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Caught between two cultures, Hispanic students are often susceptible to depression, other mental health issues, and are vulnerable to drug and alcohol use and gang participation.

“What’s missing for these kids is a sense of identity and a sense of connection to the community,” said Claudio Fuentes, a Claro mentor in Napa Valley, through the UpValley Family Center in St. Helena. “When their parents come from Mexico, or elsewhere, they leave behind their support systems -- their families, their church -- and are so focused on working and providing a better life for their children they don’t have any other resources.”

Claro, or Challenging Latinos to Access Resources and Opportunities, started in Los Angeles and was introduced to Napa in 2000, to address cultural adaptation issues for first- and second-generation Hispanic boys and girls growing up in America. Fuentes works with between five and 10 students at St. Helena and Calistoga high schools. He talks to school counselors and targets students with low grades or who are involved with gang activity.

“Their parents migrate from poor communities and desperate situations,” Fuentes explained. “The highest education they might have is fifth or sixth grade. They know the value of education, but they don’t know how it happens.”

The groups spend about an hour in the classroom discussing lessons in the Claro curriculum that stress morals and values as told through stories about caring, friendship and helping others. Fuentes also personally checks in with the kids to see how they are doing, what’s new, how the family situation is, or what’s making them angry.

Fuentes also spends two or three hours playing soccer with the kids or taking them fishing.

“Customs, beliefs and behaviors bring meaning to life. We look forward to the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, we’re here for a reason. They left all that behind,” he said, adding they feel no connection to U.S. national heroes.

Hispanics also face the additional issue of discrimination, said Adriana Montanez, who is a mentor with Clara, the Claro version for girls.

“Even if we think it doesn’t exist, they can see the difference (in the way students are treated). If someone (a Caucasian student) gets in trouble, they think ‘what would have happened if it had been a Mexican?’” Montanez said.

Hispanic girls face the same and different issues as boys. Montanez said her groups talk about very sensitive topics like how beauty is portrayed in magazines and the widespread practice of touching up photos. Girls also face the issue of wanting to be independent, yet having parents with traditional values.

“They are trying to acculturate the two, Mexican and American, while not forgetting traditions and still embracing the U.S.,” Montanez said.

This past school year, Montanez mentored 13 girls at St. Helena High School and nine at RLS middle school. Her goals are to raise awareness and make Clara more visible in the community, hold more fundraisers for field trips and to have more interaction with the Clara mentoring program in Calistoga and the Mariposa and Legacy programs in Napa. She would also like to see her girls become leaders within their school so that “she’s not just another Latina, she’s a leader.”

These programs make measurable differences in students’ lives. Both Montanez and Fuentes have seen big changes in the students involved in the programs.

The biggest change, Fuentes said, is their view of education. They become more concerned about doing their homework and participating in school activities.

“Claro provides a sense of belonging. It’s like a subculture: We belong to Claro,” he said. “I see progress in the way they relate to each other. There is more respect for each other, they’re not putting each other down, they become close, there’s a strong connection. They’re able to express their feelings without the fear of feeling inadequate.”

Montanez agreed. There is a sense of belonging, she said.

“They have more interest in their academics, most of them want to go to college, they show support for one another, and have learned not to be so judgmental.”

Due to funding, as Fuentes was leaving the program as of July, there are now only two male mentors in St. Helena and Calistoga: Ricky Hurtado, who is also with the Family Center, and Jonathan Lucha, who mentors another group of juniors and seniors in Calistoga. Lupita Cachu also mentors with Clara in Calistoga’s middle and high schools.

Funding for the 2014-2015 season for Claro and Clara are coming from Napa Valley Community Foundation’s Community Impact Fund and Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit Programs, and a grant from Napa County’s MHSA Prevention and Early Intervention Project.

“The program hopes to get additional funding from local service clubs. What we need most is money or sports equipment or gift certificates for youth,” said Norma Ferriz, operations manager of UpValley Family Centers. She can be contacted at 963-1919 or nferriz@upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

“There is a big Latino population here. Programs like this are essential for the community,” Fuentes said. “If we had more of these groups there wouldn’t be so much depression and students would do so much better in general.”

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