Salud y Cariño founder and alumnae | Provided photo
By Susan Landry
Middle school can be rough. Luckily, for girls in mid-Santa Cruz County, health and love is on their side in the form of the nonprofit Salud y Cariño.
Through its girls-only afterschool programs, Salud y Cariño works with fifth- through eighth- grade students, helping girls foster self-empowerment and well-being during this famously challenging time.
Lessons in the free-of-charge Girls Groups range from roller skating to kickboxing to coping skills and dealing with bullying.
“We provide the room and the structure, but they’re the ones who create the magic,” said Theresa Cariño, who co-founded the nonprofit with her sister Margaret Cariño-Condon in 2013. “We’re just building on the strength, knowledge and gifts that they already have.”
Since launching their 17-student pilot program five years ago, the nonprofit has grown to serve about 150 girls at Live Oak’s Shoreline Middle School and three elementary schools each year.
For Cariño — a former high school teacher and principal — the nonprofit’s origin story is deeply personal. As a child, she suffered an accident that resulted in burn scarring, multiple surgeries and months in the hospital. “From a very young age, I remember people would notice my scars,” she said. “There were times I was excluded or pointed out or things like that.”
The experience helped to foster an empathy in Cariño that still shapes her work today. “I think it allowed me that gift, to be able to relate to people who are also struggling with something,” she said. “It made me very passionate that I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I don’t want anyone to feel excluded or less than.”
Eventually, Cariño decided to use the settlement money she received from the accident to start Salud y Cariño. This, she said, was her way of creating something positive out of something painful.
Self-reflection is a key piece of Salud y Cariño’s once-per-week meetings, which always begin with journaling and a talking circle.
“Sometimes, with certain topics we’ll stay in talking circle for like 25 minutes because the girls are really feeling it,” said Cariño-Condon of the prompt questions that range from, “What are you grateful for?” to “What are ways to take care of yourself when you’re having a bad day?”
In addition to lighthearted lessons like bowling or how to roll your own sushi, the yearlong program covers serious topics like consent, healthy boundaries and media representation.
“For my generation it was magazines, TV ads and billboards that we were comparing ourselves to,” said Cariño. “Now there’s this whole other ballgame of filters and angles and unrealistic ideas of beauty.”
Cariño-Condon explains that just as social media has created a new hurdle for today’s youth, so too has the world of vaping.
“It’s just insane how it’s taking over the middle schools,” said Cariño-Condon. “Their peers are doing it in class, on campus, in the halls, it’s a big thing. There’s definitely a lot of pressure.” Salud y Cariño focuses an entire unit of its programming on tobacco and nicotine prevention, which involves presentations, providing information and sharing experiences.
Of course, prevention doesn’t always come in the form of what not to do. “We have a theme about honoring our cultures and our families,” said Cariño. “When we can focus on those strengths, that is also a form of prevention.”
Eunie Del Rosario, a teacher at Shoreline, noted the particular importance of this type of programming for Hispanic students at her school. “They help these young ladies find their voice and feel proud of who they are and where they come from,” said Del Rosario. “They do that on so many levels.”
Cariño and Cariño-Condon explain that as biracial, multicultural women themselves — their father is Native and Mexican and their mother Irish and Scottish — it is important to create curriculum that honors all their students’ own unique backgrounds. “Our culture, our traditions and where we came from has a lot to do with who we are,” says Cariño.
Breaking down cultural barriers is also important for the sisters. This, in part, led them to found their Summer Leadership Surf Camp. “The girls we serve literally live blocks from the beach but they don’t have access to get in the water,” said Cariño-Condon, who is also a surf instructor for the Wahine Project.
Access, she explained, is about more than just physical distance. “They don’t see anybody in the lineup that looks like them,” said Cariño Condon of the sport which, despite its Hawiian and Polynesian roots, is often comprised of white middle-class men. “They see this whole surfing culture as not their own, like they don’t have a spot in it. It was really important for us to say, ‘Yes, you do. If this is something you want, let’s do it.’”
In addition to surf lessons, the leadership camp is also where girls learn the skills to come back to the program as junior leaders once they graduate into high school. Junior leaders return to Salud y Cariño to mentor younger students on top of meeting with Cariño and Cariño-Condon once per month.
“I watch the girls go through the program then come back and become mentors when they’re in high school,” said Del Rosario. “That, to me, speaks volumes of their program.”
Cariño explained that the mentorship aspect of the program grew organically out of the students’ desires to continue on with their program. And hearing it from the students themselves, it’s not hard to see why.
“I feel like they realize they’ve changed our lives, but I don’t think they realize how much they’ve changed our lives,” said one participating student, via a program evaluation.
More information about Salud Y Cariño is available at www.saludycarino.org.
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