With a giant pair of scissors, a group of excited students snipped the ribbon to officially open the South San Antonio Independent School District CARE Zone wellness center at Athens Elementary School on Friday.
The center is the culmination of a years-long project that was the brainchild of a determined group of South San Antonio High School students who are hoping to transform mental health services in South San ISD.
The “care” in CARE Zone stands for care, acceptance, reassurance, and strength. It’s a partnership with six community organizations that will provide services both at the center and, if need demands, will go to any South San ISD school where mental health services are needed, according to district Behavior Specialist Susan Arciniega.
Until this center was created, Arciniega said she and one other counselor were the only mental health professionals available for South San ISD and all 14 of its schools, which is about 8,500 students.
The CARE center’s partners that will provide services to students include the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, Communities in Schools, Jewish Family Service, Clarity Child Guidance Center, Rise Recovery, and Family Service Association.
Speaking before the ribbon cutting, Arciniega called the group of students who were the driving force behind creating the center her heroes.
“Nothing is ever done in isolation,” she said. “This has been a labor of love.”
One of those students is Melivia Mujica, 18, who spoke during the event about the difficulty students had making their voices heard as they worked to make the center a reality over the last few years.
“Once we waited through an eight-hour school board meeting just to plead our case,” she said. “It was past midnight on a school day, and even though we had tests and college classes the next day, we stayed until the end for a meeting so we could express our concerns.”
Many people at the event, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, wore green ribbons for mental health awareness. But Mujica and a few other students had also pinned on paper hand-colored ribbons of purple and blue, which she explained was to signify that she was a suicide survivor.
“High school was really hard for me,” Mujica said after the event.
Mujica said mental health was simply never discussed in her family, and after her suicide attempt her mother tried to reassure her that she was merely struggling with growing up like any other kid.
But at the enrichment club she attended at South San Antonio High School, Mujica said she and other students began to realize many of them had a common need for mental health services and yet were receiving very little or very delayed help.
“When you need help for mental health, you can’t wait six months,” Mujica said.
Mujica said she ended up getting help for herself by scheduling her own appointments. She said she had to wait through three separate doctor’s appointments over three months where she complained of being depressed before she was referred to a counselor, and then it was another four months of therapy before she was sent to a psychiatrist who had a month-long wait for appointments.
“I was already at my breaking point and it took me a good seven to eight months just to see a psychiatrist, to get medication, and to get help, and that was ridiculous,” Mujica said.
Each student in the group had a story about their long struggle to get mental health counseling or treatment, and that’s when the idea for speeding up and expanding access to mental health services began.
“It just came down to us realizing no one else was doing it,” she said. “And if we have the mind and thought to do it, then why don’t we do it? If not us, then who?”
Mujica said the group faced some discouraging moments during the process, but with the guidance of Arciniega they arrived at the idea of the CARE Zone center. The building at Athens Elementary where the center is had sat empty for a few years, and the school district gave the group permission to use it.
Arciniega said the center’s partner organizations are not only providing services, but also helped by reaching out to private donors to raise the money needed for renovating and preparing the building.
Besides mental health services, the center will host classes to assist parents and promote literacy, nutrition, and physical and emotional health in children from a young age. Adult education at the center will include GED and English classes. The center also includes the Bobcat Clothing Den, where students from elementary through high school can get new clothing, shoes, socks, and toiletries.
Nirenberg referred to Arciniega as an angel, saying that for 24 years she had been walking the halls of the schools in South San ISD to hear some of the stories that no one likes to tell.
He also thanked the students, saying their push for the CARE Zone would save the lives of hundreds of their classmates who will come behind them.
“Teamwork and collaboration have long been our community’s secret sauce,” he said. “The San Antonio mobile mental health wellness collaborative serves as exhibit A for our city’s magic formula.”
Mental Health Court Judge Oscar Kazen also praised the students’ efforts, noting that early intervention can make a difference in the lives of people who struggle with mental health issues.
“All day long at that court I watch people come before me either in handcuffs or in the middle of probably the worst parts of their life,” Kazen said. “And I just wonder what could have happened if somebody had been there at the very beginning, if somebody had had the courage, the grito, the shout, to say, ‘This is us.’”
He said it’s easy for people to sometimes see those with mental health issues as separate from themselves, but that we should realize they are somebody’s family member or friend.
“It doesn’t matter, it is someone’s someone,” Kazen said.
Mujica is now attends Texas A&M-Kingsville, having graduated from high school with an associate’s degree after surviving a suicide attempt at age 15. She is double majoring in environmental engineering and political science.
Mujica said through her fight for mental health awareness her mom, who attended the event on Friday, has come to better understand and accept her daughter’s mental health struggles.
“She was crying today. I was crying today,” Mujica said, laughing.