Her story is heart wrenching and one you may not believe. Cristina Contreras, chief strategy officer and executive director at NYC Health + Hospitals/North Central Bronx, is the definition of determination and perseverance.
Contreras, 49, was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in a rough neighborhood. At 15, she emigrated to America with her mom, but shortly after coming to New York, her mother returned to the Dominican Republic, leaving her alone to fend for herself.
Life as a teenager is hard enough. Now imagine being by yourself, not knowing anyone, the culture or language? Well, that was life for Contreras.
“I was terrified,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to say excuse me.”
Instead of getting depressed or turning to drugs, she stayed focused.
She went to high school in Washington Heights, which provided a bit of comfort because of its huge Dominican population, but she was still lost. Contreras worked two jobs selling cosmetics and at a supermarket and rented a room in order to survive.
So, while kids were out partying and cutting class, she was doing her best to not get evicted.
“I had to work really hard,” she explained. “I always had the commitment to go to school.”
In high school she had a son, Jonathan, and things got even more complicated. Fortunately, a neighbor, Cecilia de Jesus, cared for him, which was a huge help.
Contreras did after school activities and felt comfortable in the classroom.
“I was very focused that I wanted to do something with my life,” she explained. “I think that’s what gave me the strength. A lot of people thought I was going to give up.”
She began to feel good about herself when she attended Lehman College and soon realized she wanted to be a mental health professional.
In 1995 Contreras graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work and that same year, began her career within NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island as a caseworker.
The Morris Park resident and Community Board 7 member still cannot believe how far she has come in life. In fact, she earned her master’s degree in social work from Fordham University in 2001 and a second master’s in public administration from Baruch College in 2008.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I always wanted to influence younger people, especially minority women.”
The mother of four could never have imagined her life unfolding the way it did. Now with 25 years at NYC Health + Hospitals she has made quite an impact on the community. Contreras has received numerous awards including the Bronx Power Women, the Dominican Day Parade Board, the American College of Healthcare Executives and the Association of Hispanic Health Executives (AHHE).
Looking back, she sometimes gets sad about what happened when she was younger. For many years she was angry at her mom and dad, Maria and Paulino.
“I learned that my parents went through their own struggles as well,” she said. “Even though I had a lot of difficulties, it was a good experience.”