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In State Budget, a Win for OLA

Thu, 06/13/2024 - 17:06
Minerva Perez, executive director of Organizacion Latino-Americana
Durell Godfrey

Throughout its 22-year history, Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island has relied largely on grants, private donations, and fund-raisers to establish and grow its community workshops, educational programs, government advocacy, and legal support services. The organization announced Friday that it has now "secured a place in the New York State budget," with the State Legislature allocating a total of $100,000 to support its Youth Connect program, which addresses mental health among teens.

OLA had received state money in the past — for instance, in 2021 it was given $160,000 in pandemic relief money to help people avoid going into arrears on rent — but this is the first time the state has built money for OLA directly into its budget. The new allocation includes $50,000 in "discretionary funding" from Assemblyman Fred Thiele. It will cover the 2024-25 fiscal year, which began on April 1.

"I am deeply honored to stand alongside OLA of Eastern Long Island as they tirelessly strive to create a more just and inclusive community for Latino immigrants on the East End," Mr. Thiele said in a statement, noting that OLA's work fosters "a stronger, more vibrant, and united community that celebrates the rich diversity and contributions of its residents."

OLA launched Youth Connect in 2022 to support teens experiencing mental health crises. It serves "all East End youth, Latino and non-Latino alike," it says. In both English and Spanish, its signature program is "an anonymous, confidential helpline that local youth can text or call seven days a week to speak with a trained crisis counselor." There are also educational programs and opportunities for social gatherings.

The work addresses community needs that OLA began to identify in 2020 with a survey of high schoolers and recent graduates across the region. According to the survey, which was conducted by Stony Brook University researchers, about 74 percent of the young respondents said they experienced anxiety. About 59 percent said they experienced hopelessness, 57 percent described an inability to control or stop their feelings of worry, and 56 percent described losing interest in daily activities they'd previously found enjoyable.

More than 69 percent reported that these issues affected their relationships at home, at school, at work, and during leisure time, and 17.5 percent of respondents said they began to use or increased their use of drugs or alcohol as a result.

Statewide, the 2024-25 budget allocates a total of $19 million for "school-aged youth mental health initiatives."

"We look forward to continuing to strengthen our work with students and to expanding our services to provide support to parents and young adults as well," Anastasia Gochnour, the director of Youth Connect, said in a statement.

In a statement, Minerva Perez, OLA's executive director, thanked Mr. Thiele for being "a true champion for mental health services for youth and their families and for immigrants in general. His partnership and leadership were invaluable to ensuring that our work on this front was recognized by the state as critical to improving the lives of teens on the East End. His outreach, along with our own, highlighted for other legislators the depth of need in our often-neglected corner of Long Island."

Despite being a "relatively small organization," Ms. Perez continued, OLA is proud to now be recognized by elected officials, "who have said with their affirmative budget vote that OLA's work is making a difference."

"Access is everything," she said. "We have next to no affordable bilingual providers in our region. Even if we had several organizations on the East End providing free or affordable mental health services, if they — and our local schools — don't have bilingual counselors and therapists, then a huge percentage of our community isn't getting the help it needs. As a region we are making strides, though we still have a long way to go to ensure our kids and families are getting the support they need."

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