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How this nonprofit is helping Hispanic families in Gwinnett amid rising teen homicides, overdoses

Ser Familia is helping families navigate these conversations, as drug overdose cases in Gwinnett County climb.

CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — Gwinnett County has seen several young lives taken in homicides or end due to drug overdoses. Police are addressing the community -- and there's another nonprofit working to make the heavily Hispanic county feel comfortable talking about these tough topics.

Law enforcement is hosting Thursday's community meeting as it has directly impacted Gwinnett County's Hispanic community, police said. Gwinnett County Police Department is hoping to debunk false information that has been spreading around social media and by word of mouth.

This meeting comes in response to recent tragic incidents that have occurred in the community, including homicides involving youths and a number of overdoses among teens. 

One of the latest fentanyl overdose deaths is 17-year-old girl Julia Zirangua from Lilburn. Two suspects are in custody, accused of selling her fentanyl disguised as Percocet.

How a nonprofit is stepping in

Nonprofit Ser Familia is working on preventative measures, hoping to change the narrative and help Hispanic families before someone reaches the point of addiction.

Belisa Urbina is the CEO and co-founder of the 23-year-old organization.

"The fact that they were laced with fentanyl only makes it even more tragic. But we had a tragedy to begin with that we have teenagers in large numbers buying pills in the black market, in schools, and in the park, in the places that they live," she said.

Ser Familia provides families with social and mental health services through educational programs, workshops, and retreats that allow them to thrive and enjoy a healthy family environment. Urbina said they've noticed more people have been turning to its services.

Growing Ser Familia as community needs increase

"January 2023 was our busiest month in all the almost 23 years that we have been in existence in terms of referrals coming from community partners, courses, school systems, courts, hospitals, other nonprofits," she said. "It was the month that we have received more referrals through our website in our history."

Urbina says the need for these services is growing and the ages of those in need of that help are changing, too.

"We are seeing much younger kids with suicidal ideation or who have been survivors of suicide," she said. "We have a client that is eight and he survived a suicide attempt at eight years old. That's a baby; that speaks volumes."

Ser Familia has centers in heavily-populated Hispanic counties and a few months ago opened a new center in Clayton County.

"The demand is tremendous," she added. "Last year, we served a little bit over 7,800 people, and that's a lot because some of our services are very intensive."

Although the organization does not have specific services related to substance abuse, they provide services like counseling, parenting classes, couples programs, emergency financial assistance, and domestic violence support.

Urbina says there are not a lot of Spanish-speaking psychiatrists to help recognize and fight drug addictions in Georgia.

"We have about maybe six psychiatrists in our state that speak Spanish. So we have services from one of them. I think that one of the things that Ser Familia is trying to do is probably bring a psychiatrist from another place," she said. "So we can also create capacity because when we open more spaces or new services, it's not only for Ser Familia, it also supports the other agencies that rely on us."

Supporting families before it gets worse

Urbina adds that the family dynamics in the Hispanic community are different and that some parents are not sure how to – or if to – intervene.

"Something that we see is that many of the Latino parents feel so powerless because kids tend to have a lot of advantages over their parents. Many times they're the ones that speak the language. They might be the ones that are documented, and the kids end up being the adults from a very young age," Urbina said.

Her non-profit helps families navigate those conversations – before it’s too late.

According to the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner, from January 2021 through February 2023, 18 teens have died from drug overdoses, including the four so far in 2023.

Eleven of them were Hispanic.

Data shows 17 of the 18 teenagers were killed by ingesting fentanyl, which means that, with the four deaths in the first two months of 2023, Gwinnett County is on pace to outnumber the total number of teen fentanyl deaths in 2021 and 2022 combined.

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