Unsung Santa Cruz: Theresa Cariño embraces a sisterhood of love and wellness

A group of girls in front of a mural
(Lynda Otero)

Salud y Cariño is a nonprofit organization that helps middle school girls in the Live Oak community thrive through emotional growth and community building. The program empowers girls of color, offers support and fosters friendships. Despite the pandemic, SYC adapted and maintained its impact through virtual sessions and care packages, and looks to expand and provide a place of support for girls in the future.

Editor’s note: Lookout’s high school journalism challenge invited students to write a profile of a local unsung hero who is making a positive difference in our community, inspired by our popular “Unsung Santa Cruz” series. Our editing team read and reviewed the submissions, publishing the top ten stories. The top three authors are awarded a $500 scholarship.

For many, middle school is known as one of the cruelest times, but Salud y Cariño (SYC) makes the experience a time of extreme emotional growth and community building for hundreds of girls in the Live Oak community. The nonprofit organization, founded by two sisters, aims for girls to thrive during the hardest years of development, mentally and physically, literally translating to “health and love.” Once a week, girls pile into elementary, middle and even high school classrooms to explore the day’s riveting theme. It always starts with a check-in question, and ends with everyone getting in a circle and offering a high-five, handshake or hug to the person next to them until everyone in the group has had a turn. The girls from the group always have each other’s back. It’s where girls get to know classmates whom they would’ve considered difficult to get along with, but you can’t hate someone you offer a high-five, handshake or hug to every week.

According to co-founder and executive director Theresa Cariño, a childhood accident left her with some funds from an insurance settlement, and she “wanted something good to come out of something that was painful” so she used that money to start the organization. A lot of inspiration for the organization comes from both the founders’ lives and what support they wish they would have had as young women. Cariño recognizes the privilege she had growing up by being exposed to the ocean and wanted to open that door to more girls of color. So that was the focus: Get girls, especially girls of color, into the ocean, as well as build up girls’ self-esteem in about an eight-week program. After moving to Santa Cruz from Tucson, Arizona, the neighborhood of Live Oak made the most sense for the organization, as that is where the founders resided and at the time had a high population of Latinx students. One anonymous participant of six years shares that they originally signed up to stay at school longer to hang out with their friends, but as the years have gone on the new bonds they made and fun experiences keep them coming back. Cariño notes that their first pilot group kept asking for more groups – “how do we sign up for next year?” they would ask – and eventually the program evolved to follow girls from fifth grade to the end of high school, although they still keep in contact with even college alumni.

In the face of a pandemic, Cariño truly thought that would be the end of the program. “Part of the magic is being together,” she explained, but the established relationships and interactive Zooms, complete with care packages, kept the love the students have for each other and the program alive. In fact, Zoom opened the opportunity for high school students to participate every Friday to eventually in person at Harbor High. Cariño feels that the older students have created another layer to Salud in even just the participants’ relationships to each other, as the seniors have become role models “in a very relational and organic way – it’s not like anyone is appointed as a role model.” The freshmen girls may feel like whatever they are facing at the time – friendships, academics, family life – may be the end of their world, but they are able to get to group and hear that a senior was in their same position and now is excitedly hearing back from colleges, building new relationships, or even getting jobs. A participant shared that the advice they received from other girls helped them the most through the transition from middle school to high school. A small bump since coming back in person has been building up the cohorts of the younger elementary students, but on a whole the relationship with the participants that went through the pandemic with the program got stronger as they found family, comfort and hope. They get the participants in the door with their fun activities, they keep them with the relationships built, and as one student put it, they always walk away “feeling happy.” At the end of every group, Cariño wants girls to leave “knowing that they’re important and their voice matters. That even if things may be hard right now, on any given day, on any given week, any given grade level, they have a safe space to come to and a safe space within themselves.”

When looking to the future, Cariño sees the program having its own space in the neighborhood where groups are held and girls can stop by. A student expressed that in the future they don’t plan to stop participating in groups; instead, they see themselves “helping with the younger girls.” A big dream of Cariño’s is to be able to have the program continue to run in Live Oak and start a group back in Tucson, where she lived for 20 years, possibly even having the girls from both places visit each other. As the program continues, there are more hopes of college tours led by former participants to get a student perspective, more travel to places like the state capital, and expanding the eighth grader Surf and Leadership summer camp so alumni can stay over as well. In five years, the hopes for the program are that high school and university alumni run the groups and get paid for it, there is a co-executive director or possibly even passing on that role entirely to a former participant, and that girls feel like they have “a place to come home to.”