In honor of Women’s History Month, Children’s Aid is spotlighting the impact of several women leaders at our agency. Next up: Myrna Torres, deputy director of the Youth Division.
When she was in high school, Myrna Torres experienced two events that helped shape the course of her life.
The first came in her sophomore year, when she was part of a program that invited inner-city kids to visit college campuses. Myrna wound up at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, for a weekend. She found herself enthralled by the picturesque lakes, the small class sizes, and the fact that women were leading and shaping the educational experience.
Growing up, Myrna’s parents always told her that they expected her to go to college. Her mother and father, Aida and Juan, both migrated separately from Puerto Rico in the 1950s to New York City, where they later met, married and settled in the south Bronx . They wanted to provide a better life for their family. Their four children were all born in New York. Myrna was the oldest, which also meant that she was the example to the rest.
“As early as elementary school, my mom would say to me, ‘You’re going to college, and you’re going to become a professional.’” Myrna said. “My sister and I had that message ringing in our ears all the time.”
When she returned from the weekend trip, she told her parents to get ready: She was going to Holyoke when she graduated high school. Her guidance counselor didn’t think she would get in, and encouraged her to apply to different schools. She begrudgingly agreed. But she was so sure of where she wanted to go that she only applied for financial assistance at Holyoke.
“When I got my acceptance letter and my financial award,” Myrna said, “my mom was so happy. But then she realized, ‘Oh my God, you’re actually leaving.’”
But before she left, she experienced the other life-altering event. As a senior in high school, she used a free period to do service work around the school. She helped the administrators input data, and she tutored students who needed a little extra support. One of those students was a 19-year-old from Puerto Rico who was reading at a second-grade level. Despite Myrna’s best efforts, and the progress they made together, the student eventually dropped out of school to get married.
“I was dismayed by her decision,” Myrna said, “but I was more upset about the system. How could we allow this to happen? What are we really doing to help children learn? I knew I needed to think bigger than just helping one person. I wanted to impact policy.”
After Holyoke, Myrna got her Master of Social Work from Fordham. She started her career working for Inwood House, a nonprofit organization that served adolescent mothers and their babies in foster care. Since 1999, she has worked for Children’s Aid, where she’s now the deputy director of our Youth Division. And she’s still focused on the systemic issues that hold children back in education.
“Sometimes the inequities and injustices of the system can make you angry,” she said, “and they should make you angry. I’m motivated by moving forward toward better solutions.”
As the leader of a large team, she does that by identifying and valuing voices from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences. “To me, diversity and inclusion means creating a place where everyone’s opinion is valued and respected,” she said. “There is never room for judgment because of your gender or the language you speak, or the color of your skin. We work hand in hand to move our agenda forward.”
Although her mother has since passed on, Myrna still draws strength from the way she encouraged her education and career.
“She left Puerto Rico, but she didn’t leave anyone behind,” Myrna said. “She worked hard to bring her family out of poverty there, and to encourage all of her kids here. She got to see me graduate from college and to get my master’s degree. She got to see my sister become a lawyer. She pushed us so hard, but it worked. It was her determination that set me on this path. She’s one of the reasons why I get to do this inspiring work every day.”