Experts in career planning say individuals change their careers three to seven times in a lifetime. Sandra Pena, 51, is on her way to meet the minimum career changes. Currently, she is employed at El Centro de Amistad as an associate marriage family therapist, who provides mental health services to children, youth, individuals, and families.

When Sandra was 15 years old she became pregnant and dropped out of high school to begin working to provide for her unborn son. By the time she was 27, she had purchased a home in Arizona, raising two children, and enrolling them in private schools. Sandra is quick to acknowledge how hard work plays a role in getting what you want. At 35 she decided to get her high school diploma online. She added “with life experiences you go further.”

Although her previous careers have taken her from human resources to accounting, Sandra is no stranger to many life experiences that have shaped who she is and guided her to become the therapist she is today. Her son at the age of 12 started using drugs. She started looking for resources to help him in his recovery. Drug use continues to be an ongoing challenge for her son, who has been diagnosed with several mental illnesses as a result of the addiction.

“In 2010 I loved what I was doing but I wanted to pursue something else. I became a hypnotherapist because personally I used to see how it helped with panic attacks,” said Sandra, who became a drug counselor. Thereafter she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology at American Public University and continued to pursue her education goals by earning her master’s degree.

The desire to further her education and earn a doctorate in psychology stems from “helping other parents, grandparents, siblings, and other families to understand their fight against mental illness and addiction.” Sandra added that parents need to know “it’s not our fault.”

“As a parent I learn and I teach that we can not change other people, we can only change ourselves. I sought out services to learn how to be around my son,” said Sandra. “You can give people tools and it’s up to them to make their choice. You have a choice to be around them and not enable them and feed their addiction. You choose that life and it’s a difficult decision and choice when it’s your own blood relative. My son and I have an agreement; when he is clean we can have a relationship and when he’s not then we can’t talk.”

Mental health stigma is too familiar in the Latino culture. Sandra works daily to break the stigma, especially in the community she was raised in. Her current office on Brand Boulevard was her family’s doctor’s office 45 years ago. She fondly remembers the connection she has from her childhood.

“I love my job–it’s not even a job. I get up every morning and I say ‘yes, here I am, doing what I love to do’. We had an event at El Centro and I had my girls volunteer at the event. We don’t know what others need,” said Sandra, who has three granddaughters and two stepchildren. “Our clients empower themselves by getting the help they need through mental health services, seeking a healthier mental life, not a financial one.”