Family support manager’s work breaks cultural norms around mental health

By Thomas Williams | Sept. 29, 2023

Karla Martinez originally wanted to be a pediatrician, but life had other plans for her.

When the 20-year-old native Puerto Rican arrived in Orlando in December 2006, she was accepted into the college program at Walt Disney World, fully expecting to return home after the six- to eight-month program was over. Instead, she stayed and worked full-time at Disney while pursuing a degree in psychology.

Karla Martinez never thought she’d be working in the child welfare field. Now, she’s a family support manager for Embrace Families’ Breakthrough program.

After getting a job at a residential facility in Mount Dora that cares for children with autism, she decided to specialize in applied behavioral analysis. That led to a job in case management — where she says she found her passion.

“There, I realized that social services was my thing, and that’s what I do now,” she said. “It found me instead of me looking for it.”

Now, she’s living out that calling as a family support manager for Embrace Families’ Breakthrough program, which works with community partners to find solutions for children experiencing mental health issues.

In an interview in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Martinez shared how her heritage, family history and cultural traditions have shaped her life, but also how her job enables her to break cultural norms surrounding mental health.

What led you into your work helping families through the Breakthrough program?

What I studied was based on my experience working with kids with autism. Nowhere in my studies applied to the social work field. But what led me to Breakthrough was the understanding that I’ve been there before. I know the challenges that come with having a bad day, the challenges of battling with your mental health, challenges of a family member dealing with their own mental health. That’s why I say that the field I’m in now found me, because it was not something I wanted to do when I was growing up.

I feel very passionate about this — giving hope to people and letting them know change is truly possible. Yes, we feel things completely differently, but you can help people understand that when they’re down, there’s always a way to get back up. Sometimes we don’t see it at the moment, and I think that’s why I like to do this, because I help families see that … they’re not alone in this journey, and that if they tumble — and right now they’re at their lowest — it may take a minute, but getting back up is truly possible.

That’s why I do what I do. Just to inspire hope and aspire to changed families. There’s nothing more beautiful than running into one of the kids we worked with in the past … and him or her telling you that they graduated high school, (are) going to college, and telling you what they want to do. One of the girls I worked with … told me she got a scholarship for wrestling at a university out of state. If we had not done the work we did, that would not have happened. At the time, she was struggling and didn’t see a way out, but we showed her otherwise. … It’s only if people who truly want to make a difference act on it. That’s why I do what I do, even if it’s one life we change.

In a Hispanic household, what is the perspective on mental health?

I can only speak for Puerto Rican Hispanics, but when it comes to Hispanic culture, it’s not always necessarily thought to be a mental health anything. There’s a Spanish term, travesuras mentales, which basically translates to mental shenanigans. … It’s the idea that you just need to snap out of it. I think nowadays you might find more Puerto Ricans who are more open to (getting) health services than before. But originally, it’s not seen as something you need to work on.

One of the things I have done is educate Hispanic families, especially here, about the need for that. It’s hard for them to truly understand it because what I do here is not something that’s spoken of back home. This doesn’t exist there. The only field this type of work exists in is substance abuse. … I’m hoping it can expand there sometime in the future.

Breakthrough family support manger Karla Martinez (center) joins fellow team members Ana Nascimento, program director, and Aimee Soileau, family support navigator, in supporting MANicure Movement, an initiative to promote Child Abuse Prevention Month in April 2023.

It’s a battle against parents understanding that it’s not a kid misbehaving because he can’t sit still. Or if a child is not able to finish a test, that doesn’t mean he didn’t finish it because he didn’t want to do it. Maybe he just couldn’t concentrate, and what mental health he might have couldn’t help him focus.

I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done when it comes to mental health and Hispanic culture. In the awareness, too, but I think it’s more in the acceptance of it. There’s still some stigma attached to mental health.

Growing up, I already had some challenges, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get support for ADHD. … I had straight A’s growing up. I graduated as a salutatorian from high school. Because I was getting good grades, nobody ever thought there was something going on. No one understood the struggles I was going through. When I was an adult, that’s when I was able to get help on my own.

Now that I look back, I can see how a lot of the struggles and procrastination was due to me not being able to focus. A teacher once told my mom, “When she sees a mosquito, she just follows it.” My mom thought it was behavioral, but it’s not necessarily behavioral. I just have trouble concentrating and focusing. … When my mom was here for Christmas, I took a medication and she was like, “Wow, you’re very calm.” I said, “See? I told you I had ADHD.”

