Nearly 600 middle and high school students took on difficult subjects, such as exploitation, opioid addiction, depression and suicide, at Friend-to-Friend 2019 this week. The event was hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, SCOE, at Modesto Centre Plaza.
Student leaders from schools in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties attended small group sessions at Wednesday’s event. With such intense discussions, trained mental health professionals were available on-site for the teens.
The students participated in an interactive keynote address, made connections with peers and learned stress reduction techniques.
“They can learn about (coping with) things that can negatively affect them and take this information back to their school to share with other students,” said Vicki Bauman, director of prevention programs for SCOE.
The 25th annual event also offered social opportunities: “I came to make new friends,” said Jano Martinez, a junior at Edison High School in Stockton.
The keynote speech, A Generation on the Rise, was delivered by Julia Garcia, psychologist and nationally renowned speaker. Bounding across the stage with palpable energy and lilac-colored hair, Garcia led an interactive session that brought the attendees to their feet with applause.
“There’s so much against them in order to be their true selves” said Garcia, “There’s a fake culture out there, especially with social media, and I give them that safe space to connect with each other.”
Garcia, who refers to herself as Dr. J, told the teens about the obstacles she had to overcome in her youth, including parents with drug addiction and incarceration, domestic violence and loss of a beloved cousin to suicide.
Garcia prompted the audience to stand if they had incurred psychological trauma or loss, and nearly everyone in the room, including the adult chaperones, stood up.
In the past decade, Garcia has given motivational speeches across the country, including TedX talks. She said she didn’t set out to be a speaker, but it evolved from learning to use her voice.
“It’s really a journey of discovery that I’m not alone and letting others know that they’re not alone as well,” said Garcia.
She engaged the teens with a few catch phrases, including “be true,” using her fingers to make a capital T to encourage students to embrace their “real identities,” not fake characters on social media. Her most popular phrase was turning the word “impossible” to “I’m possible,” to motivate the teens to follow their dreams.
Exhibitors included Impact Teen Drivers, which offered instructions for safe driving for teens. “We’re trying to stop the No. 1 killer of teens and that’s car crashes,” said Monica Martin, a lead facilitator for the organization in California.
Dave Rogers brought Drum Love to show students that drumming provides an effective and fun way to alleviate stress.
Safe Kids Stanislaus County had the teens play Nerf football while wearing diving goggles to show how hard it is to play without clear vision. The purpose was to demonstrate the importance of time for recovery after a sports concussion. Safe Kids is a coalition of stakeholders led by Doctors Medical Center of Modesto and Stanislaus County Police Activities League that works on injury prevention for youth.
The event addressed serious topics, but at times with humor and fun activities, including dancing, hula hoops and a photo booth for silly pictures.
“I think the session was actually pretty fun,” said Dezja Trout-Lacy, an 11th-grade student from Edison High School. She also said “I think it should be brought to everybody because you can learn a lot. You’ll know that people are there for you and have gone through what you’ve gone through and you can actually connect with people more.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.