Vision in action: Meet four young leaders working to transform their communities

Two teenage boys are shown from the back carrying a box of supplies.
Through Con Bondad, Sebastián is leading drives for food and supplies for farmworker communities in Northern California. Photo: Miguel Bayon Jacobson

Lara* and Carolina, both high school seniors in Florida, are on a mission to overcome mental health stigma. In the shadow of another pandemic year, they saw how their peers were affected by trauma, anxiety and grief — and how stigma often kept young people from getting the help and support they needed.

“Many of our friends were severely struggling with their mental and emotional health,” Lara said. “But they didn’t know where to turn for help or felt that, if they reached out, their family would be disappointed in them.”

Lara and Carolina co-founded Blooming Minds Miami to raise awareness and share mental health resources with young people of all backgrounds. They brought Blooming Minds to life with a Power of Youth challenge grant from America’s Promise Alliance. With POY support, they’ve already launched a website and podcast series, co-hosted a community town hall on student mental health, and set a course for spotlighting mental health policy, practice and access.

“We wanted people to feel less alone and have a better understanding of mental health issues,” Carolina said. “It’s important that we emphasize the effect that mental health neglect has had. We want people to know that they are important and that there are people like them who are trying to make changes.”

Portraits of two teenage girls, Lara Gastelumendi and Carolina Merchan-Mendes, appear side-by-side
Lara (left) and Carolina co-founded Blooming Minds Miami to destigmatize mental health and promote access to services and supports.
Photos: Courtesy of Lara and Carolina

“Our vision is to create blogs on self-care and mental health policies and interviews with mental health professionals, as well as produce resources on the mental health of LGBTQ, Hispanic/Latinx, AAPI, immigrant, African American and other specific communities,” said Lara. “We are also working on ways to increase outreach efforts, especially to high school students.”

The project is well on its way. Blooming Minds’ team is 15-students strong, and it uses a train-the-trainer approach so members can bring mental health information to their own communities.

Blooming Minds Miami is one of more than 400 youth-designed and youth-led projects fueled by a Power of Youth challenge grant from America’s Promise with support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Awardees from communities across the country are rolling out solutions for strengthening education and the arts; promoting safety, health and community well-being; and tackling social injustice, inequity and racial discrimination.

“These projects not only engage young people in learning and leadership through service, but truly reflect the power of youth to envision creative and strategic ways to strengthen and uplift their communities,” said Benita Melton, who directs the Education Program at the Mott Foundation.

Young man poses for a portrait in front of greenery.
The grandson of farmworkers, Sebastián is working to raise awareness of farmworkers as essential workers. Photo: Tad Craig

Sebastián, whose grandparents and great-grandfather worked the fields near Fresno, strives for farmworkers to be recognized as “essential workers,” especially amid the pandemic and California’s wildfires. He has used his POY grant to develop Con Bondad: A Farmworker Family Drive.

“Without farmworkers, the world would not survive because we largely depend on them to pick our food,” Sebastián said. “But farmworkers are unable to purchase food for themselves because they are often paid below the minimum wage. Nonetheless, they continue to work in excruciating conditions. The inability to purchase basic necessities is a major issue that my project hopes to address.”

Through Con Bondad, which translates to “with kindness” or “with goodness” in English, Sebastián teamed up with Latinx student groups and social justice organizations to raise awareness and carry out student-led donation drives in support of farmworker communities in Santa Cruz County and Watsonville. Their most recent drive collected over 450 donations for more than 350 farmworker families. Looking ahead, Sebastián hopes to scale up the project at his school so it can continue after he graduates.

“Through multiple sacrifices, my great-grandfather and grandparents helped me receive an education and not have to worry about where my next meal might come from,” Sebastián said. “Their efforts and sacrifices made it possible for me to be successful. This project inspires me to want to continue helping my community, especially those who are oppressed and negatively affected by stereotypes and hatred.”

Visionary Art Gallery, organized by Katherrin, showcased artworks by 65 teen artists.
Photo: Elisabeth Oldendorf

Katherrin, a POY grant recipient in Illinois, is working to address the underrepresentation of young artists from disenfranchised backgrounds. She built the Youth Representation Gallery as a platform for artists to showcase their work while raising funds for 3Arts, a nonprofit that supports women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities.

“As a low-income, teenage, Latina artist who rarely saw people like me in respected artistic spaces, I sought to create the representation and opportunities I could never find,” Katherrin said.

Katherrin is interviewed about her vision for showcasing the creative talent of underrepresented young artists.
Photo: Veronica L. Limon

She organized the Visionary Art Gallery at Logan Square’s Hairpin Arts Center in September. By all measures, the exhibit was a success. It showcased more than 250 artworks by 65 teen artists, along with musical performances, for an audience of over 500 people, and it raised several hundred dollars for 3Arts. This winter, Katherrin is striving to keep a spotlight on student work through an online gallery, and she hopes to host future events to showcase the creative talent of local teens.

“My goal was to make a platform for underrepresented Chicagoland visionaries to celebrate and share their unique experiences and diverse creative pursuits,” Katherrin said. “By creating this platform, my hope is that young artists can get involved in the local art community and be inspired to create and even organize similar events of their own.”

* To protect privacy, last names of participants who are younger than 18 are not included in this story.