Meet LifeWay Network Social Worker Sabrina Zottoli

LifeWay Network social worker Sabrina

In honor of Social Work Month, LifeWay Network is celebrating our talented social workers and their tremendous service to the women survivors of trafficking whom we serve. Today we’d like to introduce you to Sabrina Zottoli, whose passion for this work was first ignited by personal experience and then flourished with global exposure. 

Sabrina works full time at NYC Health + Hospitals in the infectious disease clinic, providing sexual health education, HIV prevention and STI tracking as well as grant writing services. But nights and weekends you’ll find her supporting our social work program at LifeWay’s two safe houses. As a former full-time LifeWay social worker, Sabrina was able to step into the role quickly when we had a need.

It was her own traumatic experience that originally drew Sabrina to social work: When she was 15, she was a witness in a murder trial for a child whom she nannied for. 

“It shaped my whole life moving forward. And the social worker at my high school was somebody who helped me grieve and understand and walk through those years of teenage life in general,” she says. “When I got out of high school, I traveled and wanted to do work abroad and give back the same way that she was able to give to me; but also, I really wanted to work in foster care and adoption with children who were in the situation that this little boy died from. And that’s what led me into social work.”

Sabrina first spent time working in South Africa and Vietnam; in the latter she helped develop a school for children on the autism spectrum. She also taught English on the weekends to the Hmong people.

“And they were talking about women being trafficked into China,” Sabrina says. “And that’s when I first heard about — my little naive brain — what human trafficking was and how big the industry was. I finished my job there and moved back to New York, got my master’s degree and pursued working in anti-trafficking. 

“I just found this passion and drive to want to continue to do this type of work.”

After completing her master’s in social work at Fordham University, Sabrina embarked on a series of roles in the anti-trafficking sphere, including two years as a social worker at LifeWay Network. 

Since her return to LifeWay at the start of 2024, she’s implemented trauma-informed care programs such as creative therapy workshops after the community dinners on Mondays and Wednesdays. She also offers one-on-one sessions with the women survivors who call LifeWay home.

“My goal was to help create an environment that really fosters the mission and values of LifeWay and provides a safe space for everybody,” Sabrina says. “That includes the staff, the Sisters and our residents, but to really focus our work on our residents, where their needs are our priority, and our staff is like one as a team, together in really fulfilling the mission and vision that LifeWay has had for so many years. My goal coming back into this role was to build a team that holds that mission and value just as high as I do.” 

Working in two intense positions can be taxing. “Right now I wear a lot of hats,” Sabrina says. In addition to the one-on-one sessions and therapeutic workshops she offers at LifeWay, she conducts the intakes to assess whether a potential resident is the right fit for LifeWay’s program. She also coordinates with partner agencies that support the women as well, including the FBI, the district attorney’s office, Restore NYC, Sanctuary for Families and Safe Horizon.  

But Sabrina believes that she’s establishing a structure that will stand strong even after she no longer finds it sustainable to hold both of her roles.

“The hands that are taking over are going to fulfill that vision and mission of supporting these women, meeting them where they’re at, prioritizing their needs, being structured and organized and consistent, being culturally sensitive,” Sabrina says. “Building trust and life skills and just sitting in silence and watching a movie, playing a game, doing art workshops, gardening, biking — the role at LifeWay is so endless and it’s beautiful. And I want to put people in these positions to be creative and unique and kind of run with it.”

Part of LifeWay’s methodology includes trauma-informed care, customized to the needs and aspirations of each individual woman. This means success might look different from week to week and person to person. 

“We don’t know where these women really have come from, and how long they’ve been in their situations and what trauma they endured prior to the situation. So we need to meet them where they’re at, and not push our agenda or our expectations on them,” Sabrina says. 

“One woman’s goal might be just safe housing, meaning she genuinely needs a safe place to sleep every night. And another woman’s goal might be employment and saving for independent housing. So those are going to look very different in the house. And they need to be supported very differently. So my goal coming back on was to really make sure whoever was going to be working in the houses with these women understood that and didn’t just push for everybody to have employment and documentation just to move out and do something else, because we were going to set them up to fail.”

Another primary element of LifeWay’s safe housing program is community. Living, working, eating, healing together — it’s a delicate balance that would test any of us. But it’s particularly challenging for survivors whose vulnerabilities have been repeatedly exploited, sometimes from a very young age. 

“A lot of the work that we do and a lot of work that I talked about with the other staff is building trust,” Sabrina says. “So typically, our women coming in don’t trust people, and they need to learn how to build a healthy relationship. How do you rebuild trust with people and how do you have healthy conflict? And that’s a lot of the conversations that I have in the house, if we’re fighting over an orange or an apple or something in the kitchen. How do we do it in a healthy way? Because it’s going to come up in all aspects of our life.

“That’s what sets us apart from a shelter,” she continues. “We’re not just housing; we’re a program, and our program is important. We value community and support, cultural sensitivity. And those are the things that we need to continue to emphasize in the house when we bring in new women.” 

This work calls for a particular sensibility and skill set. It requires patience, empathy, emotional intelligence, persistence and more. And while many of us can only look in awe at the gifts that social workers bring to such challenging work, Sabrina finds it a calling of the highest order.

“The honor that I feel of people sharing their stories with me — I think that’s really what I take away from most every interaction that I have. I always feel really honored.”


By Julianne Will

March 21, 2024