Montijo family

The Montijo family mugs for the camera. From left, they are Skai, Cashdan, Sausha, Chris Junior, Saniya and Chris.

A framed picture in a San Pedro art gallery has Saniya Montijo's signature on it. 

She drew it for a contest in fifth grade. If The Guidance Center hadn't come into her life the year before, she says she would have never participated in that, or much else.

"Guidance Center counseling has been a positive experience," Saniya said. "Before that, I had a lot of anxiety issues. It helped fill in the blank spots.

"In the past, I had been bullied — about my hair, my height. I developed early, but I'm a young girl. Nobody deserves to be treated like that."

Saniya is 12 years old now. She and her brother, Chris, both have been in counseling through the Guidance Center's school outreach program for almost two years.

Saturday evening, Saniya will tell their story at The Guidance Center's annual fundraiser, the Sunset Sip at the Maya Hotel. Her parents, Sausha and Chris Montijo, will be there with the rest of the family to provide support.

Chris Junior, now 8 years old, had issues almost as soon as he walked through the Lomita school's doors. He acted out, running away from school, refusing to do what teachers said.

"They (The Guidance Center) helped me with my temper," he said. "I got better. They helped me with reading."

Sausha said that the Guidance Center counselor for both of her children, Kristin McNeese, was proactive from the beginning.

"She brought Chris, his teacher, all of us, in for a meeting right in the school," Sausha said. "She laid out a plan."

"He was running away from school," father Chris Montijo added. "Now he wants to go to school. That's great."

McNeese set up therapy sessions in the family's home. And she went to meetings at school with Sausha to advocate for the family.

A clinical therapist, McNeese works out of The Guidance Center’s San Pedro clinic. The school outreach program has started there recently; it is in 20 schools in the Long Beach Unified School District, where it began.

The Guidance Center, based in Long Beach, is a nonprofit focusing on children's mental health. They serve about 3,000 youngsters a year at the headquarters at 1301 Pine Ave., a partnership with the Long Beach Unified School District and satellite offices in Compton and San Pedro.

The father said he resisted the idea of counseling at first.

"I always thought fighting was the way to solve things," he said. "I've taught my kids they had to fight for what they get. But what they've done for Chris, for Saniya, for all of us, is great… Now we do things together, as a family. We even have a family game night."

"I learned that I should use my words, not my fists," Saniya added. "But words can hurt more than hands ever can, too. You have to be careful with what you say."

Chris is a by-the-job mechanic (and one of the ghouls in Dark Harbor at the Queen Mary), and Sausha is a beautician working out of the home. They don't have money for therapy, and no insurance. That's where The Guidance Center comes in. Services are free or low-cost, depending on the family circumstances. That's where the Sunset Sip helps.

Saniya said she's still working on her speech for Saturday night, but she has a good start.

"I want to tell them what I've been through in my 12 years of life," she said. "I would prefer they come to hear… I'm more confident to do things like giving speeches now. I would like to do more speeches, maybe around the world."

Saniya's story will be one of several parts of Sunset Sip following the theme "Be the hero of your own story." The evening is from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Pavilion at Hotel Maya. Silent and live auctions, wine tasting and a dinner are on the agenda.

Tickets start at $125. Sponsorships are still available, starting at $500. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to bit.ly/SUNSETSIP2018 or call (562) 485-2551.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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