Puente focuses on farm worker mental health

Puente’s weekly La Sala program, its Sunday afternoon “living room” in Pescadero, is a place for male farm workers to gather, eat, play dominoes, and find some pleasure in the company of other single men working back-breaking jobs from dawn to dusk. Sometimes they play guitar, or swap stories about their hometowns, their wives, their children and their other family members. Some they have not seen for well over a decade.

One thing they almost never talk about: depression. It’s not unusual for male and female farm workers to struggle with depression and other mental health issues. Puente’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services team works hard to assist them with a constellation of programs, from individual counseling to regular group discussions.

Puente also offers comprehensive mental health services to individuals, couples, families and children by appointment. Its educational services include drug and alcohol prevention, child abuse and domestic violence awareness, and healthy dating groups for students in grades 5-12.

Puente’s recent mental health outreach extends to male farm workers as well. In November, a member of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Services team gave a first-time presentation at La Sala on the topic of mental health. Sheryl (name changed for this story) wasn’t sure how it would be received, but the men listened very attentively and asked several questions, including about how to access to Puente’s mental health programs, which are free.

That was a good sign. “It is a difficult subject, and it can be seen as taboo,” said Sheryl, who talked to the men. “A lot of them have similar stories – these men have encountered major trauma throughout their lives, beginning when they crossed over the border from Mexico. They’re working long hours, and some of them cope by turning to drugs and alcohol.

“They want to overcome this, but without tools and coping skills it’s very hard to break the pattern,” she adds.

A series of federal immigration sweeps in several states in February, including several towns across Southern California, have likely only added to feelings of depression and anxiety.

The presentation covered basic questions, such as how to define mental health and the symptoms of depression. It introduced some basic coping strategies and shared important resources for support from Puente.

To draw the men into the Spanish-language presentation, Sheryl played two classic Mexican songs – one happy (‘El Mariachi Loco’) and one sad (‘Amor Eterno’). She asked the men to notice how the music made them feel – how the sad song triggered feelings of sadness, and how their moods changed after listening to the joyful song. The message: even small coping skills can be uplifting, and choosing how to cope can be empowering.

Sheryl also showed the men photos of other uplifting activities and pursuits that can help improve mental health, such as playing soccer, praying or meditating, and cooking healthy food.

Ben Ranz has closely observed the struggles of male farm workers he has befriended over the years. As Puente’s Community Engagement Manager, Ranz is not a member of the Behavioral Health team but he has made a few referrals.

“I can be their buddy, but the men need more than a buddy. I’m not trained to deal with the kind of trauma that these folks are experiencing, and the life they face every day,” says Ranz, who has been advocating for a Puente mental health staff presence at La Sala for several years.

The need for mental health support “is huge,” says Ranz. From his perspective, living in such close quarters with other men – in bunk beds, sometimes 13 to a barracks, sharing a bathroom – can exacerbate destructive habits.

“In a world where you live with a bunch of men, I don’t think some people are willing to acknowledge that they’re suffering, or to do anything about it,” shares Ranz.

However, the La Sala presentation “definitely struck a nerve,” he adds.

One of Puente’s most recent popular mental health programs initiated a collaboration between two psychiatric social workers, one from Puente and one placed at Puente by the San Mateo County Human Services Agency. This fall, Puente held regular lunchtime mental health sessions for female farm workers, visiting them at their local farms. They discussed everything from self-care strategies to parenting issues. Many of the women are mothers.

Puente has a robust community program to address maternal depression, thanks to the longstanding support of the Bella Vista Foundation. The farm visits built on the foundations of that program. The social workers facilitated discussions about ways of dealing with stress, trauma and anxiety. The women shared ideas amongst themselves about activities to try, and then went out and tried them. They took their kids to the beach, took walks, and made tamales with their families.

The women talked about happy childhood memories, remembering the resonant emotional connections they once shared with their grandparents and extended families. They practiced deep breathing techniques and body scans. And each woman made her own “vision board” to clarify her own goals for self-care and relationships with family.

The county social worker who helped facilitate the sessions shared that the women were able to do some things they hadn’t thought of doing. They found it relaxing and refreshing. In the end, they said they would have liked more of it.

The last session saw nine men participate, because they wanted to be included, too.

“They come here in survival mode,” says Sheryl, who spoke to the men at La Sala. “At the end of the day, it takes priority over mental well-being.”

Sheryl intends to give more presentations at La Sala – with at least one that focuses on treatment options for drug and alcohol abuse.

Ranz would love to see Puente’s Behavioral Health team develop a regular presence at La Sala, to help build trust. “I think it takes a lot of time for the men to come up to me and say, I need help with this or that problem, no matter what it may be. People would realize that mental health support is always there as well.”

