The Colgate Scene
July 1999
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Offering solutions, offering hope
by John D. Hubbard
Jeannette Burgos '77 grew up in the South Bronx, where she learned from her parents, who ran a grocery store, the basic tenets of social work -- generosity, honest affection and respect for people, whether paying customers or heroin addicts.

     On those mean streets Victor Burgos had time to listen to people's troubles, and more often than not, he offered a solution.

     Jeannette offers solutions, too, with the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services, where she is director of mental health and director of a residential program for severely emotionally disturbed children who can't live at home. The coalition, which began as a foster care agency, has a mission to become a multi-service family-based agency, and Burgos has overseen the implementation of both programs.

     A psychotherapist by training, Burgos still maintains an independent private practice in addition to her supervisory duties with the coalition.

     "I always wanted to help people," said Burgos. A masters in counseling psychology from Teachers College at Columbia was the first step after Colgate. She worked with teenagers for six years at Bronx Community College in a talent search program that provided exposure to college life.

     Next, Burgos worked in mental health clinics operated by the Jewish Board of Family and Child-ren's Services and earned a masters in social work at the same time.

     Today, Burgos administers a unique program centered on "professional families" that take emotionally disturbed children into their homes.

     "Basically, I'm responsible for the administration and programming -- thinking of creative ways to help 20 children who are severe-ly disturbed live in the community."

     Through constant supervision, monitoring and attention, the families, which are paid, help to change a child's behavior.

     "We have discovered that the children are very connected to their families. We provide services to the birth families too, training them as well. We want the children to go back to their birth parents.

     A typical scenario involves a single parent with a long history of drug abuse and instability. There is often physical and even sexual abuse. The home environment is always disruptive and the child is forced to grow up very quickly and even assumes a parental role.

     "Part of our job is to put the parent in the role of a parent," said Burgos.

     The process involves establishing clear structures, rules and defined boundaries.

     The successes fuel Burgos. She tells of one child who was hearing voices and was suicidal. Given one last chance before being institutionalized, the child was placed with a professional family. In a harrowing three-month period, the child was hospitalized eight times and behavior was oppositional, disruptive and aggressive. The family never gave up, however, and within nine months a turnaround was evident. No further hospitalizations were needed and the child has been reunited with its father.

     "It's great work," said Burgos, who has been running especially hard lately with the startup of the mental health clinic. "The coalition has given me an opportunity to develop a program -- the unique opportunity to create. I came here with no administration skills and they said, `Here, do it.'"

     While administrative duties dominate Burgos's days now, her private practice in Manhattan is important.

     "I didn't want to lose my clinical skills," said Burgos, who typically sees "young Hispanic women, struggling with transition issues."

What Colgate was all about
"I didn't really have a good sense of what Colgate was all about until my parents left me off with my trunk," said Burgos. The journey had begun in the halls of Benjamin Franklin High, where Jeannette was "grabbed by Rosemary Suarez '75 and David Tarverzo '76 and taken to the guidance office to learn about Colgate. Eventually, the university offered "a great financial package" and Burgos accepted admission without seeing the campus. A summer program was held at Utica College, so while Jeannette bonded with other students, she still didn't know Colgate.

     Riding in the back of the family station wagon, the same car her father used to make deliveries, Jeannette watched the passing red barns and cows and wanted to cry out, "Take me home." Her parents, somewhat concerned with the distance, were from rural parts of Puerto Rico and were reassured by the countryside. "It looks like Jeannette won't get in any trouble here," they told each other.

     "I sat on my trunk and wondered, `Where am I?'" The question loomed ever larger during a difficult first year. There weren't many women at Colgate in 1973 and even fewer Latinos. She heard the word "minority," something she had never been labeled before. As a Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) student, she felt she had "to work 20 times harder than anyone else."

     Despite the "culture shock," Burgos stayed on campus for the summer after her difficult first year to work as a HEOP peer counselor.

     "It was a real turning point. I started to spread my wings."

     Burgos managed to stay within her own culture while experiencing Colgate at large. She found an outlet in modern dance, worked in admissions and at the library and even visited fraternities.

     "I was participating in what felt like two different worlds. I grew up with a strong sense of who I was and a clear identity. I was taken aback at Colgate, but I was able to rebound. I was scared but never threatened."

     Today, Burgos is a member of the Alumni Corporation Board of Directors.

     "I'm still trying to define what I want to accomplish. Right now it feels like another way to give back." To that end, Burgos meets with students.

     "I tell them Colgate is a parallel process, a microcosm of what they will have to deal with in society and that it is very painful at first. Mix in, take advantage of every aspect.

     "Colgate helped me discover my sense of leadership. I had always been active, but never as a leader. At Colgate I felt I needed to represent Latinos and women. It pushed my boundaries. I learned to open my mouth and that it's okay to be in the forefront, to fall on your face. You just get up and go on. I became a much stronger person at Colgate."

     Jeannette Burgos has seen hard truths, the harshest realities,

     and she is fighting back without losing her optimism or good spirit. Whether it's children at risk, struggling young adults or fortunate college students, she offers understanding, hope and opportunity.

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