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Catholic Charities Expands School Programs to Address Youth Mental Health Needs

It’s always been hard to be a teenager.

But the ongoing pandemic, complete with school closures, remote learning and many other disruptions that upended nearly aspect of our lives, put extraordinary stress on many young people in the community. This is especially true for many of the youth we work with at Oakland and West Contra Costa County schools, who are already at increased risk for community violence, trafficking, homelessness and gang involvement. That’s why this school year, Catholic Charities East Bay has expanded services to support students and reduce the chance of them getting tangled up in the criminal justice system.

Since Fall 2021, Catholic Charities East Bay has placed two case managers and a clinical therapist at Oakland Technology High School along with Kennedy High School and Greenwood Academy in Richmond to help students deemed at risk for domestic violence, sex trafficking and other issues. The work is done in conjunction with the schools’ health centers and offers case management and individual therapy to students who are referred by teachers or school administrators. We combine restorative justice and clinical practices to help students deal with trauma, improve attendance and get back on track in life and school. Our TRUE Academy program also incorporates the Hip Hop Heals curriculum, an evidence-based model that uses rap music and hip hop culture as a starting point for safe discussion of  issues faced by at-risk youth.

More than anything, the goal is to make our youth feel supported and to let them know someone cares.

“We’re seeing a lot of young people with a lot of trauma and greater amounts of anxiety this year and just dealing with all the fallout from the pandemic,” says Leo Guzman, Senior Manager of Violence Prevention & Prevention Services, who oversees the TRUE Academy program. “This year has been all about trying to reintegrate young people back into our services after so many interruptions.”

The program currently serves approximately 130 students at three schools and is in the process of hiring more staff to support the schools. It’s supported by grants from California Violence Intervention and Prevention and the Alameda County Probation Department.

Meanwhile, our work with incarcerated youth continues. Our 12-week program at Alameda County’s Camp Sweeney, a minimum- security detention facility, which started meeting again in person last year, uses restorative practices to help young people address trauma and make post-release plans, such as re-enrolling in school and finding a job. As part of the program, we help participants develop a resume, provide letters of recommendation and prepare for a job interview.

New funding has also allowed us to hold weekly sessions with youth serving sentences at Alameda County Juvenile Hall. For many of the incarcerated young people, the program is the only safe space they have to openly share their feelings, says Leo.

“One young man told me how this hour and a half was the only time he could let down his guard, which you can’t really do when you’re incarcerated,” he says. “Here they can speak truthfully about themselves and the challenges they’ve been through.”