When Sandra Elizondo, a 2020 Union graduate, lost her half-brother DJ to gang violence ten years ago, a passion sparked inside her to help struggling youth.
“I remember he always said people just don’t get it,” she said. “He always struggled to find his place amid the juvenile justice system, gangs and drugs. I knew I wanted to help youth struggling to find their voice. People don’t realize they’re not bad kids; they’re in bad circumstances.”
Now Elizondo is now living her passion as a residential therapist with KidsTLC, a youth residential psychiatric facility in Olathe, Kansas.
“I’m definitely in my dream job and a place I envisioned while in college,” she said. She credits Union’s community of mentorship and encouragement for connecting her calling to a career.
Elizondo works mostly one-on-one with kids seven to ten years old in individual and family therapy. “We see a lot of behavioral challenges,” she said. “The kids struggle with attachment and conduct disorders or with trauma.”
Many new graduates feel nervous during their first few days on the job—but not Elizondo.
Instead of just textbook learning, she was able to practice in the field before graduation. “The Social Work Program was set up so our internship was a lot of work, but I’m thankful because it gave me a lot of preparation,” she said. “I’m not shy working in my first job. My internship took away my timidity.”
All Union College social work majors go through 480 hours of field work prior to graduating. Elizondo completed her internship at CEDARS Home for Children, a non-profit helping kids feel safe and secure. The growth she experienced prepared her for KidsTLC.
“I love giving kids a safe space to be themselves, and then seeing their families create proper and safe attachments so they can come home and continue being kids. Mental health is a big need among kids and being the liaison is incredible,” she said.
A strong support system
Initially Elizondo was set on attending Kansas University (KU), her dream school. She wanted to be closer to family after attending Sunnydale Adventist Academy for high school.
God had other plans.
“A week away from freshman orientation, I decided to go to Union,” she said. “I felt God was calling me there, even though I wasn’t fully sure.”
A major factor in her decision, Elizondo shared, was the recruiter who visited while she worked at summer camp.
“I told [Daniel Cress] I wasn’t sure about the finances for attending Union,” she said. A first generation college student, Elizondo felt clueless about college finances and the FAFSA process.
Cress made sure Elizondo received answers to her questions—the first of her many experiences with Union’s family-like community.
“He was understanding and put the pieces together with me. Then my financial advisor helped me put everything together with my parents. They made time to guide me through the process,” she said.
Strong support is something Elizondo continued to notice throughout her experience at Union—from faculty, classmates and her professors.
“I’m so grateful for the small, inclusive one-on-one education I received at Union,” she said. “Our peers and professors became like family, strengthening my support system.”
She did eventually attend KU—as a graduate student. Because of the high level of accreditation earned by Union’s Social Work Program, she was able to enter the university’s accelerated master’s of social work program.
Upon acceptance to graduate school, the first people she shared her news with were her social work teachers from Union, Jody Detwieler and Lizz Davis. She knew they would share in her excitement.
“I look up to them so much,” said Elizondo. “They were willing to provide feedback that helped me grow.”
Davis gave her a joyful hug.
“Her embrace was like a family connection,” she said. “They were my mentors and held me under their wings.”
Elizondo also credits the small community of Union for strengthening her faith.
“Letting God take control has been very difficult for me,” she said. “Having friends and professors who prayed for me when I didn’t have faith, like when I applied to grad school, was incredible.”
As she prepared to sit for her social work licensing exam recently, Elizondo remembered how God came through for her before. “Union showed me God will fill my cup in ways no one else can,” she said.
Creating an educational legacy
In addition to working full-time, Elizondo prioritizes being a resource to the Kansas City community with her Hispanic and Latina connections.
“I really want to bring representation to the mental health community and my clients,” she said.
Bridging the language barrier to provide therapy and resources in Spanish are among her goals. Prior to being a therapist, she worked as a family advocate for El Centro Inc., which provides educational, social and economic services for Hispanic families in Kansas City.
“I really want to create representation and be someone others can look up to,” she shared.
Working in Kansas City also brought Elizondo closer to home, near family. When Elizondo felt like stopping school, her parents were a support, urging her to continue.
“My parents always told me my education was something no one could take from me,” she said. “When the pandemic took graduation away from me, I remembered nobody could take away my degree. I’m hoping I can inspire other first generation students or Latinas to push forward.”
With a younger brother at home, 17, she hopes to be his support system and role model.
“I think it’s incredible that when my future kids fill out their FAFSA they’ll be able to check that I have a master’s degree. My parents’ hard work, despite lacking education themselves, provided for my higher education,” she said.