Giving Incarcerated Teens Something to Believe In

GSSW Alum John Lopez Receives Leadership Award

May 02, 2017
GSSW Alum John Lopez received the Leadership Award from the Latino Social Work Coalition.

For the incarcerated youth in Rikers Island, Touro Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) alum John Lopez has a simple message: “I don’t know what your purpose is,” he tells them. “But I know what it’s not. It’s not to be incarcerated.”

In honor of his work helping disadvantaged and incarcerated youth, Lopez (GSSW ’15) received the Leadership Award from the Latino Social Work Coalition.

Lopez, who lives in Baldwin with his family, said he sees himself in many of the individuals he works with. He grew up economically disadvantaged in Far Rockaway and describes himself as feeling directionless, even though he managed to graduate high school at 16. As a student in Brooklyn College, he went into finance, but found he didn’t enjoy it. He ended up switching to a health science major and eventually received a masters in healthcare from Stony Brook University.

While he succeeded in his career as a healthcare administrator, Lopez felt something was missing.

“I was successful, but I didn’t feel completely fulfilled,” Lopez recalled. “I didn’t want to be fifty and then wonder what it would have been like going where my heart suggested I go.”

While he had thought about social work, he had a stereotypical view that social workers were only people who go into homes investigating cases of child abuse. A radio advertisement for Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work caught his attention one day as he drove back from his position as an administrator of a multispecialty practice. The advertisement asked if Lopez was the type of person people feel comfortable talking to; if he was someone who others rely on to help with their problems.

“That’s what I’ve been doing for years but I didn’t know that was a career,” he laughed. “I thought to myself: instead of doing things my way, let me learn more and incorporate what I learn into what I do.”

He went to GSSW’s open house and knew it was the right choice for him. Lopez said he took to social work school right away and loved the classes, though his main difficulty was working full-time, taking classes and doing an internship on the side.

“I became an expert at time-management,” laughed Lopez, crediting his wife and two children for their understanding of how busy he was for those two years.

His first internship was working for the Department of Homeless Services. In his second year, he worked for the Fortune Society, which is an alternative to incarceration for young people who have been convicted of crimes.

Lopez enjoyed close relationships with many of his professors including Allison Bobick, Dr. Jennifer Zelnick and Professor Steven Krantz. The best lesson he took from school, he said, was thinking differently when people ask him for help.

“As an administrator, my job was to solve problems,” stated Lopez. “But that’s not what people want. Sometimes people just want someone who will listen to them.”

During his time in GSSW, he was approached by a friend to give a lecture to some at-risk youth and when the lecture went well, he was approached by other agencies to speak to teens and young adults.

“I tell them the truth about me, I was not born with a silver spoon. I was born poor, I grew up poor and I overcame it,” he said. “There’s nothing magical about me. If I could do it so can they. Some of them just need something to believe in.”

He called the award “humbling.”

Lopez continues his career as a hospital administrator, and works part time as a counselor/therapist.

“I’ve learnt how to help better,” said Lopez. “I used to pitch in before but now I’m really motivated on a bigger scale. Now that I have the skills to make a larger impact.”