As Yolanda Medrano and Bobby Robertson walk into the cafeteria at J.D. Smith Middle School, students jump from their seats to greet them with hugs.
“You the man!” Robertson tells sixth-grader Angel Torres as he rushes to hug Robertson.
The Henderson-based duo works with school counselor Annetta Bonner to run after-school program Teens in Action, which runs for an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays and has made a lasting impact on many of the students who participate.
Eighty percent of students at the North Las Vegas school are considered low-income and receive free lunches, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Just 21 percent of students are proficient in math, compared to a 46 percent statewide proficiency rate, according to greatschools.org, a website that tracks school performance. Students also lag in science and reading, with a 32 percent proficiency rate for both. The statewide proficiency rate for science and reading is 57 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
Medrano runs a Henderson-based nonprofit, Healing Hearts, whose volunteers work with youth and provide other services in the Las Veags Valley.
Medrano’s focus is working with the students to address trauma or emotional and mental problems. She and Robertson began volunteering at J.D. Smith this year.
“A lot of them are broken, they don’t feel like they’re being listened to,” Bonner said. “They don’t feel like they’re loved; they don’t feel like anybody cares about them; they feel like they’re all alone. So we want to heal their hearts; we want to make them whole again.”
Medrano began this day’s program by asking students to show more love toward their parents and to demand the same love back.
“When you go home today, don’t let go of mom, don’t let go of dad. Don’t let go until they tell you they love you back,” Medrano said.
For eighth-grader Kailyn Little, the interactions with Medrano this school year have helped her at home.
“(Medrano) actually cares for us,” Little said. “Since I’ve known (Medrano), I’ve actually had a better relationship with my mom, and I’ve never had a good relationship with my mom. She helps, a lot.”
Many students who attend the after-school program say the group of students is like a family.
“Ever since (Medrano) came into that room, I’ve been calm, I’ve been happy. Lately I’ve been just in a good mood all the time,” eighth-grader Nylaya Rojas said. “And before … I would be in a horrible state. I would never get along with my mom; I would never get along with my sister or my dad.”
Program activities have included light-hearted dance parties or a group discussion about students’s anger issues or familial problems. Medrano may pull a student aside to talk to them individually.
“I know when the kids have bad energy,” Medrano said.
For Rojas, “there’s really no words to explain how much (Medrano has) done for us.”
“It’s helped me mentally,” Rojas said. “I’ve thought about killing myself … but I know how to control that, and I just think about my family. Even though sometimes stuff gets hard, I think about (suicide), and I’m like, ‘No. I’m going to do this for myself; I’m going to do this for them.’”
Medrano said the goal of Healing Hearts volunteers is to give students an outlet to channel anger or frustration, rather than them going to detention or being suspended or expelled from school.
Medrano said she hopes to expand the program to include a network of volunteers at multiple schools. For now, she’s focused on the several dozen students at J.D. Smith.
“She helps me a lot with controlling my anger and controlling my depression, my anxiety,” Rojas said. “Ever since she’s come, she’s taught me how to care, how to love and how to appreciate others.”
For more information about Healing Hearts, visit facebook.com/hearthealersmovement.