Janel remembers her first appointment on the Stanford Teen Van for a checkup, before COVID-19 hit.
A nurse practitioner helped her sign up for a card she could use for healthcare benefits, and seamlessly helped her get a new type of birth control, which she had needed for a while. “This was the first time I had really gotten a say in what I wanted, and she also offered me other resources,” Janel explains. She was impressed with how expansive the care was, especially when she met Nathalie, social worker on the Teen Van. “She was just so approachable.”
After the appointment, Janel “felt like this weight had come off me,” and put Nathalie’s number in her phone in case she needed to reach out again. She felt motivated to try to search for affordable mental health therapy, which she eventually found.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic started. Janel, 22, lost her job in the fitness industry and had to stop seeing her therapist. After six months of not working, her stimulus money was running out and she was being denied unemployment benefits.
“My mental health was deteriorating,” she remembers.
Janel was not alone. The impacts of the pandemic have been severe for the young people served by the Teen Van, which sees youth ages 12 to 25 in a 60-mile region in the San Francisco Bay area. It has been particularly hard for young people who are undocumented, whose households lost income but do not qualify for unemployment or government stimulus checks. Many young people have also lost loved ones to the virus.
Nathalie and her colleagues saw that many were “just trying to get through the day without unbearable levels of hunger, anxiety, or sadness.” Not having enough to eat became a terrifying reality for many. Young people were increasingly isolated and the team worried that all these added stresses could increase violence in the home. Families desperately needed necessities as well as support in coping with emotional distress and mental health needs.
“I learned just how disenfranchised some of the folks are that we work with,” says Nathaie. “And also I’ve learned how resilient they are…They just have this beautiful spirit.”
With funding from Children’s Health Fund, the Stanford Teen Van has been able to address this urgent need for food with gift cards to grocery stores and care packages containing non-perishable items. They also provided necessities like toiletries, laundry detergent, and face masks.
Nathalie recalls one family who lost their mother to COVID-19, and fell into debt from funeral expenses because they were unable to work, while braving other health issues in the family.
“You could hear it in their voices how much they had endured. And we are able to help them with gift cards and some care packages and with COVID-19 testing…Although they would express how much they had been through and how much that has impacted them, they were still demonstrating strength and resiliency.”
The team also recognized the deep impacts of oppression and complex trauma in the lives of their young patients. Adjusting to life in the US, transitioning from interactions with the legal system, and living in their cars as first-generation college students are some of the circumstances they are surviving through.
Support from Children’s Health Fund has also enabled the team to teach youth techniques for managing trauma symptoms. Nathalie is trained in trauma-focused therapies and, in addition to talk therapy, has provided young people with self-care and coping activities such as journaling, art, and more.
It is this support that allowed Janel to come back to the Teen Van when she needed someone to talk to during the pandemic. Nathalie told her they could talk for as long as she needed and they ended up meeting once a week. Janel appreciates how their conversations and Nathalie’s way of asking questions can help her discover her own solutions, and also loves journaling.
“Not to be dramatic,” Janel says when asked how things would have been different during the pandemic without the Teen Van. “I think that if I didn’t have the resources I got during this time, maybe Janel wouldn’t be here. Maybe I would be rotting away in my room because I’m too depressed to do anything. Maybe I would have bottled it up so hard that I got really angry.”
She recently got a job and applied to college, something that seemed unattainable just a few years ago when she dropped out of school. But last year, she made the Dean’s list and plans to study criminal justice, a subject she recently discovered she has a passion for. She credits the support system from Nathalie and the Van with helping to guide her to these pivotal achievements.
“Stanford Teen Van really changed my life.”