A mother's experience leads her to start a nonprofit to mentor youth
By Catherine Ferguson
"I was just a mom with a missing kid and an idea!" Natalia Gutierrez, the founder of the nonprofit If You Could Save Just One, introduces herself.
Fortunately, her son is no longer missing and her idea of helping fill the gap from a lack of programs for at-risk youth and parents who struggle with youth from 12 and 18 is a reality.
Natalia's vision is to provide activities and resources that help youth and parents of the Hillyard community and surrounding area create their own path to success.
Her response to the need she experienced when she was unable to access court-ordered services for her son, was to learn how to set up a nonprofit with the help of Rich Wallis, a volunteer nonprofit consultant and mentor with SCORE, and a former CEO of the YMCA of the Inland Northwest.
She partnered with Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church to transform their garage into a space for activities that permit her and others to mentor youth and adults.
"We are always looking for adults to mentor youth as every teen is different," Natalia said, noting research showing four out of 10 youth in the juvenile justice system have learning disabilities.
Just One volunteers, mentors and participants take part in service projects and activities such as music, art, cosmetology, fashion or robotics, according to the interests of each person.
"As part of the Just One team, our mentors help young people meet the challenges and overcome barriers to become resilient adults in today's world," she said.
At the Aug. 17 general meeting of the NAACP, a panel discussed "Mentoring Solutions for Youth in Spokane." William Davis, a gang expert who mentors in the Spokane public schools, describes qualifications to be a mentor based on his experience: "My gift to those I mentor is my change. I started gang-banging in the 1960s in Los Angeles. When they realize the change I had made, that was my in. The 12-step program says it takes one to teach one."
When Natalia shares her life story, it's clear what experiences and insights shaped her ability to be a mentor. Her insights were hard won through a life journey full of trauma.
As a child, drugs were common in her family. Her grandfather was murdered. She had to defend herself in school with gang rivalry. She experienced trauma in the foster care system. She was put into a detention center/school identified as a "charlatan behavior modification facility" in the lawsuit that closed it. She hooked up with a man to get out of the system before she turned 18, and she experienced homelessness.
In describing these experiences, Natalia often highlights her sense of feeling lost or ignorant.
"I felt I didn't know what was going on. My family thought I was too sensitive to explain things to and they were bad role models," she said.
After the murder she said, "I felt like people did not explain things to me. My life became upside down. Reporters asked me things I couldn't explain and that weren't appropriate to ask a 12-year-old who just lost her family. I didn't know who to trust, what was true and what wasn't.
"When I was homeless, I didn't know anything about food stamps or welfare, because no school or system teaches about that—at least nobody taught me," she said.
So Natalia started a nonprofit to provide youth and adults with real time resources, mentors who have gone through what youth are going through now and provide the opportunities the youth desire.
If You Could Save Just One started in 2018. Before COVID, it welcomed neighborhood youth and others who heard about it by word of mouth to participate in activities that interest them, taught by community members.
Activities became the setting for relationship building, in which participants could talk. Staff and volunteers listen and seek to develop positive relationships.
"At first, conversation is about the activity but, in time, it's about more personal things." Natalia said.
If You Could Save Just One has changed how it works since COVID, no longer able to offer classes onsite for 60 youth.
She created Projects in a Bag, which are delivered to 120 youth each month. They would have done the projects with mentors. Natalia gives youth a gift card as an incentive to finish a project.
They used to reuse materials, but now she buys new things, so it's more expensive.
Staff and volunteers also do projects by live streaming, which allows mentoring to continue.
She said the projects make a difference in the community.
"I see kids coming back, which is hopeful. Changes in behavior take time because teens need consistency and adults willing to listen. The youth who participate in the activities are not far from falling through the cracks," Natalia said.
For information, visit www.ifyoucouldsavejustone.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2020