From training killer whales to counseling kids, Erica Zeno Robinson, MA, LMHC, registered intern, LC, has covered a lot of ground in her 31 years. Her passion and dedication have earned her the title of Healthy Living’s first “Hometown Hero.”
Born in New York but a resident of Ocala since the age of 3, Erica graduated from Belleview High School in 2005 and then earned a degree in psychology from the University of South Florida in 2010.
While still in college, she applied for a position at SeaWorld. Out of more than 300 applicants from around the world, only two were hired. Erica was one.
“Psychology is the preferred degree for a marine animal trainer. It also helped that I was able to hold my breath for an excessive amount of time,” says Erica with a smile.
The three years she spent at SeaWorld proved pivotal when she later decided to use her degree to counsel young children. Today, Erica is the executive director of First StrideZ Counseling, which assists the Marion County community with low-cost specialized counseling services.
“Mental health issues in young children can appear very differently than in adults,” explains Erica, noting that, if a child needs help, getting them into treatment early results in a much better outcome by the time they turn 18.
“I loved my life as a killer whale trainer, and it has given me incredible opportunities,” relates Erica. “Building relationships with the whales from the ground up taught me more about patience and respect than any other relationships in my life. Every time I have a question about something in my work with children, the answer is back there in my time spent in the pool with the whales.”
For example, a very young child who has been traumatized may not speak but will express themselves using body language. Erica feels better able to perceive this because of her time spent with the marine mammals.
Every day, Erica sees anew the need for mental health awareness and wishes she could banish the stigma that surrounds mental health so that people wouldn’t wait to seek help.
“People often put off dealing with it or don’t know what their options are, but I’ve seen people able to lead totally normal lives after getting help,” she notes. “In many cases, mental illness is a chemical imbalance of the brain and medication can save a person’s life.”
Another of Erica’s passions is bringing fresh water to communities in Africa, and since 2012, she’s gone on several mission trips with Blessed Trinity Church. At the time of this interview, she was headed to Uganda for another mission trip, where along with the water project, her primary work is with orphans.
That’s just Erica doing what she does—showing up and making a difference.