RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. – It was a simple note, written on a Post-it note with a marker: “I’m so proud of you! I just want to tell you in case no one has. #YouMatter.”
When Judy Alvarenga wrote those words, she didn’t know about the kindness movement they would eventually spur. She didn’t know that they would result in a community coming together to help each other feel seen, supported and loved. She didn’t know it would ripple around the country and take root in other communities.
When she wrote those words in the fall of 2018, she only knew that four children had recently died by suicide in a two week period – and that the youngest was only 10 years old. And she knew she had to do something.
After the deaths, the police in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., looked for connections but found none. The local school district quickly organized a crisis response. The county department of behavioral health mobilized resources. What should have been the excitement and optimism of a new school year, locals remember instead with words like shell-shocked, desperation and horrifying.
Alvarenga, the store manager of a Starbucks near the schools and a mother of three, knew she couldn’t sit by and do nothing. It wasn’t so long ago that she herself had felt lost and afraid, traumatized by a violent childhood that included bearing witness to the murder of her father.
“We get to write our own story every single day,” said Alvarenga, now 42, reflecting on her past. “The things that we go through are just temporary and it’s just preparing us for a greater story. I think that our stories, our testimonies, will help others, even though sometimes when you’re in the moment, you don’t believe that.”
After the suicides, Alvarenga started thinking about the little community lending libraries scattered around town. Take a book, leave a book. What if she could do that, but with affirmations? Inspired, Alvarenga put a mailbox inside her store at the end of the counter next to the mobile order pickups. That was when she wrote that first note on a Post-it. Then store partners joined her and also wrote notes of encouragement and left them inside.
Take a note, leave a note. The idea caught on with customers. Alvarenga provided some fancy paper, and when that ran out, people used whatever they could find. Napkins. Pencils. Stir sticks. Post-it notes.
The mailbox was stuffed.
“You are enough.”
“Your mistakes do not define you.”
“Tomorrow needs you.”
“You are loved.”
“We don’t know the struggles that people have, that surround us every single day,” Alvarenga said. “Our entire community was grieving. We wanted to hand out a little bit of hope.”
Alvarenga and her store partners wore yellow shirts, pins and ribbons to mark suicide awareness. She and her district manager, Bryan Johnson, catered a big school district meeting around mental health. They plastered mental health resources all around the store.
The mailbox has been up for more than a year and Alvarenga marvels at the effect of all those words. Students and staff who attended local high schools picked up notes for each other. So did parents trying to break the ice with their kids. Alvarenga gave a note to a woman in tears at her store after a divorce and another to a young man about to start gender reassignment surgery. A recent high school graduate saw the mailbox, confided in Alvarenga that she’d been bullied in middle school and posted a picture of the mailbox on Facebook that went viral, bringing in more customers.
The organizer of a local “kindness rocks” project – where artists decorate rocks with positive messages and hide them around town – saw that Facebook post and asked to use Alvarenga’s store as home base for their painting parties. At a recent meeting, about 115 people showed up.
Alvarenga’s kindness mailbox idea was shared with 12,000 Starbucks field managers at the Leadership Experience in Chicago last September, the company’s largest-ever one-time gathering of employees. Since then, it’s spread throughout Starbucks stores all across the country.
So has energy around an initiative Starbucks announced that same day at the conference – a commitment to help break the sigma around mental health issues through open dialogue and conversations.
Commitment to supporting mental health
An estimated 1 in 5 people experiences some form of mental illness each year, according to the federal Department of Health and Human services. Starbucks recently announced new mental health benefits and resources for partners: a reimagined Employee Assistance Program that will connect them to quality care; training inspired by Mental Health First Aid to help all U.S. and Canada store managers develop the skills to provide initial resources to those experiencing a mental health issue; and free subscriptions to the meditation app Headspace.
