Updated: May 1
By Eileen Casey
Founded in 2002, “OLA of Eastern Long Island works to create a more equitable East End for Latino immigrants through advocating for just and inclusive government and school policies; protecting families; nurturing power and unity among Latinos through leadership workshops and other programs; and building bridges among different sectors of the East End community through celebrating arts and culture.”
Minerva Perez, OLA’s Executive Director since 2016, recently announced that OLA has launched a mental health initiative aimed at offering greater mental health services for all East End adolescents and their families, including Latinos. The videos in their Mental Health Series are meant to break the stigma and generate discussion among adolescents and their families.
Perez answered a few questions about the exciting and much-needed new offering from the well-respected OLA.
What prompted the launch of focus on mental health?
MP: As we see Latino student body at a 40 percent average across our 24 East End school districts, we have not seen access to mental health services keep the same pace. In 2017, OLA started Circles of Strength in collaboration the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE), a workshop where adults attended along with their children. We would have 50 or more in attendance at the amazing CMEE space. We ate a dinner together at one long table and then created groups for children of certain ages and then for adults. OLA paid for local Latino and Spanish speaking mental health professionals to work with children and adults in safe and appropriate group settings to navigate the tremendous fear and anxiety they were dealing with and offer tools to help families. We saw how devastating it was to children and adults to not feel there was a safe outlet to address these concerns. OLA also offers Latino Empowerment training to area students within their schools as well as youth leadership dinners and multi-year scholarship opportunities. Building access and equity for students who are struggling for a variety of reasons has a positive impact on the full school and our full community.
When did the series begin, and can you describe how it works and how one can access the information?
MP: It was just launched a week ago. The best way to view the videos will be via our YouTube channel: OLA of Eastern Long Island. We will be releasing a third video in this series about one local Mexican-American student’s approach to combating feelings of Imposter Syndrome while attending his freshman year at Georgetown University. I have also just engaged with a young animator to bring to life the very stark and direct comments from the survey.
We asked for permission to let us share excerpts from the survey to help break stigma and create better access to mental health support. We only choose the responses from people who have given that permission.
How important of a role has the COVID-19 virus played in bringing these additional services to the community?
MP: After COVID hit, we were in a position to help fund the remote learning technology needs of many of the East End schools and even further west. As of the end of this month, OLA will have spent over $2 million dollars on Chromebooks, WiFi, and licensing for many of our school districts. The Chromebooks and WiFi went to any child the district chose to supply a Chromebook to. These were not only for Latinos. They went to all children.
As we saw how many families were being crushed by COVID with housing loss, no food or access to pantries (OLA helped to create a Suffolk County wide/Town coordinated effort for a crisis food delivery program for those who were not able to leave their homes and only had a couple days of food left), isolated from school support systems, we chose to be proactive and started to build key partnerships with pediatric offices, Family Service League, and other non-profits to better assess and address the mental and emotional health needs in our community.
From that, we developed an anonymous survey that seeks to learn directly from current and recent middle and high schoolers what their mental health struggles have been and how they could have been/could be better supported. OLA is the only local entity that has sought to gather this data on a regional level – directly from the people and age group most affected – 12-29 year olds. Fred Thiele, our NYS Assemblyman, has endorsed this survey and urged schools to share this with middle and high school students. We are gathering data to analyze, to share, and to help craft best practices within our region.
What is the most important focus you want those who want to avail themselves of this program to be aware of?
MP: These videos and the upcoming animated series, along with other engagement actions will work in concert to bring about better awareness and support for all adolescents and their families suffering with existing and/or COVID related mental health concerns. We cannot afford to see a mental health concern as anything less than a physical health concern. As Lily, in the most recent video dealing with panic attacks explains, “You wouldn’t knock someone’s broken leg, then ask them why it hurts and leave them in agony.”
We are encouraging more talking to trusted friends and adults, more listening, less judging, and more linking up those in need of support to mental health professionals who can fully communicate with child and parent. Call OLA if you are in need of referrals or help navigating these needs: 631-899-3441.
Perez concluded by stating, “OLA is committed to growing youth leadership from all backgrounds. Over the summer, we had 14 interns ranging in ages from 16 – 27. We are building this mental health initiative around the experiences, suggestions, and cautionary tales as shared by our interns and local youth with guidance from local mental health professionals who specialize in adolescent and family mental healthcare.”