Coalition guiding teens through the pandemic

Teenagers may be aware of the safety measures to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they don’t always know how to deal with the isolation.

One of the most difficult things about this pandemic for 14-year-old Jennifer Cruz, a member of the UNITED Youth Group, is not being able to see her nephew due to
safety guidelines.

The UNITED group is part of the Uniting Neighbors in Drug Abuse Defense (UNIDAD) coalition, a program from Behavioral Health Solutions of South Texas which serves in Hidalgo County and focuses on topics such as underage drinking, binge drinking, marijuana and synthetics, and prescription medication misuse, according to its website.

The group’s eight active teenage members are all going through a situation similar to Jennifer’s.

Vianca Vieyra, a coordinator of the coalition, said the group meets once a week to discuss their feelings and concerns about COVID-19 and the quarantine.

“I talked to our youth group and I asked them what were things that were concerning to them,” Vieyra said. “They don’t know how to deal with isolation.”

Some of the things that the group were affected by are not being able to visit their friends and family.

One solution members came up with was teaching their grandparents how to use FaceTime to communicate.

Whenever Jennifer misses her nephew and her two brothers who study college in Michigan, she video chats with them. She is the youngest of her three siblings and the only one who lives with her parents.

“I don’t live with my nephew, so it’s very stressful at times because I do want to see him grow and develop in his early years,” Jennifer said.

She has been a member of the youth group for more than a year.

Chalk art features a boy and girl. It was created during the “Chalk the Walk RGV” event by two elementary school students from Harlingen. (Courtesy photo)

“Thanks to the group I feel like I have another outlet to express myself,” Jennifer said. “It’s just another way for me to get out what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling … It’s a good group to be right now.“

She said one of the ways the members receive help is by being able to express themselves and being heard by the coordinators.

“I think a lot of teens just want to have that opportunity to express themselves,” Vieyra said. “They’re watching, they know what’s going on, but they’re also trying to figure out how they feel about what’s going on.”

Vieyra said that when she would talk to the group, they would tell her that nobody asked them how they feel about the entire situation.

“They just knew that they had to follow rules … they felt like decisions were made for them,” she said.

Vieyra also said the group respected the rules and guidelines because those are meant to keep them safe, but that didn’t mean they felt completely happy. The teenagers went on break in mid-March and suddenly weren’t able to return to school. Everything changed for them.

Vieyra said they would ask themselves what they were supposed to do with their time now that they were stuck at home.

“A lot of our kids were in extracurricular activities, so they no longer had those things,” Vieyra said. “They didn’t have those things that were helping them keep busy, distracted… Or express or challenge themselves.”

She said that’s when they needed guidance and the coalition organized different activities like “Virtual National Prevention Week – Your Character Matters” during May and “Chalk the Walk RGV.”

The UNITED coalition will host “Strengthening Roots: A Virtual Family Engagement Summit,” a two-day event on Aug. 4 to 6 that will focus on strategies to encourage and motivate parents to actively engage in bonding and maintaining positive relationships with their children during this unusual time.

For more information, email Vieyra at vvieyra@bhsst.org.