Finding Voices encourages teens to speak up about tough issues

A digital media marketing consultant by trade, Solana Beach resident Shawn McClondon dedicated his prowess in recent years to helping guide youths and young adults toward career paths.

While the efforts of his nonprofit Youth Campaigns have been geared toward San Diego city communities with impoverished enclaves, the 42-year-old father of two sons is now turning his attention to young people in his own town and its neighboring burghs.

“Most of my experiences have been in low-income, underserved communities,” McClondon said during a recent interview at a Solana Beach coffee shop. “What I realized is there are issues with young people in affluent communities with all the pressures that they’re under to be successful.”

A couple of recent incidents propelled McClondon’s decision to reach out to coastal North County youths, parents and guardians.

In the early morning hours of May 6, police officers shot and killed a 15-year-old boy armed with a BB gun on the Torrey Pines High School campus. Later accounts suggest the boy may have been suicidal when he confronted the officers.

Then, McClondon said, he helped out a mother in his neighborhood who was undergoing a family crisis. She encouraged him to use his expertise in the community.

“She said, ‘I know you work with young people. Do you know if there is something you can do?”

Positive responses from an online outreach effort launched by McClondon led to the formation of Finding Voices with the support of Karena Fassett.

McClondon hopes to create a forum through which teens can interact with each other, share their experiences and support each other.

“When we talk about the issues teens have, everyone looks at the points of view of parents, counselors and professionals,” he said. “We’re trying to give young people their voice to basically help each other, so they understand that what they’re going through is the same thing that other young people are going through. Most of these kids experience depression or some sort of isolation or loneliness.”

A bout with depression led 16-year-old Natalie Salgado to connect with McClondon and get involved with Finding Voices. She served as one of two teens who led the panel discussion in the group’s first formal gathering Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Solana Beach Library.

“I just want to reach out to other people who have been going through the same things as me and see if I can spark an interest in other people who aren’t suffering from anxiety and depression, and let them know they could do something that would help out others who are,” said Natalie, a resident of Solana Beach’s La Colonia de Eden Gardens.

“I want to get the word out there and get rid of the stigma about teen issues,” she said. “People don’t talk about it enough, and it’s just swept under the rug.”

Natalie said she didn’t understand what was happening to her early last year when she began feeling so debilitated she stopped going to her classes at Torrey Pines High.

“Tenth grade was a hard year for me,” she said. “I took a really big class load, (and) an Advanced Placement class, I was copy editor for the school newspaper and I also played rugby for the school.

“All those things were really overwhelming. I just wanted to be a really successful student, but all those things really exhausted me. It came to a point where I just couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”

Thanks to the support of her mother and professional intervention, she returned to health, took online courses to complete her sophomore year and is now tackling her junior year at Coastal Academy High School in Oceanside.

She as well as others among about 20 participants from Solana Beach and nearby cities such as Encinitas and Del Mar detailed their experiences in Saturday’s Finding Voices kick-off workshop.

“We all shared our personal stories and how we overcame our issues, or if we’re still dealing with those issues,” Natalie said. “Overall, we were just supporting each other and explaining what we can do next.

“The main goal after we share a story is to think of solutions. We hit on different ideas, like how we want to organize our groups and have more panel discussions involving parents and teens, and do a campaign on social media to show people what are the signs of depression, especially the early signs.

“The problem at the schools is they have annual suicide and depression (focus) weeks that happen only once a year. Teens are going through those things a lot and there’s not enough discussion about it and how to overcome it.”

Getting teens to share experiences with each other is the first step in what McClondon envisions as becoming a community-wide engagement and ultimately a national campaign.

“One of the things I teach them is to utilize social media to amplify on their experiences, like getting them to use podcasts and video to tell their stories,” he said.

Based on the responses in the initial workshop, he said he will be working with Fassett and other participants on holding another one in the near future and honing a strategy for expanding the effort.

“The biggest thing is we had a bunch of young people who want to be involved in the organization going forward to help promote it,” he said. “There’s been tons of support and people are reaching out to us.”

Community service is a field that has long been appealing to McClondon, having spent his childhood and early teen years raised by his mother in a rough Long Beach neighborhood.

He recalled growing up across the street from the family of future major-league baseball stars Tony and Chris Gwynn. Before his Hall-of-Fame career with the San Diego Padres, Tony Gwynn starred in basketball and baseball at SDSU, where McClondon’s older brother, Rodney Van, went to school and ran track in the 1980s.

On the advice of his mother, who passed away when McClondon was 13, he went to live with his brother in San Diego in City Heights and later near Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley.

Having developed an independent streak as an adolescent artist, McClondon said he was determined to be his own boss once he left college and embarked on a career in web design and other facets of Internet technology. That evolved into a career as a consultant advising firms how they can better promote themselves and their wares through digital media.

One day on a visit to one of the companies, it struck him that there were no people of color, aside from a couple of Asians, among a staff of about 200 employees, and he realized that he was one of the few African Americans in his field.

He formed Youth Campaigns recognizing that many high school students and young adults have a level of sophistication with the digital culture that could open up opportunities for them. Youth Campaigns links companies, schools and organizations with students, often resulting in internships or jobs, he said.

“Companies struggle with how to utilize digital marketing,” he said. “There are young people who have grown up with the tools and can utilize the tools, but for some reason have been left out. So we’re trying to partner these kids with companies. They’ve grown up with (digital), and they’re immersed in it.”

With Youth Campaigns, McClondon focused on neighborhoods with which he became familiar after arriving in San Diego. Living in Solana Beach for the last nine years opened his eyes to some of the challenges youths face in the neighborhoods where his 4-year-old son and younger son turning 3 on Nov. 6 are growing up.

“There is this thing when we talk about issues that kids have where everyone is associating that with low-income communities,” he said. “We need to stop that. All kids have issues that need to be addressed.

For more information, visit findingvoices.org and youthcampaigns.org.

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