The company is partnering with other organizations committed to helping break the stigma around mental health, including the Born This Way Foundation on World Kindness Day, and Team Red White & Blue and Team Rubicon on Veterans Day to reaffirm Starbucks’ commitment to our country’s military personnel, their families and their mental health.
In addition, more than 200,000 partners have participated in online Third Place Development Series training, tackling topics like loneliness, vulnerability, courage, and the power of small acts and conversation to strengthen human connection.
Even an action that may seem small can make a profound difference in the life of someone who is struggling, said Dr. Veronica Kelley, director of the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, which provided resources after the Rancho Cucamonga suicides. “Having one person interact with them to make them feel like they matter is a game changer,” she said.
Alvarenga said that’s the hope behind the mailbox – that each person will feel seen and valued.
The affirmations in the mailbox are ones that Alvarenga herself could have benefited from when she was struggling as a teen, she said.
“If we can share these messages,” she said, “maybe it can reach someone who needs it.”
‘She never let me go’
Alvarenga came to the United States in the late 1970s when she was a child – along with her two siblings and their mother – as political refugees fleeing a civil war in El Salvador which would eventually claim an estimated 75,000 lives.
She reconnected with her father, who was already in the U.S., and the family bounced around neighborhoods in Southern California: Buena Park, La Mirada, Anaheim, Compton, East L.A. and Hollywood. It was a violent and restless life, Alvarenga said. She went to seven different high schools before dropping out.
On Valentine’s Day 1993, when she was 15, her life changed forever. She was at a party, celebrating her half-brother’s first birthday, sitting on a couch with her sister and father. She remembers hearing keys jangling and then seeing a strange man burst through the bedroom door. He shot her father five times.
The next few years felt like being lost in a desert, Alvarenga said. After her father’s murder, she spiraled out of control and didn’t care where she went, or if she ever came back, she remembers.
Alvarenga said her mother rescued her.
“My mom, she never let my hand go, even though I felt like I was already completely swallowed by the quicksand,” Alvarenga said. “That’s how I picture it, like she just held on to me until I was light enough for her to slowly pull me out.”
Eventually, Alvarenga became a citizen, earned a GED, started taking psychology classes at a local community college and got her first job, as a barista at a small coffee shop in L.A. She was hired by Starbucks, got married, settled down and had kids. She was promoted to shift supervisor and then store manager. She’ll hit her 20-year anniversary at Starbucks in March.
Her personal causes are an extension of her heart. She volunteers for organizations that work with teenage mothers and foster kids. She’s taken in a severely abused dog. Her three kids, ages 15, 8 and 4, feed all the neighborhood stray cats.
As a store manager, she believes in giving people second chances and encouraging them, as her mother did for her. When others might see young people who are rough around the edges, she sees an opportunity to mentor kids on persistence and hard work.
“Growing up, life was not easy for me, and I think that what we endure in childhood, in our teenage years, mold us into being who we are,” Alvarenga said. “Sometimes I think about when I struggled, I wanted someone to help me. And I didn’t always get that. When I started working for Starbucks, I was young, and I had so many things that looking back now, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t have hired myself.’… But someone believed for me.
“It gets me emotional that I’m in a position to be available to help someone.”
Be your best when your best is required
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA college basketball coach, preached a pyramid of success on his way to winning 10 national championships. He termed the last building block of his philosophy “Competitive Greatness” – the ability to be at your best when your very best is required.
What’s the very best required of an anxious community reeling from tragedy?
What’s the very best response for a country in which suicides are on the rise, an estimated 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
What’s the very best a worried mother like Alvarenga can do, especially now that her oldest son is a freshman at the same school where one of the children died by suicide last year?
Alvarenga deals with it the best way she knows how. Like she did more than a year ago, she puts on a smile, walks out into her store lobby, and greets customer after customer after customer, inquiring about a day, asking about school, starting a conversation, offering a hug or a sympathetic ear, passing out an encouraging note and trying to slow down a busy world long enough to make a connection that might change the course of someone’s day, maybe even someone’s life.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline