by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot
A Bay Area woman who persevered through troubling times as a student is now working to encourage and train young Latinos to become active in mental health care outreach, giving back to the community in which she grew up.
Gemma Bolaños is the Program Coordinator for a pilot program for mental health advocacy in Sonoma County’s Latino community. The program, known as Promotores (“promoters”), trains people in “mental health first aid,” then reach out to other Latinos through presentations, peer-to-peer counseling and social media.
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Promotores work as mental health care ambassadors, with the hope that someday they will choose to pursue a career in public health.
Bolaños says that lack of money, access to health insurance and cultural barriers as basic as language can be big deterrents to Latinos for seeking mental health care.
By 2060, it’s estimated that 40 percent of all Californians will identify as Latino. There is a growing concern that the state’s healthcare community will lack the resources to take care of its Latino citizens. So Bolaños says encouraging young Latinos to do mental health care work and outreach within their own communities is key.
“It’s really nice to see our youth promoters grow,” said Bolaños. “They come in. They don’t know how to present. By the end, they are super confident. And they have this passion about giving back to community.”
She is also an inspiration to other young Latinos like Dalya Amador. Recently, the second-year college student took center stage at the Latino Service Providers monthly meeting at the Department of Public Health in Santa Rosa, expanding on tough subjects such as depression, anxiety and suicide.
Having someone who grew up in the community like Bolaños work with her instilled in Amador a measure of confidence.
“It’s making an impact,” said Amador. “I saw her as a role model.”
Being passionate about giving back to the community is something Bolaños shares with the young Promotores she mentors. Bolaños came to this country when she was just 11 years old. Her family struggled to make ends meet but stayed loving and close. Bolaños studied hard and kept her eyes on the prize. She eventually became a US resident and Sonoma State University graduate.
For Bolaños, working with Amador and the other Promotores is paying it forward. She credits Students Rising Above with much of her success and motivation.
“If I didn’t have those mentors when I was growing up, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” said Bolaños.
Over the next five years, Latino Service Providers hopes to train 100 Promotores as youth mental health care advocates, expanding the program beyond Sonoma County. Bolaños says she is excited to be a part of that future training.