Cynthia Lambert pulls down one of the hand-drawn illustrations hanging from the wall of her office and looks at it reflectively. She turns it over and reads the message on the back.
“Cynthia: I want to say thanks for being a positive role model, a great support, and someone I can trust to open up to and depend on. Without you giving me great ideas and coping methods I would have been lost,” it reads. “But you never gave up on me, you never judged me, I thank you so much for that.”
“That’s the biggest thing I like,” Lambert says. “When the kids that I’ve worked with for a really long time leave me with stuff to say thank you or goodbye.”
From working as a juvenile court counselor and adolescent mental health consultant to leading a high school youth group, Lambert has dedicated herself to serving the needs of children, no matter their circumstances. These days, Lambert serves as a program supervisor, working with mental health consultants inside the justice system.
Lambert has focused at least half of the 21-year career at Multnomah County improving the mental health of children in custody, an issue she says is often overlooked by those not directly involved with various parts of the justice system.
“Mental illness is real, it’s something that’s not often talked about and it deserves a discussion, just like any form of physical health,” she says.
“The way that she took care of the babies and children that came into her home was amazing because these weren’t her kids and she took care of them like they were her own,” Lambert says.
Her mother’s dedication and care for the children she brought into her home was what motivated Lambert to work with children herself.
“I inherited that from her,” she says.
Lambert began at the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice in 1999 as a juvenile court counselor and custody service specialist, helping families navigate short and long-term needs following a juvenile arrest.
The work was challenging but rewarding. Lambert can recall long days where she would spend countless hours meeting with members of the client’s support system to case plan and provide services.
“I really am appreciative and have the utmost respect for the Juvenile Custody Service staff here because I not only personally know what it’s like to be in that role and know the challenges you can face doing that line of work, but because a lot of what I have to do [now] depends on what they report to me,” she says.
Even while working at DCJ, Lambert wanted to work on the mental health side of juvenile detention to serve the psychological needs of children who may have been raised under difficult circumstances and are dealing with trauma.
“It didn’t just start with them. It started with their parents or others around them,” she says. “A lot of the kids I’ve worked with have been in environments where someone may have cared, but they have been too preoccupied with their own problems and issues to provide the things that youth may have needed in that moment. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Finally, in 2011, she began working for the Multnomah County Health Department as a mental health consultant, where she regularly helped youth in custody.
In addition to the challenges that the youth faced on the outside that led them to custody, maintaining mental health is equally crucial for the youth Lambert served because of changes they face once they become justice involved. Lambert describes it as a period of limbo and says it can be difficult to face at such a young age.
“They’re dealing with a lot of things emotionally. They’re away from their family, their friends,” she says. “They just want to go home.”
In such an anxious and uncertain time, mental health consultants like Lambert provide much-needed support. Mental health counseling at the Multnomah County Juvenile Detention Home (JDH) includes everything from one-on-one and group meetings to suicide watch assessments.
“They want someone to listen to them and understand what they’ve been through,” she says.
While working as a mental health consultant, Lambert never pushed her clients to open up, instead simply lending an ear and being a non-judgmental figure.
Eric Williams, a Corrections Health manager who has worked with Lambert for close to 20 years, says that Lambert embodies the necessary characteristics to be a successful counselor and to work with youth in custody.
“She’s a good listener and she empowers her peers. In our work it’s important to be optimistic and she has a great sense of humor. And of course she’s really passionate and cares about the work,” he says.
Williams adds that Lambert has the tremendous ability to see the nuances of her role and balance empathy with directness while working with youth.
“When you work in mental health, a lot of times the work is grey — it’s not necessarily black and white — so you have to have the instincts to, for example, identify somebody who might be in an acute crisis,” he says.
Since the start of the year, Lambert has been a supervisor where she oversees mental health consultants at both Inverness Jail and JDH. Her responsibilities vary; on any given day, Lambert can be found mentoring and supporting her staff, creating treatment plans for patients in custody or even making decisions on whether patients should be sent to the hospital for treatment.
Outside of Multnomah County, Lambert is a member of Zeta Phi Beta, a sorority composed of African American college-educated women mainly focused on community service. Lambert extends her dedication to serving youth through the sorority, serving as an advisor of a teenage girls group.
This year, Lambert co-led multiple workshops for the group where she taught healthy relationship and leadership skills. She also oversaw several fundraisers the group put on for people experiencing homelessness, including one where members of the youth group filled what they called “bags of hope” that included essential items such as masks and toiletries.
Lambert hopes that through her commitment to youth, she has been able to “pick up the torch” from her mother to continue serving families experiencing poverty, substance use disorders and a plethora of other issues. For Lambert, it ultimately stems from an innate desire to see people improve themselves.
“I just really enjoy seeing people live healthy and fulfilling lives, and I don’t want to see young people living in fear or hearing that they’ll never be loved or appreciated in this world,” she says.
“Hopefully if they come across me, no matter how brief, they feel like someone took the time to care.”