“Having the youth at the center of this work is really key,” said Latino Service Provider’s director of programs Stephanie Manieri. “To make sure that our community feels that the information that is being presented is coming from trusted people and not from a system that might be wanting to harm them, which is what a lot of folks feel about our healthcare system.”
Latino Service Providers is a Santa-Rosa based organization that’s been around since the late 80’s with a mission to serve Latinx communities throughout the county. And it runs the only training program for young community health workers, or youth promotores in Spanish, to destigmatize mental health and fill essential gaps in healthcare.
“We bring our youth to almost everything that we do,” Manieri said. “Whenever there’s a crisis that arises or wherever there’s something drastic that happens in Sonoma County, we shift gears to respond to that.”
And the pandemic was no different. The group of just under 50 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 stepped up during their year-long internship, first by offering remote case management to community members who needed financial support. And in January, Manieri said her team advocated for the young community health workers to get vaccinated in the first tier, along with other medical workers.
“That allowed us to go back into the community and participate in popup vaccine clinics, to participate in drive through distribution of essential items like diapers and food,” Manieri said. “We really want our youth to feel empowered in the process and to feel that they are the experts of the needs in their communities.”
Manieri said the youth promotores receive year-long training and learn how to provide culturally responsible and linguistically appropriate health education. They give presentations about emergency preparedness, government, climate, housing and mental health. And communities want to listen to these young people.
“I was able to lead a guided meditation,” 22-year-old Benjamin Rosel said.
Rosel graduated from the program last year and helped guide virtual sessions on mental health with parents during the pandemic, when many parents and kids were at home, struggling in isolation. And he said they created and delivered self care kits.
“So they had aroma therapy, a stress ball, a face mask, some stickers in there,” Rosel said. “Stuff for them to take care of themselves too.”
During these training sessions, Rosel shared his personal struggles with mental health after his mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2016.
“I felt really excited to share my story because I knew that someone would be able to connect with it, in some type of way, and they were going to see themselves in that place that I was in and see I didn’t give up,” Rosel said. “And especially in the Latino community, it’s common to see a lot of parents not really understand it and it’s because we use different words for it, like depression isn’t really something they understand but they understand sadness or the needing to cry.”
Through the program Rosel cemented his passion for psychology and now works for local nonprofit La Plaza in addition to leading youth promotores.
Jesus Rosales is 23-years-old and also completed the program during the pandemic.
“I was always told just because I’m a kid, I don’t have a degree, I’m in high school, I’m in middle school, I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Rosales said. “And I feel that affected me a lot because it limited my interactions with people I wish I could have had.”
He said he focused on policy change in Santa Rosa and one of the most impactful conversations he was a part of was with Mayor Chris Rogers last April, to update the Latinx communities about Santa Rosa’s general plan.
“Him asking us questions and us asking him questions, I think it’s amazing and it’s excellent work,” Rosales said. “It goes to show how humble individuals can be when they know the work they are doing is going to really impact the community.”
Rosales said the program helped him land his current job in sexual assault prevention at a local nonprofit.
Manieri said the youth Promotor program has graduated more than 180 bilingual, biracial teens and young adults, to prepare Sonoma County’s next generation of leaders.
“We want our youth to know that they have options and to know that they have a community that supports them in whatever they decide to do,” Manieri said. “We also want them to feel that they do belong in spaces of leadership and in spaces they historically haven’t been invited to.”