For this employee spotlight, we had the opportunity to sit down with Yolanda Whitner. For those who don’t know her, Yolanda has been a therapist at Esperanza for over six years; she is an empathetic presence and an absolute asset to the Esperanza experience. As Rachael McCurdy, clinical supervisor, put it, “Yolanda is one of the most thoughtful, caring and intentional therapists that I know. Her calm presence immediately conveys a sense of trust and safety and allows her to build strong therapeutic relationships very quickly – which isn’t easy when working with adolescents! She is such a talented clinician and is incredibly unflappable in the face of all kinds of challenges. Working with Yolanda over the past several years has been a privilege, and while I have seen her grow in many ways as a therapist, I have also learned much from her about being a supervisor, a therapist, and a human being. “
Yolanda grew up (and continues to live) in Far Rockaway, Queens, which is where many of her clients also live. She shared that her childhood and adolescent experience influenced her decision to pursue a career in psychology and counseling. As she put it, “Just the impact of that – the people that you grew up with and care about or friends that you know falling victim to gangs or dropping out of school – and I think I wanted to understand why that is and where that comes from, especially when you are able to avoid those things. I wanted to better understand why some people make it out and why some people don’t. I always wanted to delve into that, unpack that, and make some changes in that.”
Informed by her own experiences in Far Rockaway, Yolanda pursued undergraduate majors in Psychology and Sociology with a minor in Child Studies. Before attending Teachers College, Columbia University for a Masters in clinical and counseling psychology, she spent time doing research on the criminal justice system and, as she put it, “the psychology behind crime.” This project sparked an interest for her in forensic psychology – and the system of incarceration.
All of these experiences solidified Yolanda’s decision to work as a therapist at Esperanza. However, throughout time, she has realized that the therapeutic process is not just about understanding and helping others; it’s also about yourself. As she shared, “I realized that there’s a lot of work in checking your own stuff, you know? And healing your own self. Learning how to cope, heal, and learning how to understand your own behavior, mind, and emotions. That’s way before you can help anyone else. I think that was really interesting to me, too, that you are your biggest tool.”
We are so grateful for the wisdom and empathy that Yolanda shares with us every day, and it was a pleasure to learn more about her life. For more about Yolanda, see a snapshot of our interview below.
What led you to Esperanza?
Yolanda: I can honestly say that there were so many personal reasons that went into why I wanted to get into the field of psychology in the first place. Just basic things… Like knowing how it feels to feel invalidated and the lasting impact of that, right? When people don’t understand who you are or where you’re coming from or the reasons that you do what you do. I feel like the world has been very judgmental and punitive, and I always wanted to understand human behavior and why we do the things that we do.
I knew that I wanted to be a therapist pretty early on in life as I found psychology interesting and because everyone I knew would tell me, “you’re a good listener.” But I knew it would take so much more than that and I wanted to learn what it would take to do the work.
I worked in a high school before Esperanza, providing counseling through the YWCA. We did counseling in school for kids who got placed on our case load. Maybe their teachers wanted them to, maybe their IEP recommended counseling. At that point, I was like ‘the teenage years are a really exciting time.’ I definitely wanted to stay with adolescents. So all of these interests and passions had brought me to that point and from there, it was about finding a place that fit. And Esperanza just fit.
Being a therapist, especially a therapist at Esperanza, is hard work. What keeps you coming back?
Yolanda: One thing that I can honestly say is the environment – the receptionist throughout the years, the education specialist, the custodians – everyone is so warm and welcoming. Literally everybody at Esperanza really cares about the families that we work with and the mission that we’re on to help these families and be of some assistance to mitigate harm in a very harmful system.
And then, there’s the families that I meet. These families face the worst kinds of trauma often. You can see the resilience that comes through, and that resilience can be refreshing. It restores your hope in humanity. To know that there are ways out of those dark moments, and there is strength in that. When families allow you to see that, when they open up to you, when they allow you to see their world in the most vulnerable states, that’s really a blessing – and an honor for them to allow and welcome you into that.
And then, on a bigger scale, when we can make a difference. When we’re sending our reports in, the judges see it, and they can see the humanity in our client. This teenager is no longer just a number or just a crime or just a charge on the paper. They become a human being to the judge, and the judge really considers that when sentencing our client.
What do you consider your greatest challenges in this work?
Greatest challenges… There can be so many. I think one of the most obvious and most frustrating for a lot of us therapists is that the timeline can feel so quick. You only have six months with our families. That can be a positive in that it keeps the work new and refreshing. But six months is a short time to help make sustainable changes happen. So that’s the hard part. You have to delve deep and get at some really hard things with families in a short period of time. That isn’t always easy, especially when clients and their families may see us as part of a harmful system.
And then I would say dealing with the systems that can be harmful to people as well. Trying to work within that and help clients navigate those systems and help them meet their responsibilities in that – while still separating yourself from those systems. Because sometimes that mistrust carries over… and you have to work really hard to build up that trust with families and separate yourself from those systems, while also being honest that we’re also a part of the system. So yeah, those structures are challenging.
The last thing that I’d say is hard is that we can’t help everybody — nor is that our job. We aren’t here to “save” anyone; our families are more than resilient. Some of our clients are heavily involved in gangs (which do serve a young person in some way) or they live in a community plagued by violence that lacks resources and opportunity; they face oppressive and racist systems and they may come from families that have experienced tremendous trauma. It’s really hard to sit with those things and to recognize that you can’t change that… You see the bigger picture of the world and also this person as a whole and how it is all connected – where things have to change systematically and so many people have to do this work to try to help human beings and help families out there.
With all of these challenges, how do you take care of yourself while doing this work?
Yolanda: Honestly, the thing that keeps me sane through Esperanza and through motherhood is working out. So, first thing in the morning, whether it’s forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half, I have to work out. I take that little bit of time for myself… That literally gives me the energy to get through the day.
Then there’s other little things that I do that can also be really important. I read. I pray. I’ll sometimes just stretch to just breathe and clear my head. And, I’ll write. I’ll write poetry every once in a while and jot down my thoughts. All of that helps.
Also, taking time off when you need it is very important.
What would you describe as your ideal day?
Yolanda: My ideal day – I’d wake up refreshed, workout (uninterrupted!), eat a nice breakfast, have a tea that I like – maybe a chai tea or a green tea – and just have a minute to relax a little bit before starting my work day. I feel like that just makes the ideal day. Everything else can come.
And then, just having some down time at the end of the day where you can just let the day go. Take a nice, hot shower –uninterrupted – for as long as you want. And then, relax before bedtime, where you feel like you accomplished what you set out to accomplish in the day.
I’m not sure if you like pizza, but do you have a favorite slice in the city?
Yolanda: Best pizza… I don’t know. I feel like everything has changed so much. I would say that the best pizza in New York – and I might be a little biased – is Gino’s Pizza in Far Rockaway. I feel like, throughout the years, they’ve maintained their slice to be a strong and reputable and affordable slice of pizza.
We may have to take a trip out to Far Rockaway for that. Before you go, we’ve got one more question. Finish the sentence. In my life, I hope…
Yolanda: I guess I would say that I hope to leave the world a little better than I found it. When I came into the world and then when I leave it – the dash in between those dates – I hope that I can touch people and inspire somebody else to do something good… Being one of those moving forces in the right direction.