Lisa Lopez, Casa Hermosa Director
The streets are quiet on this sunny, early spring day as I pass by street signs that carry names made infamous by the local news. Gibson, Zuni, Trumbull- all street names that have unfortunately been synonymous with drugs and violence in the news. Among the payday loans, cash for gold, and fast food buildings lay several nondescript apartment buildings, cramped and covered with wrought iron.
This area of Albuquerque has long received a bad rap for its crime rate, so much that it was once dubbed “the war zone,” notorious for gangs fighting a bloody battle with one another over territory for drug trafficking. Now re-christened “the International District” for its rich and diverse range of cultures that reside here, I see people cleaning outside their homes, working on their vehicles, playing with their children. It’s a stark contrast to the prejudiced perception of these neighborhoods that many would like you to believe.
Right off of Trumbull road lies an unknown treasure, a low key crown jewel of the neighborhood, and of Albuquerque: Casa Hermosa. “Beautiful House” in English, this collection of small apartments looks just like any other in the area. But as I pass through the wrought iron gate, I am greeted by a new, vibrant energy: Casa Hermosa’s director, Lisa Lopez, greets me with a huge smile and an enthusiastic handshake. One cannot be anything but instantly charmed by this petite, joyful woman. It is unassuming that she would be at the helm providing care for some of Albuquerque youth’s hardest stories.
Casa Hermosa is a 24 hour, 7 day a week, 365 days a year transitional youth home where young residents learn how to work through some of the most traumatic experiences imaginable so they can become functional, contributing members of society.
Young people who come to live at Casa Hermosa are offered crisis intervention, assessment, counseling/therapy, recreational activities, life and social skills training, case management, educational/vocational assistance, job training skills and referral assistance.
Lisa ushers me into her office and happily introduces me to her staff: Celia Montoya, a YDI veteran who works as a CSW here, and James Mader, their therapist. While the mood is light and airy, the subjects that Lisa describes to me as we sit down are anything but.
Lisa, James, and Celia
While Casa Hermosa only hosts young people that have run away, been abandoned, or aged out of the system, you can tell Lisa and her staff have formed a lifelong bond with them. She presents me with two photos of her past clients; one is a handsome young man with a broad smile wearing a cap and gown, and the other is of a happy and healthy young lady with long brown hair. Lisa brags about each of them as a new mother would about her own children.
While for privacy’s sake I cannot disclose the real names of the young people in the pictures, I can pass on their stories. Both Lisa and Celia beam with pride as they recount the young people’s stories.
K, the young man in the cap and gown, came to Casa Hermosa after being referred by his Principal. At the age of 10 he walked across the US – Mexican border with his parents to seek more opportunity, just as many immigrants do. It wasn’t long before things fell apart. In his high school years, K’s father got deported by ICE and his mother, frustrated and unable to support her children after the father’s departure, kicked him out of the house. While he was still attending school, K was living on the streets, depending on the goodwill of strangers and scraps to survive. He arrived at Casa Hermosa unfed and unshowered. While the staff at Casa got him fed and cleaned up, Lisa got him settled in his own small apartment. “They’re all expected to take care of their place and things, just as any tenant in any building would be,” Lisa tells me, “and they’re expected to go to school, find a job, and keep pushing forward with life.”
During his time at Casa Hermosa, K learned independent living skills, job interview skills, and got help with school. He soon graduated from High School and is currently pursuing his US citizenship while he works as a kitchen manager at a private club. While he has exited the program, he still comes to the Casa Hermosa staff for advice, and sends other young people who can use their help to them. “Even though the program is 18 months, I feel it’s important to keep in touch with all of our clients beyond their time with us. Seeing them thrive and succeed is by far the most rewarding part of our job,” Lisa says.
The young lady in the other picture Lisa shows me is “T,” who found Casa Hermosa at a very dark time in her life. T’s parents were no longer in the picture so she lived with her sister. There were many issues surrounding their lives, and one night T stormed out after an argument with her sister. After a while T returned to their home to find her sister dead, having committed suicide. It was a dire time and with nowhere else to turn, she found herself at Casa Hermosa and she received daily counseling to help her through the trauma. At the end of her stay, she had graduated high school, enrolled in college, and got a full time job working at Wal-Mart. She moved into her own apartment, and while she is busy with work and school she still contacts the Casa Hermosa staff when she gets the chance to keep them up on how she’s doing.
Although the work at Casa Hermosa is among the hardest and most emotional jobs anywhere, I am still amazed the positivity and upbeat energy that is carried by Lisa and her staff; they work long hours, sacrifice their time with their families, and even spend some holidays away from home just to help their clients celebrate. Casa Hermosa’s radiance and upbeat approach to some of the most intense social work that can be undertaken by anyone makes them a standout.
It’s good to know that people like Lisa, Celia, James, and all the Casa Hermosa staff are out there protecting, advocating, and caring for young people in their most intense hours of need is exemplary, and speaks highly of the employees YDI has.
Casa Hermosa can always use your help! Donations of cleaning items, care packages with hygiene products, kitchen items, furniture, towels, blankets and clothes are always encouraged and welcomed. If you’d like to help Casa Hermosa, please contact Lisa Lopez at 505-270-5373. Any and all help is appreciated.