At 15, Rafael Valenzuela was struggling — he thought he was gay, he was being bullied at school, felt depressed and woke up anxious every day.
"My family found it (his sexual identity) difficult to accept," Rafael said. "I was pretty self-destructive. I only tried to commit suicide, sort of, once, but there was other stuff."
That destructive behavior convinced his mother to take him to a doctor, Rafael said, and the doctor referred him to counseling. His school, Paramount High, was one of The Guidance Center's school outreach partners, and Rafael was introduced to Cynthia Sedillo-Artiaga, one of the center's mobile counselors working out of the Compton Clinic.
Two and a half years later, Rafael is a senior in high school — and more comfortable with himself and his situation. So comfortable, in fact, that he's willing to share his story at this Saturday's Sunset Sip, the annual Guidance Center fundraiser.
"I think this is a good opportunity to share my story," Rafael said. "I want others suffering from depression and anxiety to know that they're not alone, and that they can get help."
Rafael and Sedillo-Artiaga are quick to say that the counseling wasn't an easy path. Sedillo-Artiaga went to Paramount High to meet with teachers and administrators, to the Valenzuela home to talk with Rafael's parents — "The mother was engaged," she said. "The father, not so much" — and met with Rafael where he spent time in the community.
"Working with Rafael was a pleasure," Sedillo-Artiaga said. "He was the ideal client. Once he figured out what we were doing, he gave the coping mechanisms a chance to work. I provided the tools, and he did a lot of work."
Rafael said he understands the work is never really done. He is a gay Latinx from Mexico living in a very difficult time, he said. But with help from what he's learned through the Guidance Center, he's ready to graduate from high school and move forward with his life.
And the speech Saturday to several hundred Guidance Center supporters is another step.
"I think it is a good opportunity to get myself out there socially," Rafael laughed. "And I hope it will help others who are facing mental conflict. I want to tell them to give therapy a chance, and to not categorize people using it."
He looked at Sedillo-Artiaga, his speech in his hand.
"You can do this," she said. "I can do this," he answered.
Sunset Sip 2019 is from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Hotel Maya, 700 Queensway Dr., across the bay from downtown Long Beach. Tickets and sponsorships still are available. Individual tickets are $125 and include a reception, silent and live auctions and dinner.
Tickets are available at www.tgclb.org/. That website also is where to find information about The Guidance Center's services, which focus on mental health and counseling for children up to 18 years of age. For help, call 562-595-1159.