Latina’s Leadership Transformed School Mental Health

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By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

Des Moines, IA – Gabby Guerra Cerón first heard about Please Pass the Love while sharing an office space with them while working at her first job out of college. She never imagined then that one day she would be the first Latina to run that nonprofit that focused on transforming school mental health.

Guerra Cerón was born in El Salvador and moved to Iowa as a young child where she attended Des Moines Public Schools for elementary through high school. Growing up, Guerra Cerón remembers her parents saying, “You’re going to college – that’s why we moved here,” and it was a lot of pressure. It wasn’t until a teacher recommended the Iowa Talent Project that she thought college could be possible. The program, now defunct, started in seventh grade, and allowed students to earn a scholarship to the University of Iowa after high school. Guerra Cerón was one of the few students to complete the program, but she feared her undocumented status would prevent her from being awarded the scholarship. Nonetheless, she got help from teachers and staff to fill out the application and the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid). “It was scary sharing my parent’s information, but they encouraged me to move forward since they had been paying taxes. But we didn’t know what it would mean to put their information on more government forms.” On top of dealing with the stress of being the first in her family to go to college, she was also grappling with untreated anxiety and depression. 

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According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 U.S. children ages 3–17 struggles with mental health but only about 20% of these children get the treatment they need. Among Latinos, the number of children being treated for mental health is even lower. This is what attracted Guerra Cerón to Please Pass the Love, a nonprofit dedicated to removing the stigma around mental health and creating mental health resources, programs, and professional training for schools across the US. 

Working with youth, she recognized the mental health struggles they faced, similar to her own battle and wanted to change things for today’s kids. Guerra Cerón noticed how when given support and guidance, youth took initiative and led programs that helped them. “You know you’re making a difference. They’ll go home and talk to their families about what they learned.” At Please Pass the Love, she especially loved the workshops because they reached a lot of students quickly and it was often the first time anyone had dedicated time to talking about coping skills, mental health resources, and self-care in a way that was informative and not judgmental. Youth eagerly responded to the messages and became interested in establishing Stomp Out Stigma clubs in their schools. These clubs gave students a voice about school mental health and created leaders. The students were passionate about identifying mental health needs, developing action projects, and advising Please Pass the Love on their youth programming. “Their feedback is critical because they’re going through it every day,” says Guerra Cerón. While Stomp Out Stigma Clubs were student-led, they needed administrators or teachers to serve as on-site advisors who were advocates and allowed the youth to lead while learning, exploring, and questioning the status quo. “My dream is to see this club in every middle and high school in Iowa,” she says with a smile. 

In November of 2022, Please Pass the Love’s founding executive director stepped down and recommended Guerra Cerón to take her place. The board of directors agreed and Guerra Cerón moved into the role. She had prior nonprofit management experience from her time as the assistant director of Al Éxito, where she started her nonprofit career. “You name it, I did it,” she says of her first job where she worked with the board, managed finances, coordinated events, and developed programs, “I’m really grateful for that experience, working so closely with an executive director. That’s how I developed my skills so quickly.” More importantly, Guerra Cerón has a heart for advocating for others, especially BIPOC, LGBTQIIA+, and immigrant communities. That’s what guided her days as a college student at the University of Iowa.

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As the first in her family to go to college, being so far away was difficult. Guerra Cerón was often lonely and drove home every weekend. She didn’t have a lot of time to make friends or participate in clubs, cultural houses, and events; experiences she wishes she had taken advantage of when she had the chance. Guerra Cerón struggled to find joy in her classes until she switched from business to a self-designed major that led to a bachelor’s degree in ethics and public policy, a minor in Latinx studies, and a certificate in nonprofit management. Once on that track, she loved her courses and began thinking about a career in nonprofit. Unfortunately, while in college she hadn’t formed a network that could help her find a job. She sent applications to every nonprofit she knew, and only one responded right away. While working at Al Éxito she saw youth struggling with mental, emotional, behavioral, or developmental issues that negatively impacted their ability to focus on school and develop as young adults. Most of the Latino students had never talked to their parents about what they were experiencing and had internalized negative feelings about themselves because of their untreated mental health conditions. She was impressed by the work Al Éxito had done in the Latinx Youth Mental Health Report and wanted to be more involved in solutions for some of the identified issues. When she heard the Youth Engagement Director resigned from Please Pass the Love, Guerra Cerón applied. It wasn’t an easy choice. “As a young, passionate professional, it was a difficult decision. I had learned so much, met so many amazing students at Al Éxito that I wanted to continue to work with and see them succeed. Dawn had been so supportive and trusting to let me try so much, which made it harder to leave but she also knew I should explore other opportunities to grow as a professional,” says Guerra Cerón.

It took some time for Guerra Cerón to adjust to working with such a different population of students. “It wasn’t so much a cultural issue; it was a stigma issue. I saw it in my life. I battled anxiety but didn’t have the words to talk about it. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 23 years old. Just because we don’t talk about mental health in the Latino community doesn’t mean it’s not there. Once I became emersed in this work and had access to mental health resources through having insurance and more education about it, my life began to change.” Please Pass the Love helped normalize the language around what Guerra Cerón had felt her whole life and allowed her to see how others in her family were struggling in silence. It made her more determined than ever to elevate the voices of Latinos and young people and spread the word about the help that exists. “We need to move beyond talking. You don’t have to suffer alone; you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s OK to lean on your community and the resources that exist.” Some of the resources she frequently recommends include free one-on-one counseling for young girls at the Young Women’s Resource Center; school-based therapy where therapists see children at their schools during the day; Orchard Place and Easter Seals where psychiatrists do mental health screenings and can make a formal diagnosis. Guerra Cerón was the first queer Latina to lead Please Pass the Love until the agency dissolved in 2023.

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