Showing Latino Girls Healthy Alternatives

    • August 4, 2008

Position: Auxiliary Administrator of Treatment Services
Administration of Substance Abuse Services and Mental Health
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Dalimarie Perez-Arzuaga used her Developing Leadership in Reducing Substance Abuse fellowship to help Latino girls avoid drugs and develop positive self-images.

Perez-Arzuaga, a senior program manager at Restart Substance Abuse Services, an organization that serves Latinos in Rochester, N.Y., had worked on the treatment side of substance abuse services for several years. She wanted to use her fellowship to bridge the gap between treatment and prevention.

Perez-Arzuaga was particularly interested in prevention services for Latino girls. Looking around, she found none. Latino boys had outlets like baseball or Boy Scouts, but there was nothing for the girls.

Perez-Arzuaga realized that Latino culture includes important elements that protect Latinos from turning to substance abuse. These protective factors include the respect youth have for elders, the active involvement of extended families in the lives of children and strong religious beliefs.

An Overlooked Group

Perez-Arzuaga brought Soy Unica! Soy Latina! (I'm Unique! I'm Latina!) to Rochester. Soy Unica! Soy Latina! is a national initiative featuring rallies and events to help Latino girls ages 9 to 14 build self-esteem and develop decision-making and assertiveness skills they can draw on to keep them from using alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. To spark the interest of the girls, Perez-Arzuaga included a fashion show as part of the program.

The first rally was held in October 2002.

"I was scared because I didn't know if we could gather more than 100 girls," she said. "To my surprise, we gathered over 200 girls plus parents."

In addition to the fashion show, the Soy Unica! Soy Latina! rally included a panel of successful professional Latino women who demonstrated to young girls that they could be whatever they wanted to be. The rally also featured training in such areas as developing self-esteem, adapting both to American and Latino cultures and the nature of substance abuse and addiction.

"The fun part was having the girls screaming about being so proud of their heritage, their culture, their identity as Latinas and being unique," Perez-Arzuaga said. "At the end of the rally, a group of girls came to me and asked if I was going to do it next week. I was touched because in some way they told me that they needed this."

Perez-Arzuaga has organized Soy Unica! Soy Latina! rallies every year since 2002, making adjustments and improvements based on experience. In 2006, the rally attracted almost 400 girls. Although the rallies started with Developing Leadership fellowship funds, the City of Rochester now fully finances them.

Soy Unica! Soy Latina! rallies have mobilized the Rochester community to expand services for Latinos, especially girls. For example, the Girl Scouts began a group for Spanish-speaking girls and social service agencies began recruiting Latino staff to improve and expand services to Latinos in Rochester.

Gaining a New Credential

Perez-Arzuaga also used her fellowship to gain New York State accreditation as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor. Although she already had a master's degree in public administration, that degree was not enough to allow her to rise within the substance abuse field. The counseling credential allowed Perez-Arzuaga to apply for a senior management position at Restart, which she got.

In this position, Perez-Arzuaga oversaw the development of a screening tool to help staff identify people who have both mental health and substance abuse diagnoses. Staff at Restart used information from the tool to refer program participants for mental health services.

Mentor with Compassion and Connections

Ruth Sanchez Way, PhD, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, part of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mentored Perez-Arzuaga throughout her fellowship.

Perez-Arzuaga said the opportunity to work with a national leader in the substance abuse field was a key reason she applied for the fellowship.

"Sometimes you need that guidance, the mentorship and most important the relationship," she said. "There is no way I would have gotten Ruth Sanchez Way as my mentor without the fellowship. It was such a great learning experience to shadow this woman because besides being a Latino woman, she has been able to achieve a significant position within the U.S. government."

Perez-Arzuaga said that Sanchez Way took her everywhere, introducing her to other top federal officials. Through that connection, Perez-Arzuaga was invited to be part of the Hispanic/Latino National Steering Committee Prevention Initiative for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As a member of that committee, Perez-Arzuaga participated in the research and peer review of a prevention toolkit called "Life in the Community," a multimedia program that community groups use to reach Latino families with substance abuse problems.

Perez-Arzuaga felt that it was not enough simply to develop "Life in the Community." She knew an effort was needed for it to reach people in the communities. So, in 2006, she designed a "train the trainer" curriculum and used it to train more than 25 people in Rochester.

Negotiating Skills

Looking back on her fellowship, Perez-Arzuaga said it gave her the skills to negotiate on behalf of her priorities, such as adding a train-the-trainer component to a federal program and organizing a multisector group to develop Soy Unica! Soy Latina!

"Negotiating requires a lot of skills," she said. "Before I came to the fellowship I went to extremes. If I didn't like something I kept completely quiet or I started fighting. I never had the outcome I wanted. I truly learned about negotiation through this process and the power of relationships."

Moving Up

In March 2007, Perez-Arzuaga began a new job as the administrator of treatment services for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration in Puerto Rico. There she is third in command of the department. She oversees a program to integrate substance abuse and mental health services.

Without the skills and credibility she got from the fellowship, Perez-Arzuaga said that she never would have gotten an interview, much less the high-profile job in her native Puerto Rico.

"I learned what my skills and talents are through this fellowship," she said. "My skills are in developing public policy, planning and implementing social change, and establishing new organizational cultures, coordination of services, and development of curriculum and programs. The fellowship helped me discover the skills and polish them to make an impact in my community and programs."

Dalimarie Perez-Arzuaga, MPA, CASAC

Dalimarie Perez-Arzuaga, MPA, CASAC
2001 Fellow, Developing Leadership in Substance Abuse