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Doña Flor is the one to call in Baltimore for help with Latina rights and family well-being

In a normal week, Flor Giusti may receive calls asking where families can get food, or how to fill out forms for Social Security benefits.

Once, Giusti said, a woman called because a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer was knocking on her door. The terrified caller hid in the closet, afraid she might be deported. Giusti talked her through the stressful ordeal until the officer left.

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Jessica Contreras, who started working with Giusti in 2003 at Casey Family Services, said she often jokes that Giusti is a one-woman help line.

I often laugh at her, and I tell her [that] she runs her own 211 line, because her phone is non-stop ringing,” Contreras said. I don’t know how the woman sleeps. People call her for everything.”

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Contreras and Giusti are now co-workers at Bayview’s pediatric outpatient clinic, the Children’s Medical Practice, which serves more than 4,000 Latino families. As a bilingual social worker and facilitator on the Latino Family Advisory Board, Giusti said she’s had an open phone line during the pandemic. She normally addresses clients’ psychosocial needs in person.

“Pediatricians are not taking care of bodies; they are taking care of people,” Giusti said. “The life and the health of those people is directly impacted by housing, access to food, access to health care, [and] access to jobs. All of those things that are happening outside the clinic room result in a child getting — not only the environment — but also the resources to grow to his or her full development.”

Flor Giusti is a bilingual social worker at Children’s Medical Practice and volunteers with Centro SOL's mental health group, Testimonios.
Flor Giusti is a bilingual social worker at Children’s Medical Practice and volunteers with Centro SOL's mental health group, Testimonios. (Johns Hopkins Medicine/Handout)

In a 26-year career in Baltimore, Giusti has been advocating for the Latino community, particularly for immigrant women, as well as working to break the cycles of domestic violence. She also co-facilitates a parenting class and support group for parents of children on the autism spectrum at the Children’s Medical Practice.

She and Contreras also volunteer with Testimonios, a mental health support group for underinsured and uninsured Latinos at Centro SOL. Patients there are coping with grief from losing relatives to COVID-19, surviving traumatic events, having feelings of isolation, and lacking support while caring for children with special needs.

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“The members of our community are very hardworking, resilient people, and sometimes they are not used to identifying their emotional needs,” Giusti said. “Most people just keep working and keep thriving [through the mental health challenges.]”

Giusti worked as a psychologist in Peru before earning her master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She interned at House of Ruth Maryland and connected with Latina women who experienced domestic violence. A bilingual support group began, met weekly for 16 years, and morphed into Adelante Familia, a Baltimore program serving Spanish-speaking immigrants living in Baltimore who are at risk, survivors or perpetrators of intimate partner violence.

“I don’t think this is the job for her. I think this is her passion,” Contreras said. “[Flor] often talks about her father being a physician, and child service was important to him. She continues his legacy of service through the work that she does.”

Contreras said her longtime friend and colleague has a history of going above and beyond. At Casey Family Services, Giusti would volunteer on most Saturdays for a play group and while playing a guitar, she would sing songs with mothers and children.

An advocate for women’s rights, and affectionately nicknamed Doña Flor (a title of respect and admiration) by community members, she has helped many domestic violence survivors, even teaching some of them how to drive.

One of the things that abusers do [is] create such force that they make particular women feel like they can’t cope on their own,” Contreras said. “Flor is someone who believes, in order for women to feel strong enough to leave something negative, they have to feel like they have the support systems out there.”

While Giusti has dedicated over two decades to uplifting the Latino community in Baltimore, she said one question motivates her to keep working: “How can we be happy in a world with so many injustices?”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at shominik@baltsun.com.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia.

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