As a long time clinician at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, Manuel Arredondo began to increasingly get requests to visit with unaccompanied minors who were suffering from the trauma of having left their homes in Central America and Mexico and crossed into the United States without their parents.

“There is a lot of rapport building,” said Arredondo. “This may be the first time someone is attentive to their emotional needs.”

The average age of the children he sees is 15, but he attends minors as young as seven years old. “Many start opening up and express their needs,” said Arredondo of the group sessions and the family intervention that he has been doing.

The referrals were coming so often that he and Karla Murcia, a researcher, created the Alero Project in November 2014, a six-month pilot program designed to provide mental health services at no cost to the unaccompanied minors.

Although it is a solo endeavor and Arredondo is in dire need of volunteers, he doesn’t feel alone. “The Alero Project is a manifestation of a community attitude,” he said adding that there has been a lot of community support with organization such as CARECEN, the Centro Legal de la Raza and a vast network of attorneys.

Although the demand for mental health services is high, direct outreach to the minors and their families is difficult. Still, in the first three months of the pilot 18 minors have become Arredondo’s patients.   They’ve been referred to him through a network of attorneys, community based organizations and the school district. He meets with his patients twice a month for three months.

Arredondo estimates that there are 500 unaccompanied minors in San Francisco and at least 2,000 in the Bay Area.  All of them face an impending immigration court date for which they need a mental health evaluation. With an unprecedented rise last year in the arrival of unaccompanied minors to the United States, the situation has been deemed a humanitarian crisis.

An unaccompanied minor first undergoes a health screening at a detention center where they wait to be transferred to a shelter. Once there, they wait to be placed with a sponsor –often times with a relative. The bad conditions spent at detention centers often add to the trauma the minors have suffered in their journeys across the border.

With no access to health services and a language barrier, the minors are left alone in dealing with the trauma.

Arredondo secured funding for his treatment program from the USF School of Nursing and Health Professionals and the Mission Neighborhood Health Centers, where he sees patients once a week in the open clinic.

He is often the first licensed behavioral health clinician the minors have spoken with and often, he said, the first person they have spoken to about their traumas.

Arredondo plans to evaluate the effectiveness of his six-month pilot project in May.   A measure of its success will be whether his clients are winning their asylum cases.  So far, they have been, he said.

One of his patients who arrived when she was 17 from Honduras has already won her asylum case, said Marie Vincent, an immigration attorney with Pangea Legal Services.

“We refer a lot of our clients to the project,” said Vincent about evaluations that help explain the trauma that children have gone through. Although Vincent was aware of two other mental health service providers in San Francisco, they don’t focus on children.

Arredondo’s clients go through the program for only three months, but “once you are a patient,” said Arredondo “I call them and follow up and reach out to them,” he said of making sure that their mental health needs continue to be met.

Manuel Arredondo is looking for volunteers, specially people who are bilingual in Spanish and English. If you would like to get in touch with him, do so by sending an email to the aleroproject@gmail.com.