Claudia Leiva – Educator to Imagine YOU

More than 30 years ago, a teenaged Claudia Leiva and her family moved to the United States from El Salvador. While this move to a completely new country was a difficult adjustment, it helped shape her constant awareness of people’s backgrounds and cultural differences. It showed her that effectively reaching out to someone relies on acknowledging and embracing these differences.

This comes naturally to Leiva in her work as an Imagine YOU workshop leader. Imagine YOU workshops encourage participants to be involved in improving their health by digging beneath a medical diagnosis and corresponding treatment. It pushes participants to focus on what matters to them. Instead of being told what to do for their health, they’re inspired by their own personal motivations, which makes it easier to achieve their goals.

Leiva said, “Everybody has different goals. The workshops help participants think of health in broader ways, so [learning new behaviors] can go far beyond just diet and exercise. It’s very empowering, because each individual learns that the answers and solutions they’re looking for are within them.”

Imagine YOU workshops are geared towards various demographics within a community. There are workshops for seniors, for young students, and in Leiva’s case, the adult, Spanish-speaking population within Sonoma County. In the three years since she began working with the program, Leiva has been striving to achieve one of the organization’s goals of being culturally relevant and available to members of different communities.

However, cultural relevance is not limited to overcoming language barriers, like Spanish. In 2018 and again in 2019 Leiva and another instructor brought ten Imagine YOU workshops to the Avance (Spanish for “advance”) program in Sonoma County.

She said, “Most of the participants are females, mothers and immigrants. Sometimes, maybe one or two men attend, but rarely. The women’s experiences and goals are centered on being mothers. A lot of them are very family oriented, so when they make their health goals, it’s usually related to spending quality family time over weekends, when they’re not working. When I’m leading the workshops, I just need to be aware of who the participants are, what they need, and support and embrace it. ”

Leiva also notes the strength of Imagine YOU comes from the ease with which workshop participants can achieve their goals. She said, “Each goal is doable and personal, so people don’t have to struggle. It may take years for a person to achieve their goal, such as being more involved in dance, but it’s done in small steps, such as slowly taking up dance lessons.”

Aside from her work with Imagine YOU, Leiva is adjunct faculty at the Santa Rosa Junior Colleges and teaches GED preparation courses, and basic reading and writing. For Leiva, teaching has been an exciting and fulfilling work where she can help students achieve their dreams, much like her role in Imagine YOU workshops.

Leiva’s community service work shows that teaching plays a vital role in her life. She explains it’s simply something she grew up with, surrounded by family members who were teachers. But for Leiva, the defining moment came when she was fifteen years old, in El Salvador. She said, “I was part of a youth group that visited foster kids, and provided fun activities for them. I became interested in how they live with adults who are not their parents, and in observing their family unit and environment. Then, in this country, I started out as an elementary school teacher, and realized I enjoyed not just teaching the children, but working with the adults and providing them support so they can be a bigger influence on their children’s lives.”

Leiva’s parents have also been a big influence on her by showing her to put passion into everything she does, constantly maintain professionalism and try to grow as a person and professional. She said, “My parents moved me and my two sisters from El Salvador when I was in my teens. We were forced to leave our country. It was hard, but my parents did it so they can give us a more stable life. Everything they did for us was out of love.”

Her work with Imagine YOU and at the SRJC allows Leiva to follow her parents’ example while providing a service to her community. In workshops and in the classroom, Leiva uses her role as an educator to instill positive messages and help make a difference within the community.

Leiva said, “As an educator and workshop leader, I’m happy to be able to provide support to my students and the workshop groups. And with Imagine YOU, for example, I enjoy that the focus is not really the leader but the person. It’s simple and gets results, because you have the tools to reach your goals, and that’s very empowering.”

By Sarah Speaman, UC Davis