Daisy Nuñez is a Watsonville High School counselor and board member for Hospice of Santa Cruz County
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Pandemic Life

Watsonville High counselor Daisy Nuñez on building resilience in the face of grief

Daisy Nuñez counts her blessings in a time of loss.

An academic counselor at Watsonville High School, the pandemic has struck close to her personal and professional life.

Five family members and friends have died from COVID-19, she said.

Her predecessor, Federico Castañeda, also passed unexpectedly in July. His death was among a string of four school community members who died last year, adding to the mental load of students and educators as they adapt to remote learning.

Describing herself as a stoic and “hopeologist,” Nuñez said she draws that resilience from her family, her Catholic faith and her commitment to her community and work.

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“For me, serving as a counselor is not a job,” she said. “It’s a calling in life.”

So was returning to work at Watsonville High, her alma mater.

Nuñez is the daughter of farm worker parents who immigrated from Mexico to Salinas, and later Watsonville. She graduated from Watsonville High, where Castañeda, her late predecessor, was one of her counselors. Nuñez found her way back to the school in 2016, after working as a counselor at a school in Monterey following studies at UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State.

“I felt that I belonged at Watsonville High School,” Nuñez said. “I knew that I always wanted to come back, it was just a matter of when the opportunity presented itself.”

Until stepping into the role of the late Castañeda as an academic counselor, Nuñez worked as socio-emotional counselor. It’s a perspective she continues to draw on as she sees students grapple with myriad challenges at school and at home.

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“When students tell me, ‘I feel overwhelmed,’ I always loop back to, ‘Let’s talk about, what can you do for yourself today? And how can you practice that self care? Grades are important. But your mental health at this very moment is our number one priority, and how can we keep you healthy physically and mentally?’”

School counseling, like so much else, has had to adapt to meet the pandemic era. Students face new struggles. Nuñez’s meetings often extend into evenings to support varied student schedules. Reaching out and building connections remotely takes longer.

Certified in bereavement counseling, Nuñez’s work in hospice has also prepared her for the grim realities of the pandemic.

“God prepared me for this situation, because three years ago is when I started volunteering for hospice, as a grief counselor,” said Nuñez, a board member at Hospice of Santa Cruz County. “And so I have a lot of the tools and the understanding of death, dying and bereavement.”

More recently, she found a new kind of self-care in the form of long daily walks through the network of trails the wind through the slough near her Watsonville home.

“I think for me, the greatest thing is just the mindset,” Nuñez said. “Recognizing that, while we didn’t have a choice, you know, to just leave our classroom, and then almost coming to a year to still be in the situation, we do have a choice as to how we respond.”

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