By Nancy Kane
With Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA)’s youth-focused initiative, the nonprofit advocacy organization addresses mental health—expanding its 20-year record of providing support for underserved members of Eastern Long Island.
The idea took shape several years ago, even before the pandemic.
“Six-year-olds were touching their parent’s arm multiple times a night to make sure they were still there,” Executive Director Minerva Perez says. “We knew we were looking at trauma and anxiety.”
Youth Connect came about as a response to a survey OLA commissioned asking middle and high school students about the kinds of challenges they faced and how to help them. Accessible mental health was the resounding answer.
The initiative works to strengthen the existing mental health support networks already in place—parents and caregivers, houses of faith, schools, mental health professionals, and peers—and was buoyed by the group’s partnership with NY Project Hope, a New York State-based program that provided counseling during the pandemic.
Being responsive is nothing new to OLA. The organization created vaccine pods and organized one of the first clinics in East Hampton at the onset of the pandemic. Members made food deliveries and provided invaluable information on COVID treatment options to Spanish-speaking residents, in Spanish.
Youth Connect has a dedicated hotline, which gives adolescents immediate support and guidance with a trained crisis counselor via text or phone call. Perez is quick to point out it’s a program for all East End youth, not just for Latinos. “We serve everyone in the community. We know what it’s like to be excluded, so we make it a point to be inclusive.”
Half the battle is making kids aware that help exists.
“Many kids are afraid to speak out—they don’t want a relative to get in trouble—so we give them complete privacy and anonymity,” Perez says, while still having the protocols in place to act quickly should a caller want to harm themselves.
Kids are struggling with big issues: from substance abuse and self-harm to sexual activity and thoughts of suicide. Youth Connect is also there to hear their day-to-day concerns about their parents’ divorce, a romantic breakup or not making a sports team.
Workshops in school districts, Perez says, let students know there is help for them, there is someone to talk to, solutions to problems—that they are not alone.
“Living life in the shadows causes exploitation,” explains Perez.
“Youth Connect is an important initiative for all youth from all walks of life,” she says. “We’re here to see that they get the help they need; we want to teach them to value themselves.”
Youth Connect emotional support and guidance is free, anonymous, and confidential; call or text 631.810.9010 for help in Spanish or English. olaofeasternlongisland.org