Orlando, Florida — Carmen Ziers looks back to her childhood in Punto Fijo, a small community in Venezuela, and chuckles thinking of how her dreams have become reality.
“I always told my friends I wanted to be a psychologist so that [jokingly] I can know the gossip,” she said.
In all seriousness, she recognizes that she always had a heart for helping people.
Ziers is Clinical Director at Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. in Central Florida, overseeing a diverse team of 20 Behavioral Health program professionals who provide services to children and families facing complex challenges. A national nonprofit in 33 states and the District of Columbia, YAP supports youth justice, child welfare, and behavioral health systems partners by providing effective community-based alternatives to incarceration and congregate out-of-home placements. YAP’s Behavioral Health program referrals in Central Florida come from child welfare, youth justice and behavioral health systems partners, schools, community organizations and in some cases, the families, themselves.
“These services have helped children navigate from foster care to reunification; from diversion to home and from difficult situations at school to better behaviors that contribute to their flourishing as strong individuals,” Ziers said.
After marrying a Venezuela-based, U.S.-born college professor in 1988, Ziers joined him when he returned to St. Augustine, Florida. While the marriage ended in divorce several years later, she remained in the States and in 1996, remarried, had two sons, moved to and settled in Orlando, and began a career in accounting.
“I was working at H&R Block and my line was always the longest one,” she said. “People I worked with were happy, even if they had to pay.”
In a city where Spanish is the first language for more than a quarter of the population, Ziers said part of the appeal was that she’s bilingual. But it went beyond that. People connected with her because she showed them that she cared about them as individuals.
When Ziers’ oldest son was diagnosed with autism, she was more motivated than ever to pursue a profession where she could apply her passion for helping people full time.
“My son started therapy and I said, ‘Oh no, I see that a lot of clinicians don’t speak Spanish.’ “I said, ‘I want to become a therapist.’ I started in 2002 from scratch,” she recalled. “In 12 years, I got my GED, bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Central Florida, and two master’s degrees — in mental health counseling and family counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University.”
Prior to working for YAP, Ziers was a counselor at the University of Central Florida, working in the department of Marriage and Families Research Institute. She specialized in helping couples, families and individuals develop positive ways of communicating at home and with their children.
When Ziers’ learned about YAP and how the nonprofit specializes in working with systems partners to provide community-based services as an alternative to out-of-home placement, she wanted to be a part of it.
In 2016, she joined the YAP team that serves Orange, Osceola, and Seminole Counties. She developed YAP’s Central Florida Behavioral Health program, which now serves 250 children and their parents/guardians and has provided services for 1,136 individuals since its launch.
Being a mother of a child with autism has given Ziers valuable wisdom, which she has shared in her work at YAP when working with parents who need support creating their children’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) plans.
Growing up in “super poor” circumstances, as she describes her early years, Ziers’ work at YAP is the culmination of valuable life experiences. She recently celebrated her 25th anniversary and her family in Orlando now includes her mother and a pet bird. Her sons are thriving. The youngest is in college and her first-born has completed college and is working — with a full-time job with another part-time one at Sea World Orlando.
Ziers works hard to recruit employees who represent the program participants YAP serves in Central Florida, recognizing that in many communities of color, mental health services have historically been stigmatized. Eighty percent of her clinicians are Hispanic and 15 percent are Black, and among them are a therapist of Haitian descent who speaks Creole and another from Brazil who speaks Portuguese.