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Meet MariaEsther Hemmen of Mending Matters in San Diego County

Today we’d like to introduce you to MariaEsther Hemmen.

MariaEsther, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My story started with my experiences at a high school near Houston, Texas, years before Mending Matters came into existence. After spending my childhood in various challenging environments in South America, I relocated to Houston to live with a family member and the hope of a better life. As was expected, I enrolled in the nearby high school. From the outside, I likely looked like a well-rounded adolescent. I joined the school soccer team, was attentive in class, and participated in extracurricular activities. But on the inside, I felt lost, misunderstood, and so alone. I sought help from school staff, but couldn’t find anyone interested in helping or even listening. I began missing time in school and was surprised to discover no one asked where I was or when I would be coming back. This apparent lack of concern made my decision not to go back all the easier. I chose not to finish that year of high school and instead returned to South America. Despite my youthful awareness that I would be returning to an unhealthy setting, I consciously chose familiar surroundings over the isolation I encountered at the suburban Texas high school.

Fast-forward to six years later, I returned to the U.S. to attend a university in San Diego. To gain practical insight into my choice of academic study, I signed up for multiple internships, all in the field of social services. Through these opportunities, I discovered that my experiences from high school were not unique. The absence of connection and feelings of confusion, loss, and pain were shared by countless youth with whom I interacted. Through my conversations, I recognized the importance of listening, asking others about their stories, and meeting them in the emotional places where they were. Fast-forward a few additional years, I’d completed both my undergraduate and Master’s programs and was working for an organization in the San Diego community that provided mental health support to youth and their families. In my role, I was commonly frustrated, spending more time “checking all the boxes” and managing services than I did directly working with these program’s intended recipients. During my internship experiences, I found the most significant impact came through my engagement in conversation and asking those with whom I worked – youth and their families, in essence, my “customers” – about their needs. The youth I worked with as part of this organization was struggling academically and emotionally, resulting in sporadic school attendance – it was the same story I had lived not so many years before.

While venting my frustrations with a friend in the same field, I discovered that we shared a vision. We discussed creating an organization committed to interacting with youth and developing programs based on this population’s needs. We also prioritized working with schools to create individualized programs to fit their specific site requests. Inspired by this shared vision, and motivated by our personal experiences, we co-founded Mending Matters. We began to meet with school district administration and school officials to discuss their greatest challenges, and in response, designed programs that provided viable solutions. We spoke to students about their needs and identified discussion topics relevant to address their personal and academic challenges. We incorporated these topics into our programs. We planned to facilitate these programs on school campuses, and were resolved that programs would feature no limitations or special requirements to talk to someone – we would be available to all students.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I would never describe the path as a smooth road, though there have certainly been periods during which the difficulties felt less pronounced. One of the continual struggles, particularly so in the early goings, was funding, and to be more accurate, consistent funding. Just as Mending Matters has recurring expenses, such as employee salaries, insurance, and taxes, we require constant and recurring funding. Funding is directly related to the number of students we can see on each school campus. Our funding is primarily realized through school contracts, but schools have a finite budget and are therefore commonly limited in what they can fund. I am always in search of funding sources that may help ease the burdens on schools while still allowing Mending Matters to offer impactful programs. As a relatively new non-profit, we look for ways to showcase our work with the hope that others will hear about us and the work we do. It’s hard to see a wait-list on school campuses, which means that there are more students needing services than my therapists can see, with the unfortunate reality that students have to wait, sometimes for days, to talk to someone. Additional funding means additional therapists, in turn resulting in reduced or eliminated wait-lists. Another struggle and far more individual was the loss of my business partner. About two years ago, my co-founder chose to step away from Mending Matters. Almost immediately, I struggled with the weight of responsibility and questioned my ability to continue to run this company alone. I constantly second-guessed my decisions and felt pressure to be perfect, knowing that employees and their livelihood depended upon my ability to succeed. Over time, I learned to accept mistakes as part of the process. With each mistake, I remind myself of the “why” behind Mending Matters. This simple concept has given me a tremendous perspective. As a CEO, I have come to learn that well-meaning people are often quick to offer advice or share their opinion, but I’ve found that I am most centered and grounded when I am mindful of why I started Mending Matters.

Please tell us about your organization.
To answer that question, let me give insight into the origin of this company’s name. In our quest to identify a name that accurately reflected the nature of our business and our empathy toward the mental health needs of today’s youth, we relied upon the diverse meanings of “matters.” In the cerebral sense, we are about mending. Said another way, we are in the business of mending. It’s what we do. If relaying this aspect of our non-profit was our sole objective, then we could have just as appropriately named our organization, “The Matters of Mending.” But our organization is more than a dispassionate business. We believe in mending the lives of students negatively impacted by struggles and circumstances. We believe mending makes a difference, and it’s worth our investment of time and energy. In the emotional sense, mending matters to every student with whom we engage. It matters to them, and so it matters to us. This summarizes what we are known for, and our passionate pursuit of staying true to this concept is what I am most proud of.

Mending Matters is an organization that works in partnership with school sites and their students to determine the programs and services that best meet the needs of each school. Mending Matters offers alternative-to-suspension and intervention programs, support groups, workshops, and individual therapy. We also respond to school crisis and traumatic events and provide individual student and staff support as needed.

As the co-founder of this organization, I may be guilty of overestimating the number of things that set us apart from others – I am often in awe of the work done by my team and the impact we have seen in the lives of youth. One area where I do believe we consistently excel is innovation. I have seen the pitfalls experienced by too many companies uninterested in change, and for this reason, have never accepted the notion of “we’ve always done it this way.” We strive as an organization to be innovative, to stress creativity, and to be open to new concepts. Never satisfied with complacency, we continually evolve and develop as an organization to best meet the needs of youth. And we have done so without compromising our vision to provide consistent and relevant mental health services on each campus on which we are present.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Since the start of Mending Matters, I have been lucky to have people along the way who have supported me and this organization’s vision. These individuals, and there are many, have been ambassadors for Mending Matters, sharing with others the work that we do. I have found inspiration and hope in people I never thought I would meet. The list would be too long if I had to name them individually, but they know who they are. They have been instrumental to our growth each year, and I am forever grateful for their efforts, encouragement, and friendship.

And as for my team, every day they go to a school site and construct spaces that students want to be a part of. They listen to every heartbreak, they heal, they inspire, they laugh, they cry, and they encourage. They are the ones who carry the Mending Matters vision every day and I am so proud of them.

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