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Luis Quintanilla Was Born with the Heart of a Social Worker

Luis Quintanilla didn’t realize it initially, but he was born with the heart of a social worker.

When he reflects on what led him to select this helping profession as his own, Luis says he had many who inspired him, but “my greatest inspiration has been my mother.”

Although his mother is a nurse, says Luis, “I believe she has a social worker’s heart that she transplanted to me.” Had she been given the same opportunities as him, Luis believes that she may have become a social worker; it was she who “introduced me to the passion, empathy, and devotion one can develop to help others,” he says.

Early Impact of Encountering Extreme Poverty
Luis can trace his path of seeking social justice and assistance for the most vulnerable to an incident he experienced when he was 9. His mother had taken him and his two sisters to Bolivia, her home country, where he personally confronted extreme poverty for the first time.

Back then, Luis says, they themselves were quite poor, living off government assistance and scraping by in Oakland. 

“But Bolivia was another level, unlike anything I had seen before,” he says. “The most impactful memory of that trip that has stayed with me to this day and reminds me of why I chose this field occurred when we were driving on a dirt road in our family’s van.”

RELATED: Read more about Luis Quintanilla

A group of children about his age ran toward their van with their hands out, wailing. “I looked in their direction, thinking they were experiencing an emergency because there was literally nothing on this road,” says Luis. “As we got closer to them and the van slowed, I realized they were asking for money and food. My uncle slowed the van, as if it were a customary practice.”  

Then, he says, his mother opened the window and began to hand the children a pack of crackers that was intended for their family’s road trip. “As I watched her hand them all out, some fell onto the ground, and I thought, ‘Those are wasted now,’ but the children ran to pick them off the ground and ate the dirt-covered crackers as if they had not eaten in days,” says Luis.

“I turned to my mother and asked if we could help them or take them home with us. She comforted me in my distress and said I should always remember those children and strive to help the world be a better place. It was that first experience that began to chart my course towards working to create justice and helping the most vulnerable.”

Selecting the Correct Path
Many years later, Luis would go on to get his B.A. in Psychology and Raza from San Francisco State University. As for the profession he had the heart for, he says, “I went into social work quite blindly, not knowing what to truly expect.In fact, I probably would’ve been a Marriage and Family Therapist, if it weren’t for a social worker.”  

RELATED: Read stories about other CalSWEC alumni

Luis planned to be a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), emulating his mentor at San Francisco State. “Initially, I was applying to schools to be a MFT because my mentor—who in retrospect really did more ‘social worky-type’ things—was an MFT. So, my thought was to follow in his footsteps because he was helping his community,” he explains.

But a conversation with his supervisor when he was a mental health case manager “catapulted me into social work,” he says. “I remember expressing how limited I felt in my capacity as a case manager to help people living with mental illness. The term scope of practice, which is so important when helping people, was often brought to my attention, and it felt like running into a brick wall. That’s when I decided I needed to pursue higher education.”

He recalls, “My supervisor, a licensed social worker, was rather upset when I informed her of my plans to be an MFT. I battled with her on my decision, but she guided me to figure out what it was I wanted to do in my career and strongly encouraged me to become a social worker.”

After researching what social workers do, Luis concluded, “It was exactly what I wanted to do; it was a name I could put to my calling.” A recipient of a stipend from CalSWEC’s Mental Health Program [the Integrated Behavioral Health Program since July 1, 2016], Luis pursued his MSW at UCLA and “fell in love with the profession,” he says. “UCLA took my passion and me to another level—one that really took that visceral emotion to fight injustice and wreak havoc on the system and converted it into a more balanced and disciplined approach. Not that one is better than the other,” he says, “but I felt I could do both now.”

Stipend Affords a 'Rich' Experience
As a stipend recipient, Luis says, “I believe my experience was pretty rich, namely because I was the only macro social work student in the program, which meant that I was able to take both advanced clinical and advanced macro courses. This allowed me to really develop an integrated and holistic perspective of social work and prepared me for my career.” 

During his second year, Luis interned for the Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. He notes, “Had I not been in the CalSWEC program, I probably would not have been able to have that particular internship and been afforded the career- and -relationship-building opportunities it provided.”

He adds, “I just want to express my thanks for the CalSWEC program, and I would encourage any MSW student who wants to further develop their micro and macro social work knowledge to speak to their CalSWEC coordinators about how they can take a micro- and macro-focused track. It made such a huge difference in preparing me for my career and I learned skills that I will use for the rest of life.” 

His Goal: To Create New Resources for a Strapped Field 
Today, Luis is a health program analyst [HPA] at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, where he previously was a psychiatric social worker [PSW]. “Although my duties for each position differed, I was actually doing analyst work and clinical work at the same time as a PSW, but transitioned full time into the HPA position after completing my hours for licensure. But much of what I do has to have a clinical eye to it,” he points out. 

“In fact, my work as a program analyst is greatly influenced by my clinical background, and that’s what I find is the beauty of social work.I feel it’s crucial to develop an integrated social work experience, and for me having this experience has impacted my understanding of how to develop programs; structure contracts based on client’s and the community’s needs; make program modifications based on the needs of those impacted by a program; and understand how change on a macro level trickles down into the direct practice level..“

RELATED: CalSWEC's former Mental Health Program has a new name

Having worked in the mental health field for seven years, Luis speaks from experience when he says the greatest challenge facing the field is “a dearth of resources.” While the need is great, “currently there are not enough programs, beds, or housing options available in L.A. County to fill this need. People are trying very hard to create new resources or find ways to leverage existing ones, but the need has been increasingly growing, particularly in the higher levels of care.”

As a social worker, Luis says, “I feel one of my goals is to help create those resources for the most severely mentally ill and believe that having support from your management and colleagues is also critical. If you are able to develop meaningful relationships with those you work with and share similar goals and passions, work no longer becomes work, it becomes a vehicle for hope and change.”