October 7, 2021

Cindy Agreda (left) and Diana Trejo (right) are part of the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), which provides culturally appropriate community support to youth and families impacted by violence.

This story may be viewed in Spanish.

Mia first met Cindy Agreda, a family care manager for Latino Network’s Community Healing Initiative program, in the aftermath of the worst moments of her life.  

Last January, Mia was barbequing at her home in Northeast Portland. Her oldest son — a muscular, 5’ 9” boxer and football player — went out to the corner store just a stone’s throw from her home.     

“Normally, I would take them,” she shared, referencing the uptick in community violence in her neighborhood lately. This time, he and his girlfriend felt it would be okay. 

But her son never made it to the corner store. He was fatally stabbed before he made it there.

“And it’s like we’re stuck in time. It’s been eight months now. I can see it from my front porch.

I see his vigil,” she shares.

It was in the wake of this crisis that Agreda entered Mia’s life, offering emotional, behavioral health and financial support through Multnomah County-sponsored Community Healing Initiative. The program works to stabilize families in the midst of profound trauma.    

Mia’s son had recently graduated from POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School, where had achieved a 3.8 GPA and had received an academic scholarship to Portland State University. 

He had his share of struggles, too, she said. He recently went through a rehabilitation program. But he thrived. 

“He ended up being the guy who did head checks at night at rehab,” Mia said.

The death of her eldest left Mia reeling. As a single mom, already struggling to make ends meet, her life took a sudden and unimaginable turn. Her younger son, she says, lost much more than a brother. 

“He was the man of the house. He was a mentor to his younger brother. He was a fatherly brother to his younger brother.”

The grief and devastation parents’ experience with the loss of a child cannot be captured or appeased with words, say Agreda and Diana Trejo, a Latino Network Community Healing Initiative parent advocate. But the pair does everything they can to walk alongside parents as they go through gripping pain, and work to ease any burden parents may experience.  

Supporting families affected by violence through connection, aid

Agreda and Trejo are part of the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), which provides culturally appropriate community support to youth and families impacted by violence. It is a community-centered, collaborative partnership between Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ), Latino Network and Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School. The recent surge in community violence has prompted Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners to not only expand the CHI program, but also to launch a new program tailored for young Latino men ages 17 to 25, called CHI Elevate. CHI Elevate works to help high-risk young men gain employment, education, mentoring and more. 

The programs support youth whose lives may become entwined with the criminal legal system. Youth may be referred to the program through Multnomah County’s Juvenile Service Division.

They also support parents like Mia, who are secondary victims of community violence and gun violence. That support may come as a listening ear or mentoring for other children in the home. It can mean help with bills, or even help toward buying a home.

“This mom [Mia] has not had a chance to completely grieve,” said Agreda. “There’s always something: a bill that needs to be paid or a car that breaks down. Her car broke down two weeks ago, so we found ways to help her.”

Mia was first referred to Latino Network by a school counselor at POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School. She connected with Agreda and a CHI mentor named Lincoln Ruiz. The program helped Mia pay for necessities like electricity, internet service and other basic needs. 

“I was trying to cover my bills, and they helped me with my rent because I wasn’t working,” she said. 

But it’s not just about the bills, she stresses. CHI also offered therapy, one-on-one support and mentoring for her youngest son.  

“They [CHI] spend time with my son,” said Mia. “Lincoln is like a big brother. My son reaches out to him because that’s how good he is at connecting with kids. 

”They connect. They have an amazing ability to really connect with kids. I don’t know what I would do without them.” 

The parent handbook — produced in English and Spanish — provides a glossary of common justice terms, tips for court appearances and important contacts for parents.

CHI offers workshops for mental health, substance use disorders, and information on COVID-19 and vaccinations, said Agreda. There are motivational seminars and even workshops to help parents get their driver’s license.

Some parents who join the program only speak Spanish. There may even be some families who are undocumented, said Agreda.  

“So there’s an added layer of, ‘If I get these services, will it affect me later?’, especially when your kid is involved in the justice system,” said Agreda. “They don’t know how to maneuver.” 

But when youth are referred to CHI by the Juvenile Services Division, they meet with Agreda, who simply inquires about needs. 

“I asked what their immediate needs are,” said Agreda. “How are they doing with food, rent, and bills?”

Parents are also encouraged to connect and attend weekly group meetings, led by Trejo, to help them know they’re not alone. 

Youth and families who are going through the juvenile court system for the first time may also meet Trejo at the Juvenile Services Division in Northeast Portland. 

“We get there about an hour early,” said Trejo. “There’s a desk upstairs. Annette, a parent advocate for POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School High School, is often there too, and we provide youth and their parents with a handbook on what to expect for your first time in court.”   

The handbook — produced in English and Spanish — also provides a glossary of common justice terms, tips for court appearances and important contacts for parents.

“When the people are in the court, and they see people who speak the same language and can give them a little support — there’s more trust established,’’ said Trejo. 

The uptick in community violence, combined with so many other crises, has meant upheaval in too many lives. But in the face of so much crisis, the CHI program works to build up community.   

“We have parents who just operate in crisis mode,”said Agreda. 

“But we’re able to provide.”

CHI, Agreda says, has gotten adept at communicating with families to help them understand, assess and even anticipate their needs, whether it’s food, the lack of paid time off or rent. That’s when the program can step in and help. 

Finding ways to move forward with hope

For friends and families, the loss of life in the past 19 months is devastating. But when someone grieving has no hope  — as those in the field say — the team has hope for them.

“They wanted to create a memorial garden,’’ said Mia. “Not just for my son, but all the youth and young adults who lost their lives due to gun and community violence.”

Youth in the CHI program helped break ground for the garden — located behind Latino Network in Southeast Portland — spreading gravel and painting features.   

“They made homemade flower planters and gazebos,” said Mia. “They planted strawberries and lavender. 

“And it’s a safe place to go. It’s hard to find a safe place to even cry. It’s that kind of support. It’s the emotional and mental support, it’s the best thing they give.”  

Months after first meeting Agreda, Mia still receives support from the team, even when she least expects it.

“When I’m down, I can text them. They stop by, they help with groceries if I need it. I don’t even ask for it. 

We’re looking to relocate. They help with job interviews, and they help us with the hotel for interviews, and they didn’t have to.” 

CHI’s support has been priceless at helping her family, Mia said.

“You need to keep going and to be strong and build your life.”