OLA of Eastern Long Island listed in state budget for first time

For the first time since the nonprofit launched more than two decades ago, OLA of Eastern Long Island has been listed in the FY2025 New York State budget and will receive $50,000 in funding to benefit its teen mental health service, Youth Connect.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) played a significant role in securing OLA’s line item in the budget and allocated an additional $50,000 in discretionary funding to further aid in its mission to improve access to mental health services for all youth and families on the East End — bringing the total amount of state financial assistance to $100,000.

“I am deeply honored to stand alongside OLA of Eastern Long Island as they tirelessly strive to create a more just and inclusive community for Latino immigrants on the East End,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement. “By advocating for equitable policies, offering vital legal representation and support, and empowering youth through education and arts programs, OLA is fostering a stronger, more vibrant, and united community that celebrates the rich diversity and contributions of its residents.”

Youth Connect is OLA’s free, bilingual, prevention-focused crisis counseling program for all East End adolescents — Latino and non-Latino — seeking emotional and mental health support. Launched in 2022, the program provides immediate assistance in Spanish or English through a confidential, anonymous helpline that teens can call or text to speak with a trained crisis counselor.

The crisis team is always standing by, ready to respond within at least two minutes to any text or call they receive.

The efforts of the Youth Connect crisis counseling team go beyond the phone as well. They also conduct presentations and interactive workshops at local middle and high schools about mental health awareness in both English and Spanish.

“Youth Connect is honored to provide emotional support to the youth of Eastern Long Island, and we are grateful to Fred Thiele and all the school and community leaders who have endorsed our efforts,” said Anastasia Gochnour, Youth Connect program director. “We look forward to continuing to strengthen our work with students and to expanding our services to provide support to parents and young adults as well.” Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, said that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her team sent out a survey to get a better understanding of the mental health needs of youth in the region. She said they received nearly 400 responses, each detailing their experiences and challenges they faced — and many descriptions were explicit, she said.

Through these community responses, it became clear one of the biggest barriers preventing those from seeking help was the possibility of not having anonymity, Ms. Perez said.

“They definitely wanted to have an anonymous way to receive help, so they didn’t get in trouble, get their parents in trouble or have a stigma follow them,” said Ms. Perez. “If you’re going to a social worker, there’s a big chance that maybe what you’re presenting is a mandated reporter situation — I believe mandated reporters should exist, but I believe there’s got to be a space where kids can go and feel like they can just talk about this thing.”

OLA has worked alongside Mr. Thiele for the past six years to address the lack of bilingual mental health services on the East End. This includes having conversations with other elected officials, school superintendents, local mental health providers and the teenagers themselves.

Ms. Perez previously spoke at a legislative session early in the pandemic about these issues and shed light on the pandemic’s detrimental effects on youth — from economic stressors to social isolation after schools were forced to shut their doors and go virtual.

“If you’re going through a hard time, you have someone to talk to,” Ms. Perez said. “Black, white, Shinnecock, Latino, doesn’t matter — we will never, ever separate it out, but we know what it’s like to be excluded through culture and through language, so we’re making a very strong point of including everyone.”

Any struggling youth living on the East End of Long Island in need of mental or emotional support can call or text Youth Connect at 631-810-9010. The hotline is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.