Wellness on Wheels aims to tackle teen mental health at Milby HS

Rosie Nguyen Image
Thursday, October 26, 2023
Wellness on Wheels aims to tackle teen mental health
High school can often be one of the hardest times in a teenager's life. One counselor is going beyond conventional therapy to help them.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- High school can often be one of the hardest times in a teenager's life. That's why one counselor wanted to find a way that students could work on their mental health beyond conventional therapy.

Rene Gonzalez spends a lot of time with students at Milby High School on some of the toughest days of their lives. Nearly 95 percent of their student population identifies as Hispanic and Latino.

As a counselor for Communities in Schools of Houston with two decades of experience in social services, he said many of them turn to him during times of crisis.

"I would see the kids in the hallway, crying in the restrooms, locking themselves in the restrooms," said Gonzalez. "I see a lot of their sadness, a lot of their loneliness, a lot of their things that they're dealing with socially and emotionally."

Yulianna Perales, a sophomore, admits she's struggled throughout the past few years, especially during the height of the pandemic.

"I believe COVID had a great impact on everyone. For me, it wasn't only my mental health, but it affected me physically and emotionally. It really set me back to a very dark and lonely place," said Perales.

That's why Gonzalez wanted to create something that could take his students beyond the virtual classroom. Using his love for outdoor cycling, he created Wellness on Wheels (WOW) in August 2020, an after school bike program with weekly rides.

"I'm a cyclist by trade. When I would host other bike rides, people would come up and thank me because it's providing them with another form of therapy. I thought if it's working for adults, why can't it work for kids?" said Gonzalez. "Conventional therapy doesn't work for everyone, so you have to start thinking outside the box."

The group makes stops along their routes to explore new parts of the city, support local businesses, and allow for personal conversations. He said one of the best parts of the club is that it consists of students of all types.

"We have band players, athletes, cheerleaders, cadets, artists, skaters, and gardeners. We have every form of student you can think of in this ride. That's the beautiful thing about it. When we're riding, everyone's talking to one another," said Gonzalez.

Jacqueline Castilleja, a junior, said the club gave her a way to work on her mental health, in a way she didn't expect. She said she often experiences stress and anxiety from the pressure of staying on top of her grades and performing well in class.

"I just feel like this peace come to me when I ride. We would pass through parks and it's really peaceful with the trees and river," said Castilleja. "I've also met and come to know a lot of people. We've talked on a personal level about our problems and issues. I'm grateful for that."

Perales said she found out about the organization through her older sister. Before joining the group, she had never considered the benefits that outdoor bike riding could bring to her mental health.

"This has allowed me to step back from reality and focus on what I want to do. It gives me clarity and gives me a much-needed distraction, even if it's for a little bit," said Perales. "Plus, most of the people I know right now are from WOW."

Over the last three years, Gonzalez shares that the club grew from five students to the peak of 89 participants in 2022. This year, they're seeing around 69 students. Thanks to on-going donors, they've been able to purchase all of their equipment without any cost to the students and their families.

As he looks towards the future, he hopes Wellness on Wheels will continue to flourish for years to come.

"I know the impact is great when I see them overcome a lot of the challenges that they have," said Gonzalez. "I would really like to see the program grow into other schools and clinics and hospitals to see families, elderly, middle age, and kids be prescribed nature therapy for their social and emotional needs."

For more information, visit Wellness on Wheels on Facebook or Instagram.