Counseling to work through a childhood trauma was the key to moving forward for a student now on a full scholarship in college.

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Mirsa Perez was still just a young girl when she was sexually abused.

She kept it a secret, a burden that dragged her into a darkness so deep that by seventh grade she had suicidal thoughts, and began cutting herself.

“I thought, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore, I can’t deal with this emotion in my life,’” Perez said. “I had to go through school numbing out my emotions. It was hard to concentrate through all this pain. And I didn’t have anyone to really talk with about it until I opened up to my friends and told them I was cutting.

“It took them a while to tell on me. But I am glad they did. I knew something was up when they called me in to the school counselor. That is when I started crying a lot. I didn’t tell her what happened or why, she just let me cry.”

The counselor also referred Perez to Youth Eastside Services (YES), one of 12 agencies benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. “I just want to say thank you to them,” Perez said of YES. “Because without their help, I don’t know where I would be.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.   Click here to donate to Fund For The Needy.

Very likely not where she is now: 19 years old, graduated from high school and enrolled on a full-ride scholarship in college, where she is pursuing a degree in early-childhood education.

Perez spent four years in counseling at Youth Eastside Services. “I was finally able to tell someone what happened when I was little; I had kept that secret for so many years,” Perez said. “I was mad, and sad, thinking, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ And guilty. I was self-blaming. And then when I came here, I realized it was not my fault. That was a huge relief.”

Perez was diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. “Every week we went through step-by-step what happened,” Perez said. “The first time was super hard. But it was like watching a horror movie: Every time you watch it, it is less scary.”

Because she was harming herself, the school counselor also contacted Perez’s parents. It was the first time Perez told them what had happened — and was able to receive their support.

Perez before long realized she needed more help from YES, when she became pregnant at age 15. She decided to keep the child, and YES helped her through a healthy pregnancy and in nurturing a baby boy.

Youth Eastside Services

YES provides counseling that helps young people and their families deal with emotional issues, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, dating violence, gang activity and bullying.

YES also helped Perez stay on track in high school, graduating, and even doing the Running Start college program and earning her scholarship.

“I learned I had power over what happened,” said Perez, during an interview at YES. “I got better at expressing my emotions. And I have all these skills now, in case I get triggered. I get anxious. It takes me a while to calm down. But I have those skills now.”

YES has been providing mental-health counseling and substance-abuse treatment to youth and families since 1968. In 2014 alone, YES helped 5,108 kids, teens and their families overcome depression, addiction and abuse. The program also reached nearly 40,000 individuals through education and prevention programs to support teens of every sexual orientation, and help youth and parents address and prevent bullying. YES also helps parents learn to spot the signs of substance abuse.

Your dollars at work

Samples of what Youth Eastside Services can do with your donation:

$25: helps train a youth in anti-bullying skills

$50: helps send a low-income teen to day camp to build self-esteem and social skills

$100: lets three youths recovering from substance abuse participate in a healthy activity, such as bowling

Click here for more information.

Based in Bellevue, YES serves youth not only at its headquarters but at more than 50 sites across the Eastside, including schools and teen and community centers. Thanks to donor support, no kid is ever turned away, no matter the family’s financial situation.

YES provided free or reduced-cost care to more than 1,385 kids and families in the first six months of 2015. The need for subsidized care is greater than ever, because even when families have insurance, it seldom covers the full cost of care, said Patti Skelton-McGougan, executive director at YES since 1997.

The nonprofit has kept enhancing its services to meet kids’ needs, this month announcing a new collaboration with Seattle Children’s hospital to expand its psychiatric services. The goal is to help kids overcome complex problems, Skelton-McGougan said.

“Kids are dying from heroin,” Skelton-McGougan said. “Suicide is an issue. I never remember it being a huge issue before, and it is now. Kids feeling that heroin is OK to try, and that I would rather die than live, what does that tell us? It rips your heart out.”

Such tough problems can happen in any family, in any community, wealthy or not, Skelton-McGougan said. “No matter your background or income level, we are going to serve you.

“I honestly believe all kids can succeed. We can be there to prevent, and to educate, and we can be there to catch them if they fall.”