August 2, 2016

Pico Resident Follows Her Heart, Changes Lives

Liz Cruz
Liz Cruz, Chair of the Virginia Avenue Park Advisory Board, stands under a mural inside the VAP Teen Center which features her sister Cindy (top right) who died shortly after Liz transferred from SMC to UCLA.
Liz Cruz
Pico Resident Liz Cruz at Virginia Avenue Park. Cruz is a Samohi and SMC alum, Chair of the VAP Advisory Board and a licensed clinical social worker at Family Service of Santa Monica.

The first thing people mention about Elizabeth “Liz” Cruz is her warm, welcoming smile. Cruz is a Santa Monican through and through: she lives in the Pico neighborhood where she was born and raised; graduated from Santa Monica High School and from Santa Monica College (SMC) in 2000. Her path was riddled with obstacles—but Cruz would transfer from SMC to UCLA, and next obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California in 2010.

“SMC was very good to me,” she reminisces. But that statement can be applied to her, because Cruz has been very good to the Santa Monica community. Today, she devotes all her free time to Virginia Avenue Park (VAP), a frequent childhood haunt. She serves as Chair of the VAP Advisory Board and is a member of ad-hoc committees envisioning new programs and services—all this in addition to her full-time job as a licensed clinical social worker at Family Service of Santa Monica, where she offers mental health counseling.

Cruz was raised as one of five children by a single mother, and the family was hit by more than one major calamity. A brother was the victim of a shooting that nearly took his life; Cruz and her mother nursed him back to health from multiple wounds. Not long after Cruz started at UCLA, her sister Cindy committed suicide, and she put college on hold as her family recovered from the tragedy.

These tribulations might have broken a lesser person. But they only made Liz Cruz more determined to pay forward the kindnesses offered to her throughout her life. A journey of community involvement that began at Samohi would become her destiny.

The Upward Journey

At Samohi, Cruz got involved in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan). She loved how supportive the club’s advisor was of promoting higher education among Latinos and Latinas. She enjoyed the community work—like organizing Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives to help families in need.

“In the 10th grade, I attended a Latina Youth Conference,” says Cruz. “One woman spoke about her job… she was a social worker. Something magical happened to me—and I knew that’s what I wanted to be.”

Her journey toward that goal began with the help of her brother, Jaime Cruz—an SMC alum who is now a History instructor at the college—and two SMC counselors who had also been instrumental in her brother’s success: Benny Blaydes and Oscar Galindo.

When Galindo first met her, Cruz had been accepted at New Mexico State University. He had to be the bearer of bad news, as Cruz and her family had not considered the out-of-state student costs. Instead, Galindo directed her to SMC classes that would put her on the transfer track. She had to work her way up from pre-college level math and English, an insurmountable challenge for many students.

When Galindo told Cruz she might need to repeat classes, that she had to “do what she needs to do to get where she needs to be,” he remembers that she embraced that without a second thought.

Blaydes, then a counselor with the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) program—which supports the academic success of students challenged by economic and educational disadvantages—connected Cruz with programs and support services including Pico Promise, a joint partnership between SMC and the City of Santa Monica. UCLA and USC were not on Cruz’s radar, but Blaydes told her that she could get there. She began doing well, and soon those universities became a concrete goal.

Throughout high school and college, Cruz also worked in different capacities for the City of Santa Monica, from administrative jobs to tutoring students at Virginia Avenue Park and through the City’s CREST student enrichment program. She met many families and children, interacted with local elementary schools, and became a caseworker for Jewish Vocational Service at VAP, which found jobs for at-risk youth in the Pico neighborhood.

Empowering Others to Overcome

After receiving a Master of Social Work degree from USC, Cruz began to work with severely mentally ill and suicidal children, first in the Valley, then in the South Bay—in schools, in group and family therapy. Five years later, she returned to work in Santa Monica.

“It’s just great to come full circle—back here to the Park, to give back in some capacity,” says Cruz. “Now I get to work with a lot of the families I first saw as a City employee. Some of the kids whose parents I worked with now have kids of their own!”

Cruz’s commitment to the students she works with extends beyond the confines of a program. While a graduate student at USC, Cruz had volunteered for a mentoring program for high school students planned in partnership with Youth Justice Coalition, Inglewood. While the program never got off the ground, Cruz kept nurturing her mentee Danielle Argueta.

Argueta, who now works with The Boys and Girls Club in the Bakersfield area, says that while at first it seemed “random” that they were paired together, it turned out to be anything but. When Argueta was young she had been a victim of a drive-by shooting that left profound psychological effects. She and Cruz talked about this and other things at their monthly meetings.

“We found common ground talking about mental health, and Liz would talk about losing her sister,” says Argueta. “I was a very angry kid, but she helped me process my feelings by sharing her own experiences.”

Negativity was embedded in the environment she grew up in, says Argueta, but Cruz changed her outlook—inspiring her with her kindness, and with how Cruz has stayed focused on the positive through adversity.

Cruz’s SMC counselors described her as shy and unsure of what she could accomplish when they first met her. Gloria Garcia, a member of VAP’s parents group—whose meetings Cruz attends as a volunteer—uses those same words to describe herself. But this was until she met Cruz.

“I used to be scared and shy about speaking up,” remembers Garcia. “But Liz always encouraged me, saying ‘You can do it,’ and then I would see her smile…that always made me feel so welcome.” Soon, Garcia will join Cruz on the VAP Advisory Board. And, she says, Cruz was right.

“It works! Now I feel happy to say, ‘Yeah, I can do it’,” says Garcia. “Even if I don’t know how, I know I can learn.”

Her SMC counselors credit Cruz’s work ethic and the support of her family, especially her beloved mother, for her success. As for Cruz, it has only been a matter of following her heart. “I do everything from my heart,” she says. “I feel blessed to be able to give back and connect with families in my community.”

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