A Life of Service
Alumna uses psychology, Spanish degrees to help children in need
By Ashley Festa
Yesenia Moreno '99 BA (center) talks outside the Bexar County courthouse with two families she helped during her work as a foster care caseworker.
Jonathan (from left), 12, was adopted by Luis Sanchez nearly a year ago. Sisters Stephanie, 7, and Emily, 12 were adopted by Judy Leza.
Yesenia Moreno’s spirit of service was embedded in her heart very early in life. By age 13, she was already volunteering in hospitals.
“My mom always taught us to help other people.”
When she came to the University of the Incarnate Word, she found a Mission of service at the core of the university. That Mission would become a huge part of her college experience. For two years, Moreno participated in the university’s alternative spring break, a project where students trade the typical trip to sandy beaches to volunteer their week off from classes for service to others. For one of her projects, Moreno and fellow volunteers worked with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word at a girls’ orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico, taking supplies, helping with projects and talking to the orphans.
“We just did what needed to be done,” she said.
Also while at UIW, she volunteered her time with Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit housing development organization in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The mission of the organization is to build affordable housing for farm workers.
“I love doing stuff like that,” Moreno said. “I’m from the Valley. It gives me a chance to go back home and help the people.”
So when she graduated from UIW in 1999 with a double major in psychology and Spanish, it was only natural for her to find a way to continue the spirit of the Mission that had become such an important part of her time at Incarnate Word.
Jonathan, 12, who was adopted nearly a year ago, still enjoys seeing Moreno from time to time.
For more than three years now, Moreno has worked in the Alamo City for Child Protective Services conducting adoptions and working as a foster care caseworker. Her favorite part of her job is seeing children placed in forever homes – either back with their parents or with adoptive families.
“It’s a good ending for them and their families,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have had a handful of cases to see all the way through.”
Moreno has had such a good relationship with her clients that some of the children and parents still call her. When she sees them now after they’ve been placed in permanent homes, she said she sees a “totally different kid.”
“It’s amazing what a little bit of love can do for a child. It changes them completely, for the better.”
Many students who earn a psychology degree lean toward careers in counseling, but Moreno found a different way to apply her skills.
“It’s a part of what I do every day.”
And as a bilingual caseworker, one of only two in her unit comfortable working entirely in Spanish if necessary, she is assigned many of the Spanish-speaking clients. Ever conscious of helping others, she has translated many of the forms so that Spanish-speaking families can understand them. She believes this action has helped these families see that she’s really there for them.
“They think ‘she’s a worker who actually took the time to explain things to me in a way I can understand,’” she said.
Because she’s so busy facilitating adoptions, being a wife to her husband, Jose, and raising her own son, Victor, who is nearly 4 years old, Moreno doesn’t have a lot of time for volunteer work. When she does have free time, she’s able to take the children she works with now or former cases out for their birthdays or to the movies.
“I can spoil them a little more than normal,” she said. “That’s my community service now. It brightens up their day.”
Moreno recalled visiting a boy on her own time so she could give him a Christmas gift. He was adopted nearly a year ago, but she said she still tries to visit every two or three months.
“Even though I’m not his caseworker anymore, I still take time to see him and make sure he’s doing well.”
Emily, 12, and Stephanie, 7, are two sisters who had Moreno as their caseworker when they needed to be placed in a new home. Their adoptive mother, Judy Leza, said her experience working with Moreno was excellent.
“I’m really pleased that I got her. Anything that I needed, she was there for us,” Leza said.
Twenty-year-old Jacqueline, Leza’s biological daughter, said the experience was pleasant for the entire family, and that has encouraged her to not only have a family of her own, but also to consider adopting children.
Luis Sanchez, another adoptive parent, has similar opinions of Moreno’s work on his case to adopt his son Jonathan, 12.
“She really keeps up with the children,” he said. “If she can’t come over to the house, she’ll call just to see how we are. She’s a good-hearted person.”
Moreno encourages others to consider foster work.
“The difference is so drastic, what a little love will do to improve their lives.”