Hispanic Family Counseling Inc.

Hispafam provides mental and behavioral health services for the Hispanic community in the language they feel more comfortable with.

Written by: Diane Sears




Health Care and Social Assistance


Orange County


125% increase from
2017 – 2021


34% increase from
2017 – 2020

Denisse Lamas

Executive Director

Talk about why you started your business.

I am a licensed clinical social worker in Florida, and I’ve worked for different agencies. One of the big gaps I saw was a lack of knowledge about serving the Hispanic community. When people get angry or emotional, they like to speak their native language — that’s how our brains work. But it’s not just about speaking their language so you can better understand clients. It’s more about understanding their culture.

For example, when we do home visits or school visits, Hispanics greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. That’s very normal and common. For the agencies where I used to work, that was seen as inappropriate. But for our culture, giving a handshake doesn’t seem right, and people take it personally.

Another example is about drinking a cup of coffee. When I go home to Puerto Rico, I visit members of my family and I have to drink a cup of coffee at every single home I go to. That’s part of the culture and how we greet each other, along with food.

That’s how we grew up and how we were trained. So not observing those cultures in the agencies where I worked created some disconnection between the clients and the therapists. What I could normally do in a month took three months because I didn’t have that rapport.

My husband is from Venezuela, and a lot of people coming here from his country have experienced political issues in their home country. Coming here and not understanding the culture is challenging for them, and a lot of them are really afraid. You don’t know anybody and you’re afraid you’re doing something wrong. A therapist has to understand that.

Another example is that in Puerto Rico, you don’t stop at red lights after midnight. It’s a safety issue. But here, if you run a red light, you might get a ticket in the mail two weeks later. Cultural differences like those made me decide to open Hispanic Family Counseling.

How long have you been in business, and when did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I started the company nine years ago. My grandparents had a supermarket, and my parents have had a supermarket all their lives. That’s a lot of work, seven days a week. But I think that’s how it became ingrained in my brain that I wanted to provide jobs for other people.

When I left college, I knew I wanted to do something for the Hispanic community, which was growing in Central Florida. I think it was at the point when I had a conversation with my supervisor about the importance of coffee, and the supervisor said “No,” right then I felt compelled to make sure that people with the same background as me could get the services they need. 

What did you want to be when you were a little kid?

A teacher. My siblings and I always played like we were in a classroom. I did work for Orange County Public Schools for a while, and I worked for the University of Central Florida for a few years, but once I opened the business it just required so much time that it was hard to do anything else.

How many employees do you have, and what is the culture like inside your organization?

I love my job! And I think everyone who works there loves it, too. When we went into COVID-19, I had to let go of most of my new staff members. I was able to rehire them, and I thought some wouldn’t come back. But everyone came back, and I was humbled and very glad. I’m proud of our team. We have 84 people, including administrative staff, therapists and case managers.

What makes your company different?

We have a very Hispanic culture. I want us to help people in the Hispanic community, especially those who are coming into Central Florida with fear or trauma. And I also want people in Central Florida to understand Hispanic culture. There’s a lot of misconception among some about Hispanic people.  

With this company, it was important for me to create an environment where you can feel at home. A lot of us came here and left family members behind in our home countries, and that can make you feel alone and lonely. So the company creates a family atmosphere. We do a team-building activity once a month, and it’s always something fun that is not related to work. At the office, we have food all the time. That’s part of who we are. Somebody will cook and bring in extra to share. It’s more like a family environment than work.

What are the benefits of operating in Florida for the future growth of your company?

There are a lot of Hispanic people here. So not only do we have great clientele, but I’m able to help out the employees by hiring them and showcasing their bilingual abilities. And then the weather is so perfect. It’s good for our clients to be able to do activities outside through our psychological rehabilitation services. Here in Central Florida, with all the parks, you can go on a walk to do something different.

Talk about some challenges you’ve found in growing the business. What keeps you up at night as the business owner?

What keeps me up at night is making sure our mission is fulfilled and that we provide quality services, but also that we are there for our employees. One of the hardest things for me was having to let go of my admin early in the pandemic before we could bring everyone back. I just wanted to make sure everyone was OK. Not every entrepreneur was able to survive COVID-19. It was challenging and emotional.

Another challenge is making sure we maintain our roots but also comply with all the rules and regulations of the state. Language barriers are always a challenge, too, because English was not my first language or the first language of my employees.

It’s always a challenge to make sure you have good people with good intentions. I always say, “Hire values, train skills.” I always tell them, “It’s not my company, it’s our company.” We’re here to make a difference.

What challenges do you see the company facing in the next three years?

Well, one of the challenges is not knowing what is happening with COVID. Sometimes it feels like we’re taking one step forward and three steps backward. The uncertainty is challenging. We work with a lot of people who suffer from anxiety. Being in a field where mental health is key is challenging because we are helping people as clinicians but we’re suffering from the same thing at the same time.

My job is to make sure my therapists and other team members are OK. We do trainings and team-building activities and holiday get-togethers. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re suffering from anxiety, for example, until like it’s too late and you’re in crisis and having panic attacks.

One thing we’ve learned through COVID is that mental illness can happen to anybody. I think that’s good, because people have been more open to receiving services. Usually the people we saw in our offices were kids with behavioral issues, or adults with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. With COVID, we have seen an increase in educated professionals who are suffering from anxiety due to the pandemic. We have seen an increased demand and have been able to help a lot of people.

What are your goals for the business in the next one to three years?

One goal is to open a psychiatric evaluation and medication management agency. We also want to have a better electronic health records system. Also, I would like us to be a one-stop shop for mental health — whether it’s seeing a therapist, medication management or providing transportation to get to your appointment.

I would also like us to be one of the key agencies that provides cultural competency training. We already provide training for our personnel on all the different cultures — we might talk about Mexico today and Venezuela next month and Peru the month after. Even though we are all Hispanic, we have our own belief systems and cultural differences. I’d like to be able to teach the community about those.

What has your proudest moment been as the CEO?

One of the proudest moments was when we won a Don Quijote Award, which is a really big deal in Orlando’s Hispanic community.  We won it when Puerto Rico was going through one of the hardest moments in its history, right after Hurricane Maria. We dedicated our award to Puerto Rico.

What does it mean to you to be selected as a GrowFL Florida Company to Watch honoree?

It is such an honor to be recognized. I can’t even express how proud I am of my team because I know this was a joint effort. It’s not my award, it’s a team award. They worked really hard for it.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank besides your team?

I thank my parents, who worked hard for me to have an education and to come to this country and be successful. I thank my husband, who supported me when I was working for free for the first seven months. Most important, I thank God who graced me with being here. Having this agency has been more than a dream come true.

What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? Is there something you wish you had known when you started?

It’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be hard. There are times when you don’t sleep because you’re thinking about what you’re going to do or how you can improve. But it’s so fulfilling, being able to provide employment and comfort to others. When you do something you’re passionate about, and that you love doing, then it doesn’t feel like you’re working. You’re just living your dream. That’s what’s happening with me. I love being a social worker.

"It’s never going to be easy. Every year I say, “This is going to be easier than last year, and it’s going to be the greatest year ever!” and then there are bigger challenges. But it’s worth it when you see an employee buy a house for the first time. When people thank you and say, “You changed my life,” there are no words to describe that feeling. That’s when I know I’m fulfilling my purpose. "

Celebrate with the Hispafam team!

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