Long before Angela Diaz became the director of Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, she was one of the Center’s patients.
In high school, Diaz made good grades and considered herself an excellent student. But at 17, everything changed. “I became very depressed. I didn’t feel able to leave of the house,” she said. “Suddenly, I was confused and lost my sense of direction.”
So she dropped out.
Diaz had visited the Center when she was still a student. Shortly after she dropped out, she worked up the courage to go back. “People realized how depressed I was, and they connected me to a social worker.”
The social worker Mary Gardfield helped Diaz regain her health and re-enroll in school. “Without the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I would not be here today,” she said. “I am proud to serve the organization that helped save me.”
Diaz earned a medical degree and a PhD degree at Columbia and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard. She’s a professor in adolescent health, pediatrics and preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. And she has run the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center – now the largest adolescent-specific health center in the United States – for more than three decades.
On April 20, Diaz will receive the Promise of America award for the impact she’s made on the lives of tens of thousands of young people.
Helping Teens Access HealthCare
Every year, the Center provides a full spectrum of healthcare services for 11,000 teens from New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. And they don’t have to pay a thing—all the services at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center are free.
Services include medical, sexual and reproductive health, and dental, optical and mental healthcare; substance abuse prevention and treatment; help with eating disorders; HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment; violence prevention and treatment; and services for LGBTQ teens and those who have been sexually abused and sex trafficked.
As the Center’s director, Diaz sees too many young people today struggling with the same depression that caused her to drop out of high school. “Huge numbers of young people face similar circumstances,” she said.
Last fall, the report Don’t Quit On Me found that struggling with a mental health issue is one of the top seven reasons that young people drop out of high school every year – and that support from caring adults both inside and outside of school can make all the difference.
“When we put together the resources to help them, these young people really respond and flourish,” she said. “They demonstrate the true worth of the investments we place in them.”
Communicating Through the Arts
Diaz knows from personal experience how much a caring adult matters to young people.
While she credits the Center for “saving her” when she was in high school, she had a number of caring adults in her life who helped her get where she is today. “My mother was very young when I was born and she had very difficult life circumstances, being very poor and having to work to support me,” she said. “But I always had a deep sense that I was loved.”
Despite the love she felt at home, Diaz had a language challenge to overcome at school. In ninth grade, Diaz was one of dozens of students at her school who didn’t speak English. “Some of us spoke Spanish, some Polish, some French and other languages.”
Her 21-year-old teacher, Doris Collazo, learned to communicate with all of them through the arts.
“She shared her love of New York City, taking us all over the city on trips. I saw the Nutcracker. I was exposed to museums,” Diaz recalled. “She recognized my abilities, saw that I was excellent at math, and she placed me in an algebra class outside her classroom.”
“I learned first-hand the importance of a caring adult who finds some unique quality in a young person and builds on and nurtures that quality,” she said. “Adolescents are at such a critical moment. Investing at this crucial time can make all the difference between having a successful life, or its opposite.”
For more stories about 2016 Promise of America Award winners, check out Magic Johnson’s story and Pat Harrison’s story.