Manuel Arredonodo MPH ’15 Counsels Refugee Children

When up to 90,000 unaccompanied children started streaming into the U.S. in the summer of 2014, trying to escape violence, drugs, and gangs in Latin America, Manuel Arredondo MPH ’15 sprang into action.

He decided to offer refugees arriving in the Bay Area free mental health services and trauma counseling, using what he was learning in USF’s public health program.

He called it the Alero Project, after a word meaning trusted friend in some Spanish-speaking countries.

“These kids are at high risk for numerous psychosocial challenges. Many have suffered severe psychological trauma and require psychotherapy,” Arredondo said. “I knew it was a crisis, and during a humanitarian crisis, a public health worker should seek to help the most vulnerable.”

He was a USF student when he developed the idea, and also had a job at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center (MNHC) where he helped homeless immigrants. Despite having 10 years’ experience helping the homeless and mentally ill, and knowing the social safety network better than most, he wasn’t sure where to start.

So he started with his connections from USF. Former teachers and classmates rallied to the cause, offered expertise and training, and even provided a $2,500 grant to get the project started.

Kathleen Raffel, who directs USF’s Master of Science in Behavioral Health program, helped write the mission statement; Alba Diaz, who teaches public health, helped ensure the refugees’ cultural backgrounds are taken into consideration; and Dru Bhattacharya, who directs the Master of Public Health program, helped arrange for Arredondo to receive advanced training at Johns Hopkins University.

Another volunteer was Karla Murcia MPH ’15, one of Manuel’s former classmates at USF. In July, they were married.

Alero helps several dozen refugees from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, and provides them with mental health evaluations, counseling, case management, and psychotherapy. They often use reports from Alero when applying for asylum.

Some in the U.S. strongly opposed the influx of refugees, but others offered caring and compassion. “We provide support to the children — some as young as 7 — and their local guardians to promote a successful and healthy transition to life in the Bay Area,” Arredondo says. “I knew that doing nothing wasn’t an option.”