Gisela Hurtado: Bringing Out the Best in Families

September 22, 2021

What does it take to be a home visitor? You need to be able to build bonds of trust with parents. You need to have the skills to work with both the parents and their children. You need to respect the cultures and traditions of the families you serve. You need to know how to take advantage of their strengths. And you need to have knowledge of health, nutrition and education—so it’s a lot to ask of one person.

“Home visiting is like a one-stop shop,” says Gisela Hurtado, a senior manager in the Office of Early Learning at the United Planning Organization in Washington, DC. UPO’s goal is to change life for the low-income residents of the District, and Gisela embraces that mission with a passion. “I’m constantly looking to learn more,” she says, “and find ways to support families better. I want to give them the best of me.”

Her program serves a diverse range of people: Black, Mexican—and especially Central American families who have come here searching for a better life. Some of these families have fled gang violence and left everything behind. Others are political refugees. Many have been through trauma, or one of the parents may have been deported due to issues with immigration. Whatever their background might be, the families tend to feel a sense of isolation since they don’t have a strong circle of support.

Gisela knows how they feel because she came to the U.S. as an immigrant about 15 years ago. She was a teacher in her native Peru but didn’t speak English well enough to work in her field after arriving in this nation. “The first year I was here I worked in a restaurant,” she recalls “as I grappled with the challenges of adapting to a new country, a new language and a new culture. I had no friends or family, and I felt alone, like the immigrant families that I now serve.”

But Gisela didn’t give up since she’s an achiever by nature. “While taking ESL classes,” she says, “I got to know the people in the community and began asking them how I could continue in the field of education. That’s how I learned about the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. It provides you with the tools you need to do your job, gives you knowledge of child development, shows you how to build relationships with families. And it helped me keep doing what I loved—working with children and families.”

She began to rebuild her career as a volunteer at the Rosemount Center in DC while earning her center-based CDA. After completing her credential, she worked for a while at a Maryland center until a new opportunity arose. “The director of the Rosemount Center asked me if I’d like to come back there as a home visitor,” she says, “and that’s how I learned about the home visiting field. I fell in love with it and wound up getting my home visitor CDA. Since then, I’ve had the best of both worlds because you get to work with the child, and you also engage the parents in the process.”

Building trusting bonds with families isn’t easy, she admits. “You have to devote time to the process. You have to treat them with respect, and you have to get to know their culture and goals.” All this involves a lot of work, but there are tremendous rewards. “Home visits give you the chance to meet a family’s challenges in their own space where they’re more at ease. You also can engage more with them than you can in the classroom where you only see parents when there are meetings or challenges with the children. Families come to realize they can go to you for whatever they need.”

And that builds real connections, as Gisela saw some years ago while making home visits to the parents of a three-year-old child who had developmental delays. “I connected them with the extra services they needed for their child,” she recalls “adjusted my hours so I could meet with both the mom and dad and made sure the mom got prenatal care for the child she was expecting. The parents were so grateful they wound up making Gisela their new baby’s middle name, and it was an honor I will always cherish.”

Gisela also treasures the ties she’s built with the many families she’s helped feel welcome in a new home, connected with community resources and coached on ways to be better parents. She has also made them feel they’re not alone by sharing her own struggles as a newcomer to this nation. “When the time was right,” she says, “I told them my story to show them the steps you need to take and how much you can achieve.”

Now Gisela manages both a home-based program for UPO and program operations at some of UPO’s community centers. “I miss going to homes on a regular basis,” she says, “but in this role, I have the chance to take a more holistic view of my field and I am able to move the pieces as needed.”

One of things she urges her staff to do is look at the strengths of the families that they serve. “Unfortunately, we sometimes take a deficit approach and don’t take the time to learn about their strengths,” she says. “But imagine the trauma they went through to get here. They left everything behind, and some of them faced life-and-death situations. Not everybody can do that.”

These parents deserve respect and UPO encourages them to make their voices heard by inviting them to join its policy council committee. “The monthly committee meetings give them a chance to learn about updates to the program and share their concerns. Then we work together to make any needed changes,” Gisela explains. The meetings also give her the chance to stay involved with the parents. “I don’t want to lose that connection with parents because they’re the ones who are going to tell you where your program needs to go.” So, Gisela welcomes their feedback and the chance to keep making an impact on their lives, the way she did to one young mom of two who served on the committee.

As a Latino woman, she came from a culture where the mom tends to stay at home with the kids while the dad goes to work—something that’s not always possible here where families need two incomes to get by. “But this mom was very shy,” Gisela recalls, “and the thought of going into the world made her nervous, so I encouraged her over the course of the two years she spent in the program. In time, she became the chairperson of the committee and then she went to college to earn her degree in nutrition science. She didn’t have a resume, which made it hard to get a job, so I shared my experience as a volunteer and showed her how it helped me find a paying position. So, she went to volunteer and now has a job with one of our partner programs. She’s doing well at work and I’m proud of what she’s achieved.”

This young mom’s advances bring home the value of the bonds Gisela builds with families. And helping parents grow and learn also inspires Gisela to keep on growing. She recently earned a credential in business and hopes one day to earn a degree in the field. She also plans to do more to keep building her UPO home-based program and make it a strengths-based model for the District. She’s committed to being her best so she can bring out the best in the DC families she serves.

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