This fall, Funhouse Commons partnered with Equity Institute, an organization whose mission is “to impart leadership and life skills to Latinx youth”, to create a bilingual youth empowerment peer mentor program within Orcas Island Middle and High Schools.
Eight high school mentors and seven middle school mentee participants meet weekly via video with Brenda Daniela Ochoa-Ramirez and Sergio Jose Barrera, La Cima staff who facilitate the program. Ochoa-Ramirez and Barrera both bring extensive expertise as leadership-development facilitators, grounded in their own lived experience.
Ochoa-Ramirez explains: “For me personally, becoming a mentor to Latinx students comes from a personal drive of being able to help students that look like me succeed in school. I am Mexican, undocumented, and a first generation former student who had to find her way and learn how to navigate the U.S. educational system. I had so many questions about where to apply to scholarships, how to apply to a university and so on. I feel honored in being able to help these young students.”
One of the objectives of the program is to build a pathway for mentorship within the Orcas community by providing the skills and guidance to high schoolers to mentor middle schoolers.
Sofia Garcia, a senior at Orcas Island High School and a student mentor in the program, states: “There’s not much on this island, there’s not that many people in the school that we can talk to, and have them understand us and our problems, because it hasn’t necessarily been the same for them.”
Speaking to the middle school mentee participants, Garcia describes: “This group is for you guys to feel safe, to talk to us, to come reach out when you need someone to talk to.”
In a time when many students are feeling increasingly isolated and impacted by the strains of the pandemic, this program offers a chance for students to connect with one another and with positive adult role models. Abril Perez, a 7th grade participant, describes why having Latinx high school mentors has been important to her.
“We all have kind of the same story, with our parents and stuff, and it’s easier to talk to you guys about it, and you don’t have to go to other people that you don’t trust, because we can trust you guys,” she said.
Despite the limitations of a virtual platform, Ochoa-Ramirez, Barrera, and student participants have created a group that is supportive and worth showing up for.
“It has really been a place to be able to open up, especially because you’re around your friends. Even if it’s online, you can still open up. And they’re people that you trust,” says Isabel Guerra, an 8th grade participant.
The program is funded through a two-year Washington State Health Care Authority grant, through the Department of Behavioral Health and Recovery, and an Orcas Island Community Foundation grant. To expand the reach of the program, Lopez and San Juan Island middle school students will join in the second semester of this school year. The Funhouse plans to contract with Equity Institute to continue the program in the 2021-2022 school year.
“These students are brilliant, they are so smart and so self-aware. They are creating community within their community…they show up because they have a voice; they can be seen and heard and they are all taken into account in the activities we do as a group,”Ochoa-Ramirez said.
For more information about this program, contact Program Coordinator Trillium Swanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.