As the youngest of seven, Mario Gonzales was 11 years old when his parents left he and his siblings and went to California for work. Mario recalls that that season was filled with new experiences–both good and bad. He began experimenting with drugs and alcohol yet tried to form relationships and find community with peers at the local teen center. “I would do whatever it took to get to Chelan and go to the teen center. I’d sleep at Don Morse Park to be somewhere else or be with friends. But no one knew I was sleeping at parks alone.”
In the 8th grade, Mario had relocated with his older siblings to Chelan and began attending school there. His parents relocated back to Washington State, but to a different town about 3 hours away from Mario. Despite the distance, Mario’s mother regularly called him to check-in and ask how he was doing, “she would always ask if I was eating,” Mario says with a slight chuckle. But one September phone call, in particular, would change things forever. Mario had just finished a phone call with his mother when his sister, who was staying with his parents at the time, called back frantically, instructing Mario to call his older brother. “My sister told me my mother was sick and had collapsed. I knew something was very wrong, and I cried.”
Mario describes the next few days as a blur. His mother was taken to Seattle and had likely suffered a stroke. “I remember being stuck on the mountain pass as the weather was bad. When we finally made it to Seattle, I was in awe; I had never seen buildings so tall.” Once at the hospital, the doctors sat down with Mario, his father, and his siblings and delivered the grim news: “my mom was brain dead. We had the choice of keeping her on life support or not. I remember almost forcing myself to cry. I was just trying to process the trauma of what had happened.” He sought solace in an empty sky bridge at the hospital; “My mom was an anchor for our family. I had no real relationship with my dad. When I was on that sky bridge, I made a promise to myself that I would change, and stop living the way I had been living.”
Mario continued to struggle with his grief in the months following her death and began to struggle in school. That’s where Sarah Barnes comes in. As the school and community liaison for the school district, Sarah remembers making a home visit to check on Mario and figure out ways to help. Though the visit was brief, that day remains planted in Sarah’s memory, even though it was some years before she became a more prominent figure in Mario’s story. “He dropped off my radar after that initial home visit,” she says.
In the years that followed Mario’s mother’s death, Mario poured himself into academics and sports. “I was a very artistic kid, and so I picked up a camera toward the end of my sophomore year of high school,” says Mario. “It was sort of healing for me,” he adds.
During his junior year of high school, Mario suffered a concussion after a hard hit in football and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “It was a very difficult year; I couldn’t work out and escape some of the hard things I had dealt with by looking to sports or other things.” A friend’s persistence in inviting him to church and youth group started to pay off, however. Mario began to be a regular at youth group and started to find a healthy community through church involvement.
Mario took the initiative and reached out for additional support at school as well, which is when Sarah Barnes, the school liaison who visited him all those years ago, came back into the picture. “I reconnected with Mario during his junior year. He was the oldest in our mentoring program, and I knew his story, remembered the home visit from years ago, and knew he was lacking support.” Part of Sarah’s job was to match a local mentor couple to students, “one of the most emotional moments in my life was the day Mario was matched with his mentor couple.” Sarah describes the meeting with the mentor couple, Mario, and Mario’s father: “I remember the look of gratefulness and relief in his father’s eyes,” says Sarah, “It was powerful, and everyone was crying.”
Mario began to see dividends of his willingness to be mentored during his junior and senior years of high school: “I ended my junior year with a 3.8 GPA. I began to think about the word ‘legacy,’ and the importance of legacy dawned on me. Eventually, I was the first one in my family to graduate high school and go to college.” “It was like watching a flower bloom,” says Sarah, “Every time he reached out, every time he took a step of faith, every time he chose faith over fear, he developed more confidence in himself and God. He went from crisis to blessing so many other people. He shines with his gifts. He kept saying yes to the next thing and was faithful and obedient to God.”
Mario continues, “I think about how curious I am and how I want to learn about everything. There’s so much I still want and need to learn in life. I want to keep saying ‘yes’ to God. Even though I’m not sure where my path will lead, I want to say ‘yes’ to learning as much as I can. That’s why I believe in the mission of Only 7 Seconds; everyone has a story; everyone has something they’ve walked through. That’s why I believe in this project so much. The power of community has helped me heal.”
If you were to ask Mario what the current chapter of his life would be titled, he would say “Growing Pains–Growing in Ways I Never Imagined.” As for Sarah, she would say “Resilient Joy–Finding Hope in a World of Heartbreak.”
Written by: Anna Anderson, Only7Seconds Program Coordinator
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