Young people in Marin used mentors to reduce social isolation – Marin Independent Journal

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  • Harita Kavai, 17, of San Rafael, talks about how her experiences growing up led her to an interest in community activism during the Beyond Differences Activist Academy at Dominican University in San Rafael on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Young activists listen to a presentation by poet Gabriel Cortez...

    Young activists listen to a presentation by poet Gabriel Cortez during the Beyond Differences Activist Academy at Dominican University in San Rafael on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • 17-year-old Angel Gomez of San Rafael talks about his interest...

    Angel Gomez, 17, of San Rafael, speaks about his interest in attending the Beyond Differences Activist Academy at Dominican University in San Rafael on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Nury Calderon, 16, from San Rafael, talks about his experiences...

    Nury Calderon, 16, of San Rafael, speaks about his experiences at Beyond Differences Activist Academy at Dominican University in San Rafael on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

On Friday, Harita Kavai volunteered to read a poem to a group of young people selected to attend a leadership retreat.

The 17-year-old Terra Linda High School student spoke quietly and read slowly from the unfolded white notebook in her hands.

“It’s for the girls,” she said. “It’s for all the girls. Because every girl deserves to be seen.

Kavai was one of about 40 students who attended a four-day leadership retreat coordinated by Marin-based nonprofit Beyond Differences. The four-day event aimed to prepare teens and young adults to deal with their own feelings of social isolation so they can act as mentors to other young people experiencing similar feelings of disconnection.

“Everyone has a story and everyone’s identity is theirs,” said Laura Talmus, co-founder and executive director of Beyond Differences. “It deserves to be celebrated and it deserves to be respected and accepted.”

Kavai’s poem addressed a litany of issues: class, wealth, gender, identity, and bullying. A neurodivergent daughter of Indian immigrants, Kavai shared how the disconnect she once felt with her peers turned into a determination to inspire others.

“I learned that there are a lot of people who have been through the same things as me,” she said. “Everything is starting to make sense.”

The group of students threw up their hands and snapped their fingers excitedly as she finished. Each of them has been specially selected for their unique backgrounds and their declared passion to act as mentors to other young people in their community. All spoke on topics such as intersectionality and social acceptance. There was a shared sense of camaraderie and respect that permeated each of their statements.

“After that, they go back to Marin to raise more children,” said Sally Matsuishi, director of national youth programs at Beyond Differences.

Angel Gomez, 17, of San Rafael, said he was liberated by the ability to speak out among other like-minded young people. The son of two immigrant parents from Mexico, Gomez said he struggled with ADHD and substance abuse in his youth.

“They haven’t had the time or the effort to figure out what I have,” he said. “Since then, I wanted to teach children my age.”

Nury Calderon, 16, of San Rafael, grew up in a low-income family in Marin. She said she had responsibilities at home that made her feel like she missed the innocence of a normal childhood.

“Nobody else has a story like mine and I was able to teach people,” she said. “I can comfort people when they come to talk to me. But it also means the ability to be comfortable in my skin, and not just comfortable, but proud of it.

The non-profit organization was founded in 2010 to recognize the memory of Talmus’ daughter, Lili Rachel Smith. Smith was born in 1994 with craniofacial syndrome and grew up struggling with social isolation.

The experience was often heartbreaking for Talmus, who said he saw Smith drift away from his identity as he got older.

Smith died in 2009 from the syndrome, and a group of students asked Talmus to create an organization where feelings of social isolation could be addressed and corrected.

Talmus said each of the retreat students would film a short video describing their experience and story. These videos would be publicly available for teachers or educators to show them to a student struggling with similar issues, she said.

Young leaders will also be asked to participate in activities where they can provide advice or guidance to school-aged youth across the country.

“It’s the kids themselves who know the other young people, the ones who are generally out of touch and increasingly estranged,” Talmus said. “A big part of what needs to happen is that teachers need to recognize the signs of social isolation and students need to be trained.”

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