Two summers ago, at age 15, Graciela and her family moved from Michoacan, Mexico, to Calistoga. That first year was a struggle. She worked hard to learn English and make friends at Calistoga Junior-Senior High, but she felt so out of place; so different, and so homesick. Graciela would have loved to talk to her parents about it all — but they were so busy at their new jobs that she didn’t want to bother them. And besides, she knew they were managing their own process of adjusting to this new place.
Even without an international move, adolescence can be daunting. Teens face dramatic emotional, cognitive, and social changes — all at a time when the choices they make are beginning to matter in shaping the future course of their lives. And a lot of teenagers don’t get the support they need to navigate the challenges they face, whether at school or at home.
Like Graciela, lots of students at CJSH have parents who work so hard to put food on the table that they simply don’t have much time to sit down and check in with their kids. Many of these parents didn’t get a chance to finish high school themselves, or speak limited English, and don’t feel equipped to help their kids with homework. On top of that, the financial pressures of living in this wealthy area may lead some parents to ask their teens to start contributing to the family’s income, leaving little time to focus on school work, extracurricular activities, or relaxation.
Schools, too, are often stretched too thin to provide the support these teens need, and the waiting lists for on-campus counseling are long. Teachers and administrators are expected to focus their time on students’ academic success, and just don’t have the resources to support them in other ways. They want their students to succeed — but many grew up in a different time, or a different place, and simply don’t quite have first-hand experience with the challenges their students face today.
All of this can impact more than just a teenager’s mental health. Without a network of support, and without some encouragement when things get hard, it’s easy to lose your motivation. You might start feeling disconnected from your community and school; you might even drop out altogether.
To prevent and remedy this kind of disconnection, the UpValley Family Centers partners with both the Calistoga and St. Helena school districts to provide an on-campus mentorship program for youth who experience challenges to school success and wellbeing, called CLARO (for boys) or CLARA (for girls). Two program coordinators each run several weekly meetings at Upvalley middle and high schools; at CJSH, that includes a middle school group for girls, a high school group for girls, and the same set for boys.
The idea is to create a safe space, free of judgment, where teens can express themselves and build a positive sense of personal and cultural identity. Each week, the CLAR@ coordinators facilitate discussions and activities that focus on teaching social and emotional skills, developing healthy decision-making and communication habits, and building positive relationships with friends, family, and the community.
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The coordinators also facilitate activities around cultural diversity, as a tool to encourage teens to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment at school. CLAR@ has become one of the most popular extracurricular activities on the CJSH campus, and more than 50 Calistoga teens participate every year.
Outside of these weekly sessions, the program coordinators also act as positive role models. Through regular office hours on campus, they make time to check in with students, or just to say hello.
They help CLAR@ participants connect with other campus-based resources, including counseling, and can provide information about other local services that might be helpful to their family. But perhaps even more powerfully, the CLAR@ coordinators simply make themselves available to listen; they strive to always meet teens where they are, and allow them to feel heard.
As mentors and role models, one of the coordinators’ most important jobs is also to encourage participants to think bigger and reach higher for themselves. Before starting CLARA, Graciela says, she didn’t really think of herself as “college material.” Lots of her peers at CJSH feel the same; it’s hard to imagine yourself pursuing a higher education if no one in your family has gone to college, and no one around you has any experience with the admissions process. It gets harder yet if you feel pressure to start contributing to the family’s income after high school; if, between homework and family responsibilities, you just don’t have the time to think about college; or if you already feel so out of place in high school that you can’t imagine college being any better.
What the CLARO and CLARA facilitators try to do is change that mindset: to encourage teens to believe in themselves as “college material” — and to give them the support, encouragement, and help they need to turn that belief into reality. That includes an annual information session about the college application process for parents; and for the teens themselves, two yearly field trips to a four-year institution in the area. This past year, for example, a group of more than 40 teens visited St. Mary’s College and, later in the year, UC Berkeley, where the group was led on a campus tour and received detailed information about the admissions process.
For Graciela, and many other CLAR@ teens, these visits were eye-opening. “Before,” she says, “I couldn’t imagine what I would even study if I went to college. But now I can see what I could do. I want to work with youth and inspire them, and I think that studying social work or sociology could be possible for me.”
With support from long-time funders like the Napa County Mental Health Services Act, Kaiser Permanente, Napa Valley Vintners, and the City of Calistoga, the CLAR@ program has helped hundreds of teens like Graciela feel happier, stronger, and more connected at school – helping to increase their likelihood of graduating from high school and setting a successful course for the rest of their lives. If you’re interested in learning more about UVFC’s CLARO and CLARA programs, please give us a call at (707) 965-5010 or stop by our office.