SAN ANTONIO – A local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families with neglected, abused and troubled children is urging the community to step up as good role models during the pandemic.
Unlike other organizations, Roy Maas Youth Alternatives has kept its doors open for families 24/7 since the beginning of the pandemic.
“From a treatment perspective, we help families with counseling needs and drop-off center services,” said Julie Strentzsch, chief program officer of Roy Maas Youth Alternatives. “We see people out on the streets. Kids are still running away. What has dropped during this pandemic is the number of calls with abuse because that primarily happens in the school.”
With children and teenagers learning from home and with extra activities limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, it has been a struggle for families needing those additional positive outlets to keep their children on the right path.
“Many agencies did shut their doors, and I think the assumption was that all agencies shut their doors and that we were not available,” Strentzsch said. “We want to be there to help kids. Even if we are not the resource they need, we could be the resource to help find the resource they need.”
One person who saw the outcome of lacking resources during the pandemic is Carol Falcon, a single mother whose son was killed due to gun violence. She said though her son, Darnilio Garza, 17, was getting to the point of settling down, she saw a downward spiral with him in March.
“I kind of saw him go down where he didn’t have a job, and he would get nervous and anxious going around, I guess, trying to make a living and trying to be his own dependent and (guide) in a sense,” Falcon said.
Falcon is now raising awareness about the importance of having many resources out there to help troubled teens like her son.
Strentzsch said in addition to more suicides in the young community during the pandemic, she has also seen more parents use their drop-off center services.
“They are frustrated and asking for timeouts at our center,” Strentzsch said. “When we get a call, we assess the family to see if we can meet the need via counseling. We want to keep the kids and families together as much as possible. If the youth and caregiver need a break, then we offer the center as an option. We start with the drop-in center services and then move to emergency shelter services as necessary.”
Strentzsch said a lot of that deals with having to be stuck at home all of the time.
“You are living in the same house with several people in a small space, and tempers flow,” Strentzsch said. “What we want to do is help them figure out how to alleviate that pressure cooker a little, giving them some space.”
Strentzsch said the anxiety Falcon’s son was dealing with is a shared anxiety in households during this time.
“With anxiety and depression, the numbers are astronomical, through the roof, since the pandemic,” Strentzsch said. “Kids, adults, families. No one is immune from the increased pressures of anxiety and depression.”
She said lacking positive resources tend to cause destructive behaviors.
“Like getting into gangs or with other dynamics that are not healthy that are impacting our kids and families,” Strentzsch said. “Our teens and children are feeling alone and isolated. What is going through their head is that ‘No one loves me. No one cares about me. I have lost all of my connections. I don’t have anyone to talk to.’ If we don’t — as community members and stakeholders in the community — don’t reach out and touch these young men and women, we are going to lose them to the counterculture.”
Strentzsch recommends families find a healthy, committed adult for the youths to look up to as role models.
“It doesn’t even have to be a relative,” Strentzsch said. “It can be a teacher, a church leader, a neighbor. It is critical that they have that to feel like they matter and are heard. That way, when they feel like they matter and believe they matter, they make different choices.”
Strentzsch had this advice for teens out there who need that extra positive push in their lives:
“We live in a world where kids believe today is the only day that matters, and they are not looking for tomorrow. And if the needs are not being met today, then it seems like the end of the world,” Strentzsch said. “I ask them to breathe, and I say, ‘Yesterday was bad. Today doesn’t have to stay that way, and tomorrow doesn’t have to be that way.’ Helping them to understand that tomorrow, all they have to do is pick themselves up, reconnect with someone, and find the future. Find the ability to look forward and not feel like they are failing because that is where shame and doubt lives.”
Strentzsch added that the organization’s biggest goal is to build a strong connection between families.
“It takes more than just dropping your child off here,” Strentzsch said. “That is essentially making someone else the solution. As a parent, you want to be the solution for the child. It is about pausing, even if you have so much stuff to do. Know that unique interaction and take that time. Our job is to help them understand that the five minutes you take today is worth hours in the future. It just has to be some meaningful moments that let the child know the parents care and love them.”