Supporters of Ayudando Latinors a Soñar gather in the nonprofit's space in downtown Half Moon Bay to celebrate an expansion made possible by a foundation grant.

Local nonprofit Ayudando Latinos a Soñar has been a staple in the community for about nine years offering a variety of cultural arts programs. Now, after receiving a grant from the Sand Hill Foundation, the organization is expanding, a with new office dedicated for providing space for mental health services. 

For about three years ALAS has offered a range of therapy services for individuals, couples, families and youth. The program has since grown to meet the demand and currently has clinical supervisor, a part-time therapist and four college student interns on staff. 

ALAS mixes cultural teachings with mental health services and that is unique. Founder of ALAS, Belinda Arriaga, said the focus helps bridge a gap for many members of the Latino community who are sometimes hesitant to seek help. 

“We need services that are culturally competent and meet the client’s needs,” said Arriaga, who is also a licensed clinical social worker.

Clinical Supervisor Damaris Pyle said people come in seeking therapy services for a wide range of issues, including immigration fears, employment woes and relationship stresses.

“There is a lot of anxiety in the community,” Pyle said. 

Pyle oversees a team of college interns who are all pursuing a degree in psychology or social work. Each intern works with about 10 to 12 clients. 

The nonprofit was able to secure grants to be able to offer all services for free. As word of mouth grows, Arriaga said there is now a waitlist for services from ALAS.  

She said there are few programs available specifically for the Latino community on the Coastside. 

“There are not enough services,” psychologist with Adolescent Counseling Services Sarah Burdge said. “Finding therapists who speak Spanish is extremely hard.” Based in Redwood City, Burdge’s office offers outpatient treatment for teen substance abuse, community counseling and free counseling for some families at schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. She said programing is not available to monolingual Spanish speakers through her program because there is a shortage of qualified staff who speak Spanish.

She said there are multiple barriers to explain why Latinos may not get access to mental health care. This includes the lack of Spanish-speaking mental health professionals, transportation to services, inadequate childcare and some concerns about people asking for documentation status to use any services. 

Arriaga was able to secure a grant to fund rent for a suite at 625 Miramontes St. for the nonprofit’s mental health programming.

The office was decorated in vibrant colors and with Latino art. There are two private rooms available for counseling and there is also a meeting room. Arriaga said she decided to decorate the space so it is inviting and warm for the clients. 

“The traditional mental health model for office space can feel intimidating,” she said. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates just 33 percent of Latino adults with mental health issues receive treatment, compared to the U.S. average of 43 percent. Reasons include a lack of information or misunderstanding about mental health, privacy concerns, language barriers, cultural differences and lack of health insurance. 

Julio Balvelez, a former intern who is now a part-time staff member, provides therapy and other mental health services for ALAS. When he first started, he began offering a men’s group. 

“There is a need here,” he said. “One of the things we work on here is trying to bring down the cultural stigma behind therapists.” 

Balvelez said since he started, he’s seen more families coming in to get services as word of mouth spreads about the program. 

“Often times people just want to feel heard,” he said. 

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