The UMD panel at NCFR 2022, November 17th. Left to right: C. Andrew Conway, Amy Lewin, Kevin Roy, Jessica Moore-Solórzano, Martha Yumiseva.

Identity’s Encuentros emotional support groups received increased attention in November 2022, as evaluators from the University of Maryland School of Public Health presented findings from the program’s first two years to a national audience.

Drawing on traditions of neighbors helping neighbors in times of emotional distress, Encuentros was designed by and for the Latino community and offers non-clinical emotional support groups led by trusted and trained members of the community (Community Mental Health Workers) with support from Identity staff. The groups provide a safe space where participants can discuss emotional health challenges and develop shared strategies for managing them.

Last month, Dr. Amy Lewin, an Associate Professor at UMD who has been leading the evaluation of Encuentros, shared evaluation data from the program at two major national research conferences.

Encuentros is clearly meeting an enormous need in the community,” Dr. Lewin told attendees at the annual American Evaluation Association conference in New Orleans on November 10. “Participants uniformly report that it has been transformative and important for them. Self-reported anxiety has decreased significantly, and participants report feeling better able to cope with stress and sadness and to help others in their lives cope more effectively.”

On November 17th, Dr. Lewin also chaired a panel titled ‘Health Equity, Trauma, and Healing Among Central American Immigrant Families’ at the 2022 National Council on Family Relations meeting in Minneapolis. Jessica Moore-Solórzano, a Ph.D. candidate and member of the UMD team evaluating Encuentros, shared data from focus groups with participants who shared how the program helped them manage stress, sadness and anxiety. They also expressed a strong connection to other group members and facilitators, and emphasized the importance of this sense of community and sharing for facilitating healing.

Jessica Moore-Solórzano presents findings from Encuentros at NCFR 2022, November 17th.

These presentations were an important step toward establishing Identity’s non-clinical, community-based emotional support group curriculum as a model to help traumatized communities across the country heal themselves while navigating a mental health crisis of unprecedented scale. Dr. Lewin and her team believe Encuentros has the potential to become “a national model for strengthening mental health in a community.”

Encuentros began in early 2020 as a response to the extremely high levels of emotional distress experienced by Montgomery County, MD’s Latino community and the national shortage of bilingual mental health providers. Since that time, the program has served over 1,200 participants and trained more than 45 community members to co-facilitate the groups.

“Mental health challenges exacerbated by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the need for programs like Encuentros,” says Allison Holmes, a senior research associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is funding UMD’s evaluation of the program. ​“What I hear from participants in this program is that it has a ripple effect—with positive results not only for the individuals, but also for their relationships with family, friends and community members. The ongoing evaluation of Encuentros will tell us more about how programs that engage young people and families through their communities and cultural backgrounds can lead to better outcomes.”

Identity has partnered with UMD since 2016 to support evaluation of our social-emotional and Positive Youth Development programming. The two organizations recently launched Enlace, a joint project linking research and community to advance the well-being of Latino youth and families.

Encuentros is funded by Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services and Latino Health Initiative, the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, Giving Together, Adventist HealthCare and the Inter-American Development Bank. This year, with support from the John G. and Jean R. Gosnell Foundation, the Mead Family Foundation and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, we have expanded the groups to serve high school aged youth and parents of children in Identity’s elementary school programs. We are also grateful to Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. David Trone for recommending Community Project Funding for Encuentros be included in the federal budget for fiscal year 2023.