Sitting in solitary confinement surrounded by nothing but cold concrete and his own thoughts, Kelby Trejo knew everything that his parents and teachers had told him was right. At 14 years old, he was regretting his choices. Kelby stared at his hands as a teacher’s words echoed in his ears, “Wise decisions, Mr. Trejo. Wise decisions.”
Kelby had dismissed his teacher’s words at the time, but now it was all he could think about. He had gone from a model student and son to now sitting in a juvenile detention center in his freshman year of high school, and it had all started by finding himself in the wrong crowd.
He was surrounded by bad influences in the eighth grade who carried over into high school, despite the concern and pleading from his family. It reached a point that his father would receive multiple calls a day from the school because of Kelby’s behaviors in the classroom, and it all cumulated into one event that changed his life.
When a friend jokingly yelled threats in a classroom, Kelby laughed and added to it. Another student became concerned and reported the incident. While Kelby and his friend thought they would receive another lecture about their behaviors, the school decided to take it seriously. The school pressed charges, and Kelby found himself in juvenile detention.
“I had a moment of realization when I was sitting there surrounded by concrete,” said Kelby. “I was thinking, ‘These aren’t wise decisions because I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if they were.’ It was a horrible experience being locked up.”
What Kelby and his family could have used was an advocate. That’s a piece of what Vaya Health’s System of Care (SOC) Expansion and Sustainability Grant now provides. The SOC grant is a partnership with Youth Villages, a national nonprofit providing services and treatment for children’s mental and behavioral health, that expands services and access to care for families and youth with mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders. The grant covers McDowell, Alexander, Ashe, Polk, Alleghany, Wilkes, and Caldwell counties and provides family and youth partners. Family partners are parents or caregivers of youth receiving services who use their lived experience to assist other families, and youth support partners are people who had their own experience going through the child mental health system in their youth and now act as advocates and navigators for youth currently in the mental health system.
Unfortunately for Kelby, his court appointed attorney was not an advocate. During his time in the detention center, Kelby had made every effort to work on himself.
“I thought if I was in there, I could at least try and get my act together,” said Kelby. “Those were my first steps to start climbing the stairs instead of descending them.”
He was originally supposed to be there for one week, but the attorney requested he spend another week and the judge acquiesced. At the following court hearing, the attorney again requested another week and again the judge agreed, despite anything Kelby said. It was a failure of the court system that made him feel completely hopeless and alone.
At the next hearing, the attorney recommended that Kelby be sent to a boot camp, but luckily there was a different judge that day that did not share the attorney’s views. Instead, she acknowledged Kelby’s good behavior during his time there and felt that the sentencing was too severe for the crime. In fact, she asked Kelby what he wanted and needed. It felt like he finally had someone on his side that could actually help him. Kelby requested a new attorney and to go back home. The judge agreed.
“Those last two days there, I felt like I had another chance again,” said Kelby.
When the day came to go home, Kelby expected to leave the detention centers in handcuffs and a police car to make the trip back, but what he saw when he walked outside gave him a whole new feeling of hope: his family.
“That was a turning point because being Hispanic, if you disgrace the family then you’re pretty much outcast,” said Kelby. “That’s what I was expecting. I felt like my family would just throw me away but seeing them come and support me really made me feel like I truly had an opportunity to fix things, not only with my family, but with the school, the public, and the peers around me.”
Watching It All Fall Apart
Instead of being expelled, the superintendent gave Kelby a year suspension from school with the opportunity to take online classes and told him to continue working on himself. Kelby began digging into his studies again but couldn’t resist checking with the other student that had also been in trouble to see what had happened to him. While Kelby sat in a detention center, the other student received community service and an ankle monitor that only allowed him to go between home and school.
“That’s when I realized the system was failing me as a youth, and it was my first racial inequality that I experienced,” said Kelby. “We were both charged with the same thing, but I was the one arrested and he was the one with the ankle monitor. That really hurt. Nonetheless, I strived to be better and to pick up all the good habits I used to have. I started ascending the stairs. It was a steep climb, but I never gave up.”
Kelby spent the year doing his online classes and working alongside his dad. He kept his head down, worked on himself, and did his schoolwork and everything else that was asked of him. When the time came for the suspension to end, Kelby was nothing short of excited. He couldn’t wait to be back in the classroom with his peers, and as so many young people do, he posted on social media. Another student saw the post, and because of the way it was worded, they reported it as a threat. The morning he was supposed to return to the classroom, he was greeted by his parole officer who informed him the principal did not want him to come to school until there was another meeting regarding the post.
