Cynthia Lemus ’15 (Child Development) had a “proud-mommy moment” when her 5-year-old daughter asked to include a prayer for homeless children at bedtime one night. The California State University, Northridge graduate student occasionally takes her daughter to the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission, where she has been working as an intern since August 2015 as part of CSUN’s Master of Social Work program.
Lemus, whose first year in the master’s program ends in May, said she enjoyed the practical part of the curriculum — essential experiences and hands-on opportunities that can’t be gained in a classroom.
“It was interesting and definitely different from what I expected,” Lemus said. “I expected more sitting down and lectures, but now I get to learn from my internship, which is, I think, the best way to learn.”
The San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission is a nonprofit organization that provides families shelter and a host of resources, as well as fundamental living necessities to the Valley’s homeless community. Lemus and another CSUN student from the online cohort of the MSW program are the first CSUN interns at the Rescue Mission, getting firsthand experience in community service and supporting people in need.
“I never worked with the homeless community before,” Lemus said. “But it’s a great experience because you get to meet people from all different backgrounds, and you realize that you have so much in common.”
As one of the few Spanish speakers working at the Rescue Mission, Lemus manages a variety of responsibilities. She serves as a case manager for homeless families, monitoring their progress toward permanent housing and a more stable family life.
“I try to get them back on their own feet,” she said, adding that she has weekly meetings with families to get updates on their housing and employment status.
Lemus also co-facilitates a parenting support group, and she created an incentive program for children at the Rescue Mission — to reward reading, completed homework and good grades.
“There is so much more the [Rescue Mission] does that I don’t see because I’m only there from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.,” she said. “I see the clients at that time, but there is so much more going on during the day. I want to help as much as I can, but there’s only so much I can do. I think that’s the biggest challenge — I want to be everything, but that’s not possible.”
Lemus said the children at the Rescue Mission are the main reason she enjoys working for the nonprofit organization. As a child development graduate, she knows the importance of childhood phases that influence a person’s future development. Working with the children, Lemus said, she hopes to make an impact on their lives.
“My favorite part is being at dinner and asking them, ‘So, how was your day?,’ giving them the feeling that someone cares,” she said. “I love knowing that I can make a difference, and if I can make only one difference, their path might change.”
The feeling of being helpful to people in need is one aspect of the MSW program Lemus particularly appreciates. She said her passion for children always has driven her professional goals, but she hadn’t been able to provide significant help until she started interning at the Rescue Mission.
“I worked for afterschool programs, and I’ve known kids that were homeless, but there was nothing really I could do about it because I was always just the coach or the person who helps with homework,” she said. “Now, being on the other side, I can be their emotional support and do more than ever before.”
For her second-year placement, Lemus will work for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), expanding her focus working with children.
“You always have to be very creative with [children]. That’s why I love them,” she said. “I’m not sitting at a desk all day doing the same thing. Every day is a new creative challenge.”
Yet, Lemus said, she and her daughter will continue to support the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission, even when her internship ends in May.
“The people there are really nice people, and they want the best for everyone,” she said. “It’s such a warm and loving environment.”