When she was a Sammamish High School freshman, Judith Mercado’s daily routine was unremarkable: go to classes, get her stuff done, go home. She felt lost in an educational system she didn’t understand while trying to navigate life as a first-generation immigrant and the oldest of four siblings.
She joined Latino H.E.A.T. (Hispanos En Acción Together), a weekly group for Latinx students held at the Eastside high school and coordinated by Youth Eastside Services. The group focuses on community involvement, cultural importance and leadership. The group changed her life.
“I started to see the importance of involvement in the community and in the school, and it opened my eyes to injustice and inequality with education,” Mercado said. “That is why I am passionate today and why I love doing what I do today.”
Mercado, 24, is now a Latinx youth and family specialist at Youth Eastside Services, where she coordinates the same H.E.A.T. program that helped transform her from a shy girl lacking leadership opportunities to a young professional with a passion for education and community.
Youth Eastside Services (YES) works with youth and families in Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond and Sammamish, and provides services through more than 50 schools and community centers in the Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts. The agency is one of a dozen nonprofits benefiting from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
Last year, YES reached more than 50,000 people on the Eastside, including 7,500 children, teens and their family members who received direct behavioral health services, which account for the greatest portion of YES’s expenses.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders, however, brought new challenges from multiple angles: Schools closed and relied on technology that not all students had, and social isolation exacerbated the pandemic’s toll on youth mental health.
Across the U.S., nearly a third of young people from ages 13 to 19 have reported feeling sadder or more depressed since the start of the pandemic, according to America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, businesses and government organizations. A fourth say they don’t feel connected to school adults, and the same amount say they aren’t connected to their classmates or school community.
Meanwhile, YES clients’ families were relying on the clients for financial help or other tasks such as child care and information about the pandemic and shutdown.
“Our students, right this second, are living this very, very hard life with being under COVID-19 and being the provider for their families,” Mercado said.
Adjusting to new technology to provide services was the biggest barrier, since YES has relied on being in schools to provide services, said Tina Morales, a Latinx family and youth specialist who has been with YES for nearly 20 years.
“That has been the biggest issue for our community,” Morales said. “The most effective work happens when we are in the schools and meeting students and families and getting them to be able to sit face to face in a safe space.”
Therapy appointments are conducted via telehealth, and weekly gatherings are held through private Zoom meetings. Morales and Mercado joined virtual classrooms and spoke at virtual assemblies. In November, YES counselors offered a free online lecture for parents about youth mental health available in English, Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin.
Members of Latino H.E.A.T. and other clubs are involved, too; they helped plan a drive-by graduation celebration and a virtual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) event, where community members sang traditional songs.
“Having that union of tradition and song and presence of the community, that felt healing, even though we were all separated,” Morales said. “What has helped us face this challenge is going back to our traditions.”
It was also meaningful that the students had been involved, Morales added.
“It’s a wonderful domino effect when youth in leadership get to inspire other youth,” she said.
That’s what happened with Mercado, who Morales remembers as someone who had leadership qualities inside her, but who needed opportunities to express them. Mercado, meanwhile, remembers Morales as someone she knew believed in her.
“When someone believes in you, it’s the best feeling,” Mercado said. “It encourages you to do well for the next generation.”