by Anara Katz
This article originally appeared in the College of the Atlantic Newsroom.
Alejandra Morales Torres ’23 will provide a six-week mental and emotional health course for children staying at a support and refugee center in her hometown of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and will create a permanent reading and wellness space there following a $10,000 Projects for Peace award.
The Senda de Vida Ministry, where Morales will execute her project, serves children and families who have been deported from the US, migrated from points south, or found themselves homeless in Mexico’s border region. It is a population that is exposed to poverty and vulnerable to violence, she said, and her project aims to help “without imposing, acting as charity, infantilizing, or other subtle violences.”
“This project provides an opportunity for me to give back to my hometown and make use of the different mental health tools I’ve had access to and learned about. It envisions education as a tool to build peace,” Morales said. “The children at the Senda de Vida Ministry, as refugees and/or migrants, are regularly exposed to poverty and collective violence, and without proper education in managing emotions and developing positive coping skills, the consequences of these traumatic experiences can be severe and lifelong.”
Emotional Education for Children Exposed to Poverty and Living in Communities Vulnerable to Violence at the Mexico-United States Border will be curated and taught by Morales in collaboration with two psychologists, Imelda Reyes Bosques and Milagros Rodríguez Armedáriz, and social worker Abril Ofelia Bautista Moreno. The trauma-informed curriculum, with one lesson per week, will teach about 120 children, split up into four smaller groups, and will emphasize small group work within each lesson to foster prosocial skills and attend to different needs, interests, and abilities. Senda de Vida Ministry hosts about 400 to 500 children at any given time; Morales’ work will focus on children from ages 9 to 12.
“By the end of the course, children will be able to use different coping methods such as reading, physical activity, or the arts, which can redirect their emotions into positive action and decrease their chances of resorting to negative coping methods like substance abuse or self-harm,” she said.
Morales’ interest in education grew naturally as she was the top kid in her class growing up, she said. In middle school, she started volunteering at a Children’s home in Reynosa, teaching reading and writing. She then began to think about the significance of education, and how society perceives you if you have or don’t have certain knowledge.
“I remember hearing my friends’ moms who were working in human resources say, ‘If there is something that’s misspelled in a CV, I just don’t consider them anymore no matter how skilled they are.’ And, I began thinking about how kids in the children’s home, who don’t have the same access to privileges that I have, are just going to continue facing barriers,” she said. “Knowledge can act as a gate-keeper, and a lot of things can change through education and communicating knowledge. Community education is part of advocacy as well, and trying to become a more equitable community.”
Morales, a graduate of Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong and a Davis United World College Scholar, has been interested and active in community education throughout middle school and high school. At COA, she has taken many education classes, with a focus on writing pedagogy and comprehensive sexual health education. She will be one of the first COA students to graduate with an internationally applicable education endorsement on their human ecology degree.
Morales has taken COA classes in curriculum building, group management, sexual health, adolescent psychology, feminist therapy, art therapy, and psychology. She did an internship as a community sexuality educator at a public health clinic in Lerdo, Durango, Mexico, and completed training for a domestic violence hotline — all experiences she said will help her build and implement the course for this project.
Morales’ senior project, Towards Inclusive Writing Tutoring at COA, is a curriculum for a COA course that trains tutors in basic writing technical skills, pedagogy, and genre analysis, to provide tutors with strategies to work with a diversity of students. This course will also provide students who take the course with an International Tutor Training Program Certification.
Currently, she is also doing an independent study with Celia Morton ’25, shadowing fifth- and eighth-grade sexual health classes in Bar Harbor’s Conners Emerson K-8 school, taking Latin American Literature: Border Stories, and finishing her senior project.
Morales is familiar with the mental and emotional health struggles children can face. Looking back, she can see that she was exhibiting signs of depression from a young age. But, she said, she was never taught the language to interpret or vocalize her feelings, and didn’t get diagnosed or go to therapy until she was 18. These experiences have strongly motivated Morales as she conceived of and designed the project.
She reached out to a psychologist she had worked with, Imelda Reyes Bosquesone, to see if she would work on the project with her. Reyes enthusiastically said yes, and suggested locating their project at the Senda de Vida ministry because she had experience and connections there. Reyes also connected Morales with the two other experts they are working with now.
“I’m excited to see and hear from the people that I’m working with, the two psychologists and the social worker, on what they think would and wouldn’t work. I’ve been learning all about education in this US context, versus them being culturally aware of what could actually work there,” said Morales. “I’m also excited to work with the kids, bringing the theory to action, seeing their reaction to this material, and the response of the parents and community.”
With the mentorship of Reyes and Rodríguez, Morales will design the structure, content, and activities of the course this spring. At the end of June, she will travel to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon to purchase books on mental health that will be used throughout the course and furnish the reading space that will remain in the ministry after the course ends. The six-week course is slated to begin in early July.
“The reading space will have easily accessible bookshelves, comfortable seating, child-size tables and chairs, and a sofa for families to sit and read together,” Morales wrote in the project proposal. “The children at Senda de Vida- who currently lack access to these kinds of resources—will have a dignified, welcoming space that can offer them relaxation and comfort, help them regulate their emotions through storytelling, and generate camaraderie when sharing their reading experience with other children and their families.”
Projects for Peace was founded by Kathryn W. Davis, who celebrated her 100th birthday by supporting 100 projects designed to bring a mindset of peace instead of war, as described in the Middlebury College 2023 Project for Peace cohort. Morales’ project is one of 126 projects selected from 92 different partner institutions.