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New exec director at mental health nonprofit applies her life experience to help others

Kathy Rivera has become the first woman of

Kathy Rivera has become the first woman of color to lead North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, a Roslyn Heights-based nonprofit that provides mental health services for youth with depression and anxiety. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Kathy Rivera became the first woman of color to take the helm of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center when she assumed the executive director role last month at the Roslyn Heights-based nonprofit.

The organization provides mental health services for Nassau County’s children and young adults. Newsday recently spoke with Rivera, 47, of Fresh Meadows, about the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health and how her upbringing as a first-generation Asian American shaped her work.

Q. How did you get interested in the field of social work?

There has been a history of mental health issues in my immediate family. I have … witnessed domestic violence, food insecurity and housing instability. So from a very young age developmentally, I was exposed to that. So it was not surprising that as I got older, in recognizing what my own needs were growing up and experiencing all of this, I knew I wanted to find a profession where I could help communities that struggled with issues that I struggled myself with.

Q. How did your upbringing as a Thai American with immigrant parents shape your understanding of what you do?

In the Asian culture in general, mental health is often frowned upon. … What I experienced going back to my childhood [shaped] what I recognize [in] a lot of our communities that we serve. Parents sometimes don’t seek help because they fear it is a reflection of them as being a bad parent. It can feel embarrassing to ask for help, and so they don’t. . . . So [it’s] realizing that how not getting the right … help at the right time can really cause lifelong damaging changes and fracture a family.

Q. Has your organization seen a rise in cases during the pandemic?

We have gotten more calls for our triage unit from local hospitals and urgent-care centers where children are at risk of an inpatient hospitalization. … We’ve been finding more and more calls coming in and actually even for some younger kids. At one of our sites, we even are treating a 4-year-old [for mental health]. … We’ve definitely been getting calls from parents as well, really worrying about the social impact of the pandemic, the isolation, just the overall mental well-being of their own child and asking for their child to engage in therapy. So we’ve been seeing it from families, too, more so than in the past.

Q. How do people go about getting services from your organization?

Anyone who needs our services can just be a phone call away. … Our payer mix is a combination between self-pay, commercial insurance to Medicaid. And for those who have a struggle where the service may not be covered but yet they need it, we find a way to raise funds and cover those costs.

Q. Anything else you want to add?

One thing that I want to give the pandemic credit for is the exposure of the mental health crisis in our children. Again, it did not cause it, it exposed it, and it enhanced it. And I think that it helps naturalize it — being able to talk about it without the stigma.

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center

  • The nonprofit was founded in 1953 and served 2,590 clients (from birth to age 24) in 2020.
  • Rivera said her organization has seen a roughly 45% increase in intakes from pre-pandemic times to now.
  • The agency serves Nassau County but at times accepts residents in Queens, Brooklyn and Suffolk counties through its maternal depression program, Rivera said.

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