Pomona Mountain Project brings mental health outdoors to high schoolers in the Inland Empire

The Draper Center for Community Partnerships at Pomona College (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Hiking through the various terrains of the Inland Empire and developing unique nature-based artistic workshops, Sean Perez PO ’23 and the Pomona Mountain Project (PMP) are dedicated to giving nearby high school students an unorthodox approach to mental health care.

Working with students from Ganesha High School in the city of Pomona, PMP runs a wide range of activities from nature walks to gardening sessions to, most recently, a class on Do-It-Yourself (DIY) journal-making. This most recent development is aimed at teaching students that journaling and imperfection go hand in hand. Perez said he believes experiencing the outdoors can be so beneficial to mental health.

“Going outside and taking hikes or going on walks isn’t something that most people traditionally think of when they think of mental health,” Perez said. “The fact that there’s so many different forms of being outdoors here in Southern California emphasizes the fact there’s so many different ways to work on mental health.”

Since its founding by Shawn Trimble PO ’21 and Nicole Arce PO ’21 in 2019, PMP has faced a number of difficulties navigating the pandemic and the return to campus in 2021. Nevertheless, Perez, who took over as PMP’s head coordinator in spring of 2021, has championed its resurgence and navigated the process of setting up the program with Ganesha.

Perez explained that many of these students are from low-income backgrounds, speak English as a second language, are from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves. Accessible and affordable mental health resources are difficult to come by due to a lack of funding and resources within the school; it is not, however, due to a lack of heart from its teachers. Perez made this blatantly clear when crediting the group’s point person at Ganesha, Danielle Rasshan, in helping them achieve such success.

“[Rasshan] is the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Perez said. “She’s been incredibly supportive to the program … She [has been] incredibly supportive and encouraging … and she’s just been this ray of sunshine with the kids and with us.”

In working with teenagers, college students have a unique perspective standing somewhere between adolescence and full adulthood. Selena López PO ’22 said she believes this sets up PMP for success in the field.

“These high schools often don’t have the resources or capacity to engage with students in such a way that encourages them to go outside and to take hikes and to talk about their mental health,” López said. “If PMP can provide that avenue … and do so with connecting college students who are passionate about this kind of stuff, I think it can really make a strong difference.”

López is the postbaccalaureate fellow of Educational Outreach at the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, an organization at Pomona College that aims to support and engage with local communities. PMP is just one of many programs offered through Draper.

Speaking on Draper’s role within the greater Inland Empire, López explained that the 5Cs can often create a bubble for students, preventing them from seeing socio-economic issues present just outside of Claremont.

“We are given this immense privilege of going to a school like Pomona College without really understanding the context surrounding [it] … where … there aren’t as many resources to support these underserved communities,” López said. “I think that by being involved with the Draper Center, you really get to give back in a meaningful way that is grounding for a lot of our education that we receive here.”

The center currently offers 15 programs whose goals range from supporting mental health in marginalized communities, such as PMP, to identity-based mentorship programs that provide meaningful mentor-mentee relationships, to programs with a focus on teaching students skills and knowledge they might not otherwise have access to in their communities.

Programs are designed by student coordinators themselves and then given resources by Draper to help them achieve what they are looking to accomplish.

While each program brings something unique to the table, Draper not only provides them with individual support, but also helps form a community between them. Assistant Director of the Draper Center Rita Shaw, who manages and works closely with each program’s student coordinator, highlighted the power that comes from building connections between her students.

“There’s a beauty that comes with bringing everybody together,” Shaw said. “When like minds get together … it’s just a high all by itself … and that synergy happens, and we create incredible things.”

Draper additionally supports its volunteers and coordinators through events including a Community Engagement Awards night on May 2, open to the general public.

Unfortunately for PMP, with Perez graduating and no one currently in line to take his place, the program will be put on hiatus starting next fall. Because of the difficulties the club has faced in finding a school to work with and a solid volunteer base, without someone to take on these responsibilities, this may be its last year. Still, Perez felt optimistic about mental health within the Draper Center going forward.

“There’s plenty of other programs in the Draper center that have similar goals [as PMP],” Perez said. “Rooftop Garden is a great one that does a lot of outdoor wellness … and there’s also a bunch of different programs that work with Ganesha as well. I encourage anyone who’s interested in volunteering … to go to the Draper Center and ask about the different programs and how they can get involved with the community.”

Ultimately, volunteering can be difficult work for college students without much formal training. Regardless, Shaw and the Draper Center believe that people like Perez are making a difference in the lives of the people they are looking to help, even if it is not immediately evident.

“One person plants the seed [of mental health], another waters it [and] another reaps from the harvest,” Shaw said. “You may not even remember their name, but someone planted a seed in you a long time ago, and it came back at the appropriate time. And so now, it’s not the first time you heard it, and the second time you heard it, it had more value to it. That’s community programming right there. You do it because you have a heart to do it.”

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