SANDRA’S STORY – Teens like Sandra go to extraordinary lengths to support each other in times of crisis

By Carolyn Camacho, Identity Inc. Program Director

The following reflects Carolyn’s lived experiences, thoughts, and opinions.

Identity’s non-clinical emotional support groups are empowering teens to help themselves and their friends manage difficult emotions. For Sandra, it was life-changing.

Arriving from Honduras at the age of 17, Sandra was separated from her mother and younger sister until they reunited nearly two years later. For those two years, she lived with her father who she hardly knew. Sandra felt impossibly isolated, not knowing English or the school culture she was suddenly thrust into. Plus, she missed her mother and sister desperately.

Life began to brighten when she joined the first Encuentros emotional support group for teens organized by the Identity managed School-Based Wellness Center at Wheaton High School. Designed in response to the youth mental health crisis, Encuentros provides young people with a safe space to engage in open, honest discussion about mental health challenges and share strategies for coping with them. The groups are co-led by staff and previous Encuentros participants like Sandra who are trained to be Youth Peer Leaders. The students who participated in Sandra’s Encuentros group are still among her closest, most trusted friends.

Sandra believes Encuentros has such transformative power that she wants to help it grow. She not only completed all the training required to be a Youth Peer Leader and group facilitator, but she is committed to spreading the word. In July, she presented the Encuentros model at the 2023 National School-Based Health Care Conference in Washington, D.C. with Identity staff.
“Before joining Encuentros I was very shy, but the program helped me to come out of my shell and be more open, while also growing and learning from other students,” Sandra says. “Being part of Encuentros, not only as a participant, but now also as a Youth Peer Leader, has helped me to support my younger sister, my family, and my friends.”

Inspired by Latino cultural traditions of family and friends helping each other in times of emotional distress, Identity’s Encuentros program provides non-clinical culturally and linguistically appropriate emotional support groups for high-school aged youth and adults. The groups include six to nine sessions on topics including anxiety, trauma/resilience, grief, depression, emotional agility, domestic/intrafamily violence, assertive communication, migration and self-care. Youth and Adults who co-facilitate groups receive ongoing training, coaching and supervision.

More than 700 teens and 2,500 adults have participated in Encuentros groups since the beginning of the pandemic, learning skills to help themselves and others manage stress, anxiety, and grief.