Volunteer Tutoring: Math and Mentorship 

Melani Espinoza recalls being in the library with some other kids in her class when she first realized she needed a tutor in math. “I remember I was doing math homework in the library,” says first year Pescadero High School student, Espinoza, “And I thought that I might get behind in class.” Fellow student, Laura Gomez, says she first approached Puente’s education director, Lizeth Hernandez, at the beginning of the year. “I had been working at Puente, so I knew they could help me find a tutor,” remarks Gomez.

Both young women had been a part of the Puente community for a while. Melani was originally a student in the building in which Puente now resides when it was a preschool. Just being at Puente conjures good, welcoming memories for her. Laura got seriously involved with Puente last summer when she participated in the youth summer program. Since then, she and her twin sister, Luz, are regular fixtures at Puente–in the evenings they are watching the children of the adults attending ESL classes at Puente and at nearly every Puente event they are there early to help set up and stay late to help with cleanup.

Though Puente does not have a formal tutoring program, our education program team works hard to identify needs and match volunteers with students when possible. Adult Education Coordinator, Charlea Binford, spearheads a lot of this effort because she is often at Pescadero Middle and High School volunteer coaching various sports teams. “I was impressed that Melani and Laura approached Puente about needing a tutor,” reports Binford. “The fact that they were so proactive motivated me to keep my ears and eyes peeled for someone.”

Thankfully support soon came their way when La Honda resident, Cerelle Centeno, came to talk with Binford one day this past summer at the Pescadero Grown! Farmer’s Market. Centeno was new to the area and looking for volunteer opportunities. She notes,”I was terrible at math as a kid, so when Charlea mentioned she had two girls who needed a math tutor, at first I was nervous.” But Centeno accepted the opportunity. “I figured I could at least try.”

Since that day at the market, Centeno, Espinoza and Gomez have been meeting every Tuesday and Thursday after school for one hour sessions. They do homework for the following day, or correct past homework and quizzes or study for an upcoming test.

The young women report that the experience has been a positive one for them. Gomez says that she started the class with a D but has gotten her grade up to a B.

And Centeno has experienced some benefits as well. “It’s been a thrill to get to know Melani and Laura,” she states. “We’ve covered the principles of mathematics, yes, but what we work on is more about self-discipline and self-confidence. I feel like equal parts tutor and mentor.”

A myriad of opportunities present themselves for volunteers at Puente. But the education-related volunteer positions are more structured in that they call for a more scheduled, recurring commitment.

“We recognize that tutoring at Puente poses a unique set of factors to the volunteers and students alike,” notes Puente Education Director Lizeth Hernandez. “Volunteers need comfort in the subject matter and a comfort level with young people, and the students need to be open to meeting and trusting someone new in a relatively short period of time.”

It is therefore no wonder that the relationship formed can be a strong one. “I quickly began looking forward to my Tuesdays and Thursdays with the girls,” Centeno notes. “And if I get any more sappy than that, I’m pretty sure the girls will read this article and say, ‘Ay, Cerelle!’”

Puente is looking for tutors in various subjects for the new semester. Want to help a high school student learn and, in the process, gain a new friend? Contact Charlea Binford at cbinford@mypuente.org to get paired up with a student TODAY.

Feel more comfortable tutoring adults? We also have opportunities for bilingual tutors to help adults with their citizenship tests. Contact us today to learn more.

Community Action Forum | Foro de Accion Comunitaria

Pescadero, California.. . home of Puente de la Costa Sur



Wednesday, February 22 | Miercoles, 22 de Febrero

6PM- 8PM, Pescadero Elementary School | Primaria de Pescadero

Meet your neighbors. Educate yourself. Take action.

Conoce a sus vecinos. Edúcate. Toma acción.

  • Learn how to react if authorities come to your house or our community
  • Write letters to our local, state and national representatives
  • Connect with neighbors to help strengthen our local network of support
  • Puente mental health team available
  • Legal advice available.

All are welcome. Light refreshments served. Childcare provided.

This will be a bilingual event (Spanish/English)

For more information or if you have something to offer, contact Ben at branz@mypuente.org or 650- 262- 4101.

Conoce a sus vecinos. Edúcate. Toma acción.

  • Aprende como responder si llegan las autoridades a tu casa
  • Escribe cartas a nuestros representantes del gobierno local, estatal, y federal
  • Conéctate con vecinos para fortalecer nuestra red local de apoyo
  • Habrá miembros del equipo de salud mental de Puente presente
  • Asistencia legal disponible

Todos son bienvenidos. Habrá bocadillos. Cuidado de niños. Este es un evento bilingüe (Español/Inglés)

Para más información o si tiene algo para ofrecer, contacta a Benjamín Ranz, 650-262-4101.