“It felt like that whole year that I did all my work was like a Jenga tower that they just pushed off the table and it came crashing down,” said Kelby. “I fell into a deep, deep depression. It just felt like all the hard work I had done, all the things I’d been through, had been for nothing. That’s what hurt the most.”
Kelby ended up being expelled from school, and all the hope that had pushed him through that year fell away. His depression grew, negative thoughts began creeping in, and he no longer felt like life was worth living.
A great therapist who made him feel understood and support from his family helped Kelby pull through a very tough time in his life. He enrolled in a high school program at Isothermal Community College and worked hard to make up for the time that he had already lost. Kelby graduated a year early.
“I was very proud of myself,” said Kelby. “I was able to walk the stage with my diploma, and that was a feeling of rebirth. After all the stuff I had been through, I was now on top of the world. It was a turning point. Once that happened, I completely changed my whole life. I started learning how to be more respectful, I dropped a lot of people that were bad influences on me, and I just began to really set my goals.”
Kelby is currently attending Isothermal Community College and is on track to finish his Associates in December 2021. Afterwards, he will start basic law enforcement with plans to work on the local police force for a few years before getting a four-year degree in criminal justice.
“That journey and that one event really impacted my life,” said Kelby. “If you were to meet me three to four years ago, I would be a completely different person.”
Using a Painful Experience to Help Others
Having gone through this experience, Kelby has gained maturity and responsibility but can also see the flaws and all the negatives that exist out there. He wants to be an example and help other youth along their own journeys so that they feel like they have someone on their side to offer guidance and understanding of their situations. His own struggles with the criminal justice system and his experience with mental and behavioral health issues are the reason he is now a youth advocate on the SOC Governance Board.
“Growing up in the community, we don’t have many opportunities to make choices on our own,” said Kelby. “With this opportunity, I want to be able to advocate for youth and make them feel like they can be heard so we can aid them in all areas of their lives, whether it be education, health, employment, or relationships. It’s all important to me because I want to help and give something back to the community.”
The SOC board is made up of members from the seven counties who help hold the SOC team accountable for the goals and objectives of the program. Because none of the staff members on the SOC team actually live within those counties, they rely on the board members to be the experts on the reality of living in those areas and what’s needed. There’s also a collaboration element as the board members are representatives from across the system of care, including court counselors, behavioral health and school representatives, members of the Department of Social Services, family advocates, caregivers, and youth.
“System of Care is all about having the family and youth voice at the forefront of everything,” said Kelly Wolf, System of Care project director. “It’s important that we hear directly from youth about anything that’s affecting youth. Otherwise, we’re just kind of making it up based on what we see as adults or trying to remember back to what life was like for us.”
With members from all pieces of the system of care, sharing information on trends and what’s happening in that area allows them to see the successes and the gaps that they need to improve. There are currently over 20 board members with plans to continue growing so that multiple stakeholders from each county are represented. One of the areas that Kelly especially wants to grow are youth representatives, like Kelby, who are county members ages 17-24 who have either had their own experience going through the mental health system or who feel strongly about youth and community advocacy. Kelby is one of three currently on the board but has already helped tremendously right from the start.
After just starting on the board, Kelby shared valuable information, including, how youth want more diverse programs such as skill-building and job training instead of only recreational programs; that in order to communicate opportunities to youth, they need to reach them where they’re at on social media; how youth face obstacles of transportation and costs; and that having someone within their age range to talk to can make all the difference in helping them feel comfortable and that they are understood. For as much information as Kelby is sharing with the board and SOC team, he’s also taking away just as much as he continues on his journey of making wise decisions and helping other youth do the same.
“What I’m trying to get out of this is to gain more experience and learn from all of them individually,” said Kelby. “I can pick up traits and characteristics and learn something that can help me as I continue in life – maybe something to help me continue in school, help out more in the community, or just something that can impact my life in a positive way. Here, I feel like I have the opportunity to express myself and have my voice heard. That’s a really good feeling to have.”
If you would like to learn more about the SOC grant or board membership, contact Project Director Kelly Wolf at Kelly.firstname.lastname@example.org.