She’d say “But you never showed that when you were younger.” But I did. It’s just because I was getting good grades that masked the struggles I was going through. So, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done.

How has your Hispanic heritage shaped your perspective, priorities and aspirations?

When I first moved to Orlando, I went through a portion where it was … well, I wouldn’t call it culture shock. Puerto Rican heritage, the genetic makeup, is made up of Africans, Spaniards and the native Indians that were the final Indians. When it comes to our culture, it’s a mix. You’re going to have Puerto Ricans of all different cultural backgrounds, and you’re going to see Puerto Ricans who have different skin color. Growing up, I never experienced a marked difference because of the color of a person’s skin. It wasn’t until I came here and experienced racism toward Hispanics.

Number one, I was very young. Number two, I went through a period of my life not understanding why people were being mean to me because I spoke Spanish or because I spoke with an accent. My coworkers were the ones who taught me the reality of things back then. I feel that it took me a minute to fully grasp and understand because I come from a place that, at least with my family and my experiences, I never had to go through that. Here, it’s such a difference just because of how you look.

(Left to right) Breakthrough family support manger Karla Martinez and family support navigators Aimee Soileau, Ingrid Keesler, Luz Rodriguez and ShaShaunte Jernigan take a moment to relax and hang out together.

With that said, I have made it a passion of mine to be able to make sure that, when it comes to mental health, services are accessible for families, especially in a language that families can understand. They’re also accessible to people who have that cultural understanding. When it comes to traditions on parenting and family expectations, there’s a cultural component in it. It’s hard for families to truly flourish unless you provide them with a service that understands their parenting style — that truly understands why things are being done that way … why a mom may or may not be so involved in a child’s life.

I’ve always wanted to make sure that families have access. Especially since, now, there’s so many Hispanics living in Orlando. Even if I’m in meetings advocating for families, I’m making sure they understand the cultural background the family has.

Toward the beginning of COVID, we were collaborating with an agency that was providing support groups for parents. I said, “What about the Spanish-speaking parents?” So, I volunteered to spearhead a Spanish-speaking support group for parents and families of Breakthrough. I did that with one of our partners from another agency. For a while, we found it successful, and the families felt comfortable speaking. Some of them don’t understand the language. Even if they do understand English and speak it, sometimes when you need to speak about something that’s happening to you, when you’re in need of venting, it’s very hard sometimes to do it in a language that is not your native language. It’s hard when you have to stop and think “Wait, how do I say this word in English?” or “How do I say this word in Spanish?” I wanted to be able to provide that to the families we work with.

What is your favorite family or cultural tradition?

I absolutely love Christmas. Puerto Rican Christmas is one of the longest in the world. We celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but we also celebrate Three Kings Day Eve and Three Kings Day Jan. 5 and 6.

Across Hispanic cultures, tradition is a bit different. The three kings come, and if you are good, they’ll bring you gifts and leave them under your bed. They don’t wrap the gifts because they don’t have time for that. They come with camels. They also don’t come with many gifts because the camels can’t hold that weight.

To me, it was just a wonderful experience, especially because when I was younger, I could have sworn I saw one of the kings. Honestly, I have no idea what I saw; however, that’s a memory I have … of seeing one of the kings inside my room leaving me a gift. That was the highlight of my childhood. I just love it. I love that it’s so extended. I love that we can use that time to spend it with family. Just the joy of that time makes me feel joyful.

If you could pick one thing to share with others about your community or culture, what would it be?

I think Puerto Ricans have the best food. I might be biased, though. But if I’m being completely honest, I think one thing I could share about Puerto Ricans as a whole is that we’re truly warm at heart. We make relationships with our neighbors; if a neighbor needs something, we’re always there for them. We’re always willing to give a helping hand to those who need it or don’t need it. Give an ear to listen or shoulder to cry on. Puerto Ricans tend to do that.

It may seem weird for those who are not used to it, but when we greet people, we say it with a kiss on the cheek. That’s something completely unheard of here, but there that’s expected. You can show up to a family gathering and there’s 50 people. Well, that’s 50 kisses you need to give. So that’s something I truly embrace from there.

* Williams served as a 2023 Public Ally working as communications and storytelling liaison with Embrace Families Foundation.