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Healthy Hearts for the Hands of the Community

By Rachel Livinal, Art from Ashes Beat Writer

TAY Academy hosts a giveaway in the spirit of Valentine’s Day  

It wasn’t the turnout they expected, but they decided: if the community wasn’t going to come to them, then they were going to come to the community. 

Friday, Feb. 11, the members of TAY Academy bustle up and down a narrow hallway, shifting big blue totes and plastic styrofoam wrapped in plastic bags from the supply-packed room in the back to a tent set up outside the office. They were preparing for The Healthy Hearts Valentine Giveaway event which was put on by Project Navigate and Project CAN. 

Vanessa Vazquez, 25, is a peer navigator for Project Navigate, and when she was asked to create an event, she immediately thought of the fun, but often misconstrued holiday approaching: Valentine’s Day. 

“I love Valentine’s Day,” Vazquez said. “I [thought] we should do a Valentine’s Day event because it’s portrayed as just romantic love, [that] you can only spend it with your partner. But it’s to spread love, to appreciate people.”

She said the general goal behind the event was to help people feel connected. 

“We’re here in the middle of a residential [area], and I want them to know that we’re here for them and they can count on us to be there for them,” Vazquez said.

The two programs, Navigate and CAN, stem from TAY academy, which is a part of MHALA (Mental Health America of Los Angeles). Project Navigate focuses on working with the community to help transitional aged youth, typically between the ages of 18 and 25. These youth often include those who are LGBTQ and homeless. Project CAN is for those aged 18 and up. 

Catrina Flores, the Senior Clinical Director and Director of TAY Services, said the focus on the event was to reach out to the Long Beach community and teach them about the available resources the organization offers.

“We want you to care about your health,” Flores said. “When we do events like this, we usually receive quite a few referrals back into the program…This is a great kind of segue for us to connect with them [and] get them into the services that they may need at that particular time.”

The big blue bags were packed with everything from fresh masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, to little bags of lotion. Every blue bag featured a packed goodie inside that showcased affirmations that said things like “I am loved and respected” or “I am on the right path for me.” 

The plastic bags held hot meals purchased by the program for the attendees. Every box was filled with lasagna, pizza, salad, or breadsticks from Pizza x Two, a local restaurant along E. 7th Street. 

Kayla Clough, a student at Cal State Long Beach, found out about the event through her school’s social media. She initially went just to get out of her room and celebrate Valentine’s Day.

“I’m considering using their services because I’m new to this county,” Clough said “I was seeing a psychologist in my county, and now I’m new here [and am interested] in therapy because it’s always good to do that.”

And the event did more than just provide resources: it spread its joy. 

“I kind of feel lonely because all my friends are back home, so I thought at least having something like a little care basket and stuff to cheer me up a bit.”

— Kayla Clough

TAY Academy has always been about spreading the feeling of love. Flores even believes the pandemic helped create a system of empathy and strong relationships

“I think during the time of the pandemic, we got much tighter, much closer,” Flores said. “You know, you hear that cliche of like, ‘Oh, we’re all a family.’ We really are because there were so many things that many of my staff went through…it was about taking care of each other and that then translated to the work that [we] do with, with the students and the members.”

The event was carefully planned to enforce safety for COVID. Each person received one ticket with a specific time slot from Eventbrite for when they could come and pick up their gifts. Every participant wore a mask and all workers made sure to wear N-95 or KN-95 masks as well as face shields. The event was originally planned when there was a surge in cases from the most recent COVID-19 variant, omicron. 

Even though cases have started to die down, the turnout wasn’t what they had hoped it to be. 

“Usually we don’t have time to sit and talk at all,” said Savannah Montoya, program enrollment manager. “This time sitting and having the Eventbrite idea to help during the pandemic, it’s great and it’s also just [new].”

“The TAY program integrates housing, work/education, community life and wellness, incorporating youth-specific strategies to help them lead independent lives,” said Sarah Munoz, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for MHALA.

The program also recently launched an initiative that focuses on helping folks with pandemic-related concerns. 

MHALA’s TAY Academy used their members to rally up a way to get those bags and hot meals distributed. The last hour of the event showcased members grouping up and handing bags to families who walked by, strangers on the street, the guy at the corner taco stop, and the girls at the pizza place. 

The atmosphere was buzzing on a sidewalk right next to a loud street full of cars. The women  were young and joyous, one wearing vibrant pink pants with red hearts patterned across, another wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. Even though face masks were worn and safety precautions were taken, the event captured TAY Academy as a whole: inviting, warm and ready to help out.  

Some events coming up:

  • Hot Meals in the Community Feb. 17th and every Tuesday and Thursday from 1-3 pm (provides a hot meal for free)
  • Project CAN Introduces Produce Feb. 24th 1-3 pm (provides produce for free)

You can learn more about these programs and events at Mental Health America of Los Angeles | Your Best Life Starts Here (mhala.org).

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