income single mother led her to what is now a 20-year-long career in social work. “My son actually brought me to this field,” says Mendez, who is now the Childcare and Recreation Supervisor at the Center Against Domestic Violence (CADV). “Through [my son], I found education and I started helping other people like him, which actually led to helping myself.”
In recent years, Mendez also managed to remain resilient and “help herself” when, in May, 2011, Joseph was shot and killed in a tenement building (where residents could stay 3-6 months to help achieve stability), at the age of 22. “I worked my whole life for him, and succeeded in saving him,” Mendez says. “Despite his being bi-polar, Joseph was working to be an elevator mechanic. He was in a relationship and they were happy. They had their own place and he was independent.”
Faced with the ordeal of mourning her son, Mendez relied on her younger son, Steven (now 23), for support through the tough times. “Steven is a great kid,” Mendez says. “He’s my rock and he keeps me stable.”
Despite the personal obstacles she’s faced, Mendez actually is a “rock” herself to many local families. In her current role at the CADV, Mendez helps struggling families and individuals of all races, genders, and income brackets to leave abusive households and start fresh. Considered in most circumstances to take the form of physical abuse, domestic violence can also be financial, emotional, and verbal. Although the reasons that local families turn to the CADV are vast, these individuals have one thing in common: They are there to find safety and support.
A self-proclaimed “Renaissance Woman,” Mendez is proficient in an array of areas—ranging from cooking, to administering medication, to childhood development. “The truth is you can’t help someone unless you know a little bit about many different things,” Mendez explains. “[The staff at the CADV] are teachers, chefs, mentors—I do a little bit of everything. You can’t fix one thing without addressing everything.”
With several shelters around the city, the CADV helps victims through the often long and harrowing path to recovery and stability after enduring domestic violence. Responsible for overseeing a number of educational and recreational programs, including daycare, summer camp, afterschool programs, and weekly meetings for mothers and teens, Mendez has the opportunity to work with both adults and children. A unifying element of all of the programs at CADV, regardless of the participants’ age, is the focus on activities that are either enjoyable or practical and that actively foster positive social interaction. “Everyone I meet along the way teaches me something new, especially my clients,” Mendez says. “I can identify with them, and in helping people, I actually still help myself.”
Committed to giving families a healthy new start, the CADV caters to the needs of its individual clients. CADV offers childcare services consistently throughout the year, and also provides recovering families with access to semi-permanent housing. Designed as comfortable apartments complete with a living room, full kitchen, and bedroom, families trying to get back on their feet are welcome to stay for as long as they need to.
Through working with a broad range of NYC families, Mendez—who also distributes condoms throughout the streets of NYC and is a regular participant in the AIDS Walk in her free time—feels like her staff and mentees have become a part of her “family.” “I have a larger family than when I started,” Mendez says of her work at CADV. “They may not be related by blood, but I am greeted with hugs and given a lot of love and affection. Besides just being an administrator, I always treat clients with a little touch of ‘mom.’”
To learn more about the Center Against Domestic Violence, visit cadvny.org.