When Brittany Perez ’12 was hired in January 2015 by REAL Journey Academies (RJA), a nonprofit charter school system based in the Inland Empire, she knew she wanted to provide a robust set of counseling services that would improve students’ lives and wellbeing. On March 15, with the help of her women’s conference planning committee, she hosted the school’s first virtual but fifth annual Women’s Empowerment Conference, an event geared toward the school’s young women in 3rd through 11th grade, and Perez tapped a number of U of R students and employees to pull it off.
With campuses in San Bernardino, Moreno Valley, and Fontana, RJA serves many low-income, high-need students and implements a healing and justice-based curriculum. “It’s so important for kids to have access to counseling and other mental health resources in the school setting because they spend most of their time here,” says Perez. “We wanted to support our girls and encourage self-care practices they can engage in while in isolation, including mindfulness, time management, self-esteem, yoga, team building, and other activities.”
In addition to starting and coordinating the annual conference, Perez, who is the director of counseling services, works with school counseling interns and clinical mental health counseling trainees—many of whom come from the U of R School of Education—engages with parents, and works with various community partners. At the beginning of the school year, Perez wasn’t sure if the conference would even be possible in a virtual format. Many students were still not engaged virtually for many factors including lack of have access to the internet or a computer. Still, the schools managed to distribute learning packets and Chromebooks to those who needed them.
Ahead of the event, participants were sent a bundle of materials including a yoga mat, planners, art kits, and other tools to use for the conference. Alyssa Acosta ’21 and Niecole Fisher ’21, two Clinical Mental Health Counseling students, facilitated a workshop on emotional freedom technique tapping, an exercise that aims to treat physical pain and emotional distress. School counseling interns Sarah Morrison ’21, Ariel Romo ’21, Ariana Cervantes-Borges ’21, and Allie Westrup ’21 also provided time management workshops for the students to help team students how to build self-care into their day. Other school counseling interns and clinical counseling trainees that were available also participated as chaperones for the events.
Assistant Director of Academic Advising Kristin Grammer led a session on time management for 10th and 11th grade students, utilizing a special planner that emphasizes both short- and long-term goal setting. Perez notes that a highlight of the conference for her was being able to provide interns and trainees the opportunity to create and lead their own workshops. Another highlight was being able to invite a yoga teacher from Switzerland to lead a session because many of the students have never done yoga before.
Throughout the conference, students’ resilience was on display. “We were all able to come together virtually at a time when we were feeling very alone,” says Grammer. “Girls need to see women who look like them, who they can identify with, who are succeeding, in order to achieve their own goals.”
The root of Perez’s passion for her students’ success is personal and stems from her time as a student at UC Riverside and the University of Redlands. As a first-generation college student, Perez knows how important it is for students to have a support system at home and at school. The support she received at the U of R during her Counseling program allows her to pay it forward to the next generation.
“I felt very prepared and supported at the U of R and appreciated all that the school stood for,” she says. “All of my classes were enlightening, and my professors still worked in the field and were always readily available. When I graduated, I felt ready to pursue my career.”
In the future, Perez says she hopes to create a similar conference for the school’s boys and young men. “I’m proud that we were able to host the conference this year,” she says. “We’re able to provide support to students that will impact them later on. It ties back to student success—creating an environment for them to feel comfortable and loved at school allows them to stay in class and learn.”
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