“I was just a mom with a missing kid,” recalls Natalia Gutierrez, founder of If You Could Save Just One. “What could I do?”
As it turns out, Natalia’s motivation to help her son find resources turned into a crucial community hub; a nonprofit that local Spokane families and at-risk youths rely upon.
In 2016, every parent’s worst nightmare became Natalia’s reality; her oldest son disappeared at age 14. But Natalia’s quest to seek help for her son had started long before he went missing.
Early on in his childhood, she recognized some patterns and behaviors that pointed to bigger health issues. He struggled with managing his emotions and his grades fell quickly when he moved from middle to high school. Rather than receiving individualized interventions, Natalia’s son received suspensions.
“When kids are suspended, they are more likely to get in trouble outside of the classroom,” explains Natalia. “A cycle starts to emerge, and it quickly escalates. There are very little resources for these kids as they start falling through the cracks. Their self esteem plummets. Their emotional health is negatively impacted. And once they end up in jail, many seem to give up. But they have their whole lives ahead of them! It’s never too late.”
So, when her son went missing, she began digging into the system, consulting with other parents and questioning school staff. She discovered there was a great need to bring all these resources together in one place and holistically assist families and youths through tough times. That’s when she started the nonprofit organization.
“Just One is a warm, welcoming and inviting place for kids to go,” said Natalia. “They get to learn about things that interest them; this keeps them out of trouble. We volunteer and give back to the community. And we help parents understand and take advantage of the resources that are available to them.”
Natalia’s son returned home six months after he went missing. It was a long time to wonder and hope. Now, she uses what she’s learned to be the kind of role model she wished she had as a child. Natalia’s own childhood is full of tribulations, but she refuses to let the past define her.
“There’s a stigma around mental health and it prevents people from seeking help,” said Natalia. “Our culture makes us feel ashamed to tell our truths and many of us feel silenced. But every person has a core desire to be validated and to be heard – without judgment. Just One offers that.”
Approximately one in three youths in Spokane County reports signs of depression or other mental illnesses. These symptoms are linked to increased risky behaviors such as abusing drugs and alcohol, carrying weapons and the consideration of suicide.
Many of the families that Just One is helping are a part of Spokane’s ALICE community. These families face extraordinarily hard circumstances. Some parents are in jail. Others are working two jobs. And these parents often experienced their own childhood traumas. When an at-risk child begins to act out, these are the families who don’t have the resources to intervene. These are the families that get caught in the cycle.
If you could save just one child from this cycle, what would you do? Natalia started a nonprofit.
“It’s been an amazing adventure,” said Natalia. “And it’s just the beginning. We have so many great plans and I feel so blessed.”
Together, Avista and the Avista Foundation have given more than $1.5M in charitable gifts across all five states in our service area this year and If You Could Save Just One is one of them.