Steinberg Institute

Program Manager, CitiesRISE

A Savvy Sacramento Youth Counselor Follows Young People’s Lead to Help Them Cope with COVID and Stress 

When the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown took hold in Greg Garcia’s community in Sacramento, he knew it was important to apply some lessons he’d learned in 20 years of working with youth as a counselor and program manager: Listen to what young people say and need, and facilitate them to take leadership.

“The recurring theme is youth voice and enabling young people to lead the charge in designing what they need,” Garcia says.

As a program manager for the Sacramento chapter of citiesRISE, a new organization working at the systems level to address and prevent mental health issues among youth, Garcia needed to figure out how young people were relating and gathering — and what they were experiencing — when they were no longer connecting physically.

He found out that many were “gathering” in virtual pop-ups to socialize and play and other online games. “So we decided to have virtual hangouts, trying to stay connected to young people that we’ve been working with, seeing how we can help out, give them a place to listen and talk,” Garcia says. “We learned about pop-ups that are happening in Sacramento, and we tried to infuse a few mental health components within the pop-up. Build a relationship while you’re hanging out with them through COVID.”

He also thinks the pandemic has made it easier to talk about mental health issues and the emotional and stress-related challenges that everyone is now dealing with to one extent or another. “Now I think you can talk about things that you normally couldn’t talk about because people couldn’t see eye-to-eye on it,” he says. “Now everybody understands. Hopefully people change how they view mental health. We’ve all had something traumatic happen, and it’s become a common experience.”

Garcia didn’t set out to work in counseling or with young people. When he enrolled at UC Davis as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, he chose biochemistry as his major. Then a couple of things happened that changed his direction. He took a psychology class and really liked it. And he got involved in leadership with the school’s Asian and Pacific Islander students.

Garcia’s parents had migrated to California from the Philippines in the 1950s as teenagers and settled in Vallejo. Garcia got active with community youth groups in high school and continued this work in college, where he also explored Asian American studies. Immersing himself in ethnic studies opened his eyes, he says.

“I realized that people of color live in two worlds and I started learning how I balance them, how I try to fit in culturally,” he says. “That helped me create the frame I worked in.”

After completing a degree in psychology, he stayed on campus, working as a program assistant with the Asian American Studies Dept. Around that time, he also attended an annual Filipino American Youth Leadership conference. After the conference ended, young people, most of them high school-aged, still wanted to connect, he recalls.