Editor's Note: This essay was prepared as part of a project on health equity by Register reporter Sarah Klearman with support from the Impact Fund, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. She and Danielle Fox, engagement editor at USC's Center for Health Journalism, worked with a number of local youth to write about how the recent fires and pandemic affected their families and communities.
I was dancing to my favorite song, and then the music cut off.
There were COVID-19 outbreaks, the doors were shut, and I no longer had the singular place I felt I could express myself. It was so hard before that pandemic to even find that place; now it was all taken away, and I was left trapped inside awaiting a future once again being decided for me.
This was the reality for a lot of the youth in my community -- especially the ones who live in my neighborhood, and come from a family like mine. We are not fortunate enough to just adjust to these types of situations. We are forced to just survive.
We should live in a world where we come together to carry the weight, lift the pressure, and challenge one another to reach our highest potential. We should be creating spaces that allow all people the opportunity to find their rhythm and leave them dancing in life. This is a reality that is not always true for kids like me – kids who come from low-income families, struggle with having the time due to having to have multiple jobs, and the lack of reliable transportation to participate in such opportunities. All those things create a health equity problem in our community – one that impacts emotional health among our youth. That equity problem is the lack of access to high-quality opportunities and places to express ourselves.
Over the last few years, I have seen myself and my peers struggle with our emotional health. The low levels of emotional wellness are the result of an ever-growing increase in the variety of pressures we face today and the lack of outlets we’re able to lean on to carry them.
School, friends, family, extracurricular activities, social media, and even now a global pandemic, to name a few. Those platforms create stress that my peers and I go through which affects our emotional state. The amount of weight each holds has become so heavy that many are collapsing under it.
If you ever wanted to know what was going on inside a stressed-out teen’s head, or if you’re that parent who has thought, ‘you’re just a kid, how can you be stressed out?’, these next few lines are for you.
Yeah, it does look like we’re just sitting there, staring at a screen, aimlessly scrolling, and not doing anything. But the thoughts in our heads never stop: What do I do with this stress? How do I get rid of it? Where do I go to release it?
We are just kids, and we shouldn't be this stressed out. Maybe the real question we should be asking is how we got this way, and why it is not getting better.
Because of the lack of access to quality extracurricular programs – and the idea that certain places and activities are "not for us" - we are walking around attempting to carry it all alone. This has created a generation of weighed-down youth who are unable to reach their true potential.
I see so many of my peers leaning on drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships as a distraction or a high: a way to rid themselves of the crippling pressure they feel. But eventually comes the part where the high wears off, and they are again left with the problems they temporarily forgot.
It is crazy to think how much easier it is to just go hang outside and choose to go find negative things than it is to find an affordable and open door to do something positive.
Even as I write this, I think of another statement I hear from people in the community: “C’mon, you cannot complain, you live in the beautiful Napa Valley, there are so many opportunities available to you.
Napa Valley is a beautiful place to live, and the opportunities are all around us. We have highly regarded dance studios, well-funded sports programs, and a variety of exclusive leadership programs and positions. But let me let you into our heads again. Again, full of thoughts: That’s not for me. I don't deserve that.
What I want you to know is that we see the opportunities. We see the open door, and we want so badly to just walk through it and experience it the way we are supposed to. To the disappointment of ourselves and others, though, we find ourselves simply standing in front of the door, never walking through it, because we have never been taught how.
Our lived experiences have taught us that if you look like I do, if you come from where I come from and if you do not have the money, most things are not for you. Over time, against your will, you start to believe all of it. We see it in school, after school and at home, and slowly we start to let go of our “silly dreams” before we even give them a chance to start.
My peers and I deserve the best. We deserve high-quality opportunities, and we deserve to be able to express ourselves through dance, art, sports, acting, music, volunteering, leadership, and much more. But we need access to dance studios, sports teams, art academies, drama clubs, music programs, and places that allow us to use our voice and to lead. We deserve for these places to be affordable, inclusive, understanding, and have diverse representation.
There is no easy solution to this problem, and there are many in the community working hard every day to help eliminate this health equity issue. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a few of them: my coaches for my dance team at Vintage High School and my staff at the Napa Boys and Girls Club. I myself have started to help in the only way I know how: becoming a solution to the problem.
When the doors at my local Boys and Girls Club opened back up, I got my place of expression back, and then I wanted to make sure I found a way to give back.
Just like myself many years ago, young girls in my club lack confidence as well as an outlet to express themselves creatively. I wanted them to no longer subscribe to the idea that what they are passionate about is not for them. I wanted to give them the opportunity they needed at an early age. I designed a weekly, free program that combines my passion for dance and self-expression. I lead a class (in person and virtually, during COVID-19) teaching dance techniques and giving our members opportunities to perform. Most importantly, it gives them confidence and a relatable role model that they can feel represented by.
I intend to do whatever it takes to increase the access my peers have to quality forms of expression, and I envision a world where our mental health is no longer looked at as our weakness but as a strength.
I challenge the community and those who feel just like I do to step up and start becoming part of the solution.
If we do this together, we will see a generation break the current trend of walking alone under the pressure of life. We will walk through that door one day and have a different set of thoughts in our heads: This is for me. I do deserve these opportunities. I am more than capable.
Dareydy Rojas Solano
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