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The Seattle Times Features Latino Club Member Janay

Lidia Harding
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Janay president of YES' Latino Club

Photo: Janay Gonzalez, 16, president of the Latino V.O.I.C.E. student group at Juanita High School in Kirkland, said the program helped her become a leader. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Every year, The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need Campaign raises money for a group of 13 local nonprofit organizations, and we at Youth Eastside Services (YES) are very grateful for the opportunity to participate in their 45th year. Thanks to generous donors, the campaign exceeded its goal of $1.7 million last year and raised $3,203,009 with $115,300 donated to YES, which helped support children, youth, and families struggling with mental health and substance use challenges.

Read below how these donations helped Janay find a voice, a passion for helping others, and a future.


Teens find their voices and futures with help from Youth Eastside Services

You could see the stress in students’ eyes, just above their face masks. As the COVID-19 delta variant — the nation’s deadliest — swept through Kirkland in the fall of 2021, Janay Gonzalez struggled to concentrate on algebra.

It was her freshman year at Juanita High School, and her grades were sagging.

“It was hard to focus with all the panic — who was sick, who wasn’t,” Gonzalez recalls. “Back then I didn’t care as much about school. And I didn’t like to ask for help.”

One day, in her Spanish class for heritage speakers — kids who typically speak the language at home — her teacher brought in two guests to describe the school’s new Latino Club.

With a mix of nerves and curiosity, she decided to visit a meeting that November. The club discussion soon turned to plans after graduation. At the time, Gonzalez says, she wanted nothing to do with college.

Two years later, Gonzalez, now 16, is the club president, on her way to graduating with a college-level dental assistant certificate, and has her sights set on a career in law enforcement.

“I learned a lot about myself at the club,” Gonzalez said. “I had no idea I could be a leader.”

The Juanita High School group is the newest school-based Latino cultural club organized by Youth Eastside Services, a Bellevue-based nonprofit. The agency is one of 13 nonprofits supported by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.

Its Latino youth groups aim to create an inclusive environment and help students on the Eastside develop into leaders, according to the nonprofit. They help prepare students for college and encourage cultural expression.

“With having a sense of belonging and acceptance in their communities, they thrive and can accomplish their dreams and goals,” said counselor Judith Mercado, herself a past participant in one of the high school clubs.

The Latino school groups expand the options for mental health services for youths of color, said Lidia Harding, a spokesperson for Youth Eastside Services. She pointed to a recent study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, that found treatment nationwide was especially lacking for Latino and mixed-race adolescents.

While Juanita High’s group — called Latino V.O.I.C.E., for “voices organizing inspired community engagement” — doesn’t bill itself as a mental health group, the format encourages discussion about life stressors, and can be a gateway to counseling offered by the nonprofit.

“The big question is, ‘How are you doing today?’” Mercado said. “If someone’s feeling down, upset or mad, they take time to encourage them to talk about what’s happening. The sense of being heard is really important.”

Anywhere from 15 to 30 students attend the Juanita High School club each week on Tuesdays after school. Some of their families are from Mexico, others from Central and South American countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Colombia.

The students gather in a circle or around tables and munch on snacks. They talk about racism on campus, their studies and college preparations, and plan campus or club events.

Last school year, the club’s Dia de los Muertos ofrenda, or alter, won a competition against other school clubs in the area. They dedicated the ofrenda to the 19 kids killed in the 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Then in February, Gonzalez was at a Black History Month school assembly and had an inspiration. “We said, ‘Why can’t we have a Hispanic Heritage Month assembly?”

After coordinating with administrators and the Associated Student Body, the club members picked a date in October, booked the gym and a guest speaker, and wrote a script. They decorated a hallway with posters and information about activists like Delores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Association with César Chávez.

“Everything went as planned, even better,” said Gonzalez, who spoke at the assembly. She’s honed her public speaking through the youth group.

“My voice has been heard by the school, my voice has been heard by my peers,” she said.

To learn more about how Janay was inspired by her leadership to pursue a career in helping others, continue to The Seattle Times website to read the entire article.

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