ZAIDA YZAGUIRRE, Program Director, Early Childhood Intervention Services

How do you console a grieving family whose expectations of a “normal,” healthy baby has just been derailed by a medical diagnosis of spina bifida, cerebral palsy or down syndrome? Will my child walk, talk, and be able to do things for himself when he’s older? What happens to her when I pass away?

These are questions Zaida Yzaguirre, ECI Program Director, has helped thousands of families work through since 1980 when she began her life’s work serving babies and toddlers with special needs. As a college graduate, Zaida, who was 22 at the time, spent her first years answering what she now considers “God’s calling” on the backroads of south Texas driving to and from the homes of families who needed her.

“Traveling outside Bexar County gave me a view of what was to come,” said Zaida. “I never thought I’d fall in love with the babies right off the bat, especially without understanding anything about medical diagnoses, but I met a lot of beautiful kids and wonderful parents, and it took over my heart,” she said.

At the age of four, Zaida experienced a life-changing event after suffering a traumatic head injury and spending three months in a coma. After making a miraculous recovery and returning home, the hard work began. Zaida remembers people coming into the home to help her relearn to walk, stand up, and put weight on her legs. Almost two decades later, she would find herself on the other side, now the one helping families with the hard work. It was here where Zaida felt most comfortable — reminding families that although they may have lost the normal child they anticipated having, they still have a beautiful baby who can do great things. And so began an almost 40-year career of advocating for “voiceless angels” and giving families confidence in their ability to help their delicate child thrive.

As Program Director, Zaida now spends her time teaching and offering guidance to a staff of 64 early intervention specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and administrative team members who serve over 720 families and children on a monthly basis.

“This line of work is challenging and takes a special kind of person,” said Zaida. “The team always comes first. I have to make sure they’re nurtured and cared for so they can treat our families well, and go home at the end of each day to a family life, too,” she added.

The ECI team works with babies and toddlers zero to 36 months with special challenges, and helps families understand the diagnosis, learn to advocate for their children in the public school system, learn how to ask questions at the doctor’s offices, and quite simply, learn how to cope as parents.

“We’re working with the child’s entire development, but sometimes the focus might be just on feeding, or learning to crawl,” said Zaida. “And sometimes, families just want to be able to make sure that when their changing their child’s diaper, nothing is going to happen to the bones and joints. Infants can’t tell you what they need or if they’re hurting. You have to anticipate for them, and then you have to teach that skill to the parents so they can bond,” she added.

When Zaida is not at the office, she’s still working, spending free time bargain shopping for diapers or formula — things that ECI families desperately need. She also has an incredible network of childhood friends, family and neighbors who she stays connected to. But for Zaida, she will continue to show up for her family at the office as long as God will allow her to serve her community.

“I can’t even explain the rewards to loving something you do every day and knowing that you’re helping these babies and families,” said Zaida. “It’s been beautiful to have done the work and see things change, and it’s also beautiful to be able to go back and teach the staff. It’s was God’s plan for me.” she added.

As Zaida has watched the grant-funded program change over the course of 40 years, there is one thing that she wants to see changed — the need for more men in a historically female-dominated field.

“We need more men to step up and become nurturers, supporting these families,” said Zaida. “Our babies need men. That’s a male influence that they might not otherwise have. There are a lot of wonderful men out there who want to educate. I challenge those men to think about doing it outside of the classroom setting as a therapist, or educating parents on ways they can help their child with special needs,” she added.

For questions about ECI, or to donatemuch-needed items to the program, pleaseemail Zaida Yzaguirre at ZYzaguirre@chcsbc.org.