Luis Rodriguez didn’t really want to get counseling at Youth Eastside Services. “I didn’t think anything was wrong with me,” said the junior at Bellevue’s Interlake High.
Looking back, though, he can see why his mother wanted him to go. He was in middle school, shy and had a hard time dealing with his emotions. He would blow up at his older sister Alondra, and she with him. There was a lot of screaming and pushing.
Plus, he had questions about his identity. He was born in the United States, but his parents came from Mexico. “Where am I from?” he asked himself. “Who am I?”
Youth Eastside Services (YES), one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, helped him become comfortable in his own skin — no easy task for an adolescent navigating two cultures and what’s been called a mental-health crisis among the young.
“I’m not really ashamed of who I am anymore,” Rodriguez said.
YES has helped other family members as well, including Alondra. The siblings progressed from counseling to participating in a cultural-empowerment program called Latino HEAT (Hispanos En Accíon Together).
Their mother, Maribel, said she’s seen amazing changes in both children as they developed self-confidence and determination.
YES started 50 years ago as drug use was exploding among teens, recounted CEO Patti Skelton-McGougan.
Founder Phil Nudelman, a pharmacist who later became president of Group Health (now Kaiser Permanente), was fielding alarming questions, like: What happens when you inject peanut butter?
The organization began as a “funky place where kids would drop in and hang out,” Skelton-McGougan said.
It has since grown enormously, offering not only substance-use treatment but all kinds of mental health counseling, support for LGBTQ as well as Latino youth, education programs for infants and young children, and a homelessness-prevention program.
As the Eastside diversified, YES added staffers fluent in Spanish, Russian, Cantonese and many other languages. It served nearly 7,000 people last year, charging fees according to a sliding scale that goes down to $0.
While roughly 60 percent of YES clients are low-income, the nonprofit also sees people from well-off families, including the children of Microsoft employees, according to Skelton-McGougan, who’s headed YES for 21 years.
“I’ve been working with kids for a long time,” she said. “I have never seen the anxiety, the depression and the suicidality as it has been over the last five years.”
A biennial state survey of student health showed 33 percent of high-school seniors in 2016 experiencing high levels of anxiety, up from 27 percent just two years before.
The percentage of seniors who said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year climbed from 12 percent in 2006 to 20 percent a decade later.
Skelton-McGougan said she doesn’t have an easy answer for the change but pointed out that a decade ago, “cyberbullying wasn’t a thing.”
YES has, in any case, moved to serve kids sooner.
It used to take an average 17 days for someone to get an appointment with a counselor, according to spokeswoman Lidia Harding. Now, thanks to a walk-in system instituted last year, kids get assessed the same day they come in and referred to for an appointment within about a week.
Rodriguez saw his counselor for 2 1/2 years. Given his initial reluctance, he shared little and kept his answers short at first. Some months in, he decided he was going to be there for a while, he might as well get something out of it.
He and his counselor worked on understanding his feelings and calmly resolving conflict with others. “Make them feel like you’re listening — actually listening,” he said he learned. Repeating back to them why they’re upset and offering to do something about it; that helped too. He and his counselor worked on understanding his feelings and calmly resolving conflict with others.
Relations with his sister markedly improved.
He went to his first Latino HEAT activity when he was in the eighth grade. The group, which since 2004 has been based at Sammamish High but draws teens from a number of schools, was spending the day volunteering for a program that feeds homeless people.
His sister was going, and he thought it would be nice to get out of the apartment and do something different. It was more than that.
“I realized how lucky I am,” he said.
His family might not have tons of money. His father worked two jobs as a cook, while his mother stayed home with their four children. But they had an apartment, food and toys.
As he got more deeply involved in Latino HEAT, he met other teens with immigrant parents and learned about different Hispanic traditions and holidays. He stopped wondering if he was Mexican or American.
“I know I’m both,” he said. “I kind of embraced that.”
Rodriguez is now in his third year as an officer of the group. He helps to run and emcee events, like a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration in November.
Held in a Sammamish High atrium, it brought teens, family members and teachers. Some had divided into competing teams that created “ofrendas” — elaborate displays of pictures and other objects honoring deceased loved ones.
A panel of community members, including an assistant Bellevue police chief, came to judge.
YES counselor Tina Morales, who oversees Latino HEAT as well as a similar program at Redmond High, called Latinos Unidos, said the groups have worked to build relationships with the police and other entities that have been sources of tension.
She also aims to keep students focused on academic and career goals. The drop-out rate for Latino students has historically been high. In the 2010/2011 school year, for example, roughly 19 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of Sammamish High and 29 percent did so at Redmond High.
The latest numbers, for the 2016/2017 school year, show huge declines at both schools — to 2 percent at Sammamish High and 0 percent at Redmond. YES suggests its programs at those schools deserve some of the credit.
Rodriguez’s sister Alondra, now a sophomore at Eastern Washington University, said Latino HEAT’s Morales helped get her there. The counselor referred Alondra to a college planner, who advised her on her application essay and how to seek financial aid.
Alondra still likes to go to Latino HEAT activities when she’s home for breaks. “They’re my second family,” she said of its members, recalling how she struggled at times with feeling different from her non-Latino peers. “They gave me a space I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
Rodriguez, who recently turned 17, is starting to think about college himself, and he has started a part-time job at Trader Joe’s.
There are few signs of the kid who once couldn’t control his temper. He evinces a quiet maturity.
Take one of the things he says he likes about his job: having money around in case his parents run short. He has two younger brothers, 9 and 1, and when the older one goes on field trips, Rodriguez likes to give him $20 or so to spend.
With his very first paycheck, he bought tickets for his parents to see Marco Antonio Solís, a Mexican singer they loved who was in town. His mom had tears in her eyes as she recalled the gift.