Growing up, Sheryl Recinos ’06 (M.A., Curriculum and Instruction), ’09 (Cell and Molecular Biology) didn’t think she’d live to see 18.
She packed her bags and left home on the East Coast to start her life over in Los Angeles at 16 years old. She didn’t have a plan, and she didn’t have a home. She slept on the streets. At 19, she became a mother.
Alone but not afraid, she reached out to My Friend’s Place, a nonprofit organization for homeless youth that changed her trajectory and put her on the path to CSUN. Now a family physician and published author, Recinos has one goal in mind: to better serve the homeless community of Southern California.
“I feel very connected to that community, because I know what it’s like to not be heard and seen, so I have always had that very close connection to do whatever I can in my power to help,” Recinos said.
From the East Coast to the West
Recinos grew up in North Carolina and is the youngest of five children. When she was a child, her parents divorced. Her mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in and out of the hospital. Her father was granted custody of Recinos and her older brother, but she clashed with her father and decided to run away.
Recinos took a bus to Los Angeles with two acquaintances, but the group separated once she reached her destination. She ultimately wound up on the streets and shelters of Hollywood, off and on, for years.
During this period, while struggling with housing insecurity, she enrolled in a continuation school in Hollywood. Within a year — by the time she’d turned 18 — she’d earned her high school diploma and began working in retail at Universal CityWalk. She also began taking classes at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC), where she studied business, and landed her first apartment that first semester.
“I worked for a year,” Recinos said. “That was such a hugely important part of me completely [stabilizing], off the streets, and being in a normal environment where everybody saw me as a normal kid, and only one of the other people who worked there knew anything about my past.”
After becoming pregnant a month and a half into her studies at LAVC, she ran into more roadblocks. She didn’t receive any financial aid and did not qualify for state insurance because, in her words, “I made too much money” working a minimum wage job at 40 hours a week.
“I had to quit my job, which meant I had to go back to the shelter, because that was the only way to get medical care [for my baby],” Recinos said. “There was no access to resources.”
Fortunately, she found a home again. She stayed at a friend’s house, paying $100 a month in rent, but the situation wasn’t ideal for her and her daughter. She met a caseworker at My Friend’s Place in Hollywood who helped.
“[Her story] inspired the community to rally up alongside her, to [provide] resources to her as a parent, as a student, as a newly housed young person,” said Heather Carmichael, executive director of the nonprofit. “When she asked for that help, everyone was just mobilized and inspired to do more and better. We created a foundation for young parents, to create community and to bring the necessary resources.”
The Path to CSUN & Beyond
Two months into motherhood, Recinos was back on her feet and taking classes at LAVC. After two years, she transferred to UCLA and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2002. She was inspired to pursue a career in the medical field, but unsure of the best way to get there. Recinos first took a job as a high school science teacher in L.A., but wanted more and decided to go back to school.
“I [taught at] five different schools,” Recinos said. “I didn’t like it, and I kept trying to convince myself if I changed to another school, I would be happy, but my heart was in medicine and was pulling me away even as I was teaching.”
She chose to further her education at CSUN, completing a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 2006, and a second bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology in 2009. Recinos said her desire to work in the medical field was sparked by a difficult experience while she was in labor.
“I felt like, even though I didn’t get the medical care that I felt I needed … I could offer that [care] to people,” Recinos said. “I could give them that thing that they didn’t have. They need somebody who would listen to patients and see them as people.”
Recinos credits CSUN biology advisor Terri Richardson for guiding her in the right direction.
“Through that mentorship, it taught me what to look for in a mentor and how to become one down the road,” Recinos said. “I definitely use a lot of the skills that I got from that relationship.”
By 2009, Recinos was married with three children. Richardson urged Recinos to apply for a mentorship program with USC. She was accepted and began volunteering at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys while taking science classes at night and teaching during the day. With the blessing of her husband and three kids, Recinos applied to medical schools and heard back from none, except for Ross University School of Medicine — then located in the Caribbean. She was accepted and relocated to the island of Dominica with her family as she worked through her training. After four years, she returned to her home, Southern California, and finished her training at Riverside University Health System.
Now a family physician and successful author, Recinos said she is empathetic and understanding of patients’ needs and challenges and has made it her mission to break down barriers between herself as a physician and her patients — and connect with homeless people and patients from every walk of life.
“Sometimes it’s hard for physicians to put themselves in a person’s shoes and understand what it is like to truly be homeless and have nothing,” Recinos said. “The most important thing is to see people for who they are and not for who you want or imagine them to be. You can never really know what a person needs until you actually sit down and talk to them.”
After losing her older brother to suicide in 2017, Recinos felt the need to share her story with the world. She recently released “Hindsight,” retelling her struggles of growing up on the streets of Hollywood and trauma from her childhood. The memoir was awarded a bronze medal for the 2019 Reader’s Favorite Young Adult Non-Fiction Book Award, was an Independent Author Network (IAN) Book of the Year winner for outstanding nonfiction human interest story, a finalist for general nonfiction book for 2019 and nominated for CSUN’s 2020-21 Freshman Common Reading list. She also released a series of young adult books titled “The Resilience Group.” Recinos said she wants to show people going through similar trauma that there is help available. She wants to give people who care the proper tools to help those in need more effectively.
“We don’t always get to know where young people land, but [Recinos] wants to translate both the experience of all of those hurts and the power of healing and medicine,” Carmichael said. “How brilliant it is to have somebody who has survived and can traverse both parts of those experiences, on behalf of people who maybe haven’t been given the opportunity to find that voice.”