Benicia teen center dedicated to mental health

Kali Persall,


A black jersey, embroidered with the words “Piano Man,” rests in a frame on the wall of the new Hyland Teen Center in Benicia. Kyle Hyland’s trademark keyboard sits next to a portable stage. On Dec. 22, 2014, the 16-year-old Benicia High School junior took his life, two weeks before his 17th birthday. Kyle will never be able to spend time at the teen center created in his memory, but his presence is felt there.

On Jan. 22, the Hyland Teen Center in Benicia celebrated its grand opening, and welcomed more than 80 preteens and teens. The center is a few blocks from Benicia Middle School and Benicia High School and is open to students between the ages of 13 and 19. The mission of the teen center is to provide educational and emotional support through music, art, counseling and mentoring.

Teens can currently use the space to study, create art, play live instruments, watch movies, play video games or compete on ping pong and pool tables. The next step is to hire a psychologist, create peer-led support groups and host educational workshops for parents. Future grant funding will pay for these services and the separate office portable in which they will be stationed.

Barbara Gervase, Hyland’s mother, said music was a large part of her son’s life. He was a talented keyboard player and guitarist and had been in various bands since he was 13. His family was very close and he had a large, tight-knit group of friends. He fought an ongoing battle with depression, but seemed to be improving. Five days before his death, his therapist suggested tapering off their sessions.

“He surprised all of us,” said Gervase. “We thought he was doing so much better. With some things, you just never know the reason why.”

Coping with the startling loss of their only son, Gervase and husband George Hyland established the Kyle Hyland Foundation for Teen Support, a charitable non-profit organization in Benicia. The motto is, “Helping Youth Live A New Day,” or HYLAND.

According to their mission statement, “There is an unmet need to support teens in crisis in the city of Benicia. The Kyle Hyland Foundation is being established to address that need.”

Gervase said the foundation raised almost $20,000 in nine months, primarily through donations on the YouCaring crowdfunding platform on the website Since they are not required to pay a monthly rent for the space, the money is being used to fund the cost of the building’s utilities and materials like Chromebooks and printers. The teen center is volunteer-staffed and will continue to run through fundraising and donation.

According to demographics produced by the City of Benicia, 25 percent of the estimated population of 27,916 is under 18, consistent with the California average of 23.6 percent, according to the 2014 Census Bureau. The city currently offers summer programs for teens, but there hasn’t been an official center for years.

Babette Snowder, 53, a long-time resident of Benicia and volunteer at the Hyland Teen Center, said the city had a facility when she was a freshman in high school.

“It was dark and I sort of recall a pinball machine,” said Snowder. “I may have gone twice just for something to do. This place [Hyland Teen Center] is different in many ways. It’s more than ‘just something to do,’ it’s a place with heart. When you see the kids smile, you really feel it.”

The Hyland Teen Center offers karaoke and Friday theme nights, but Gervase said the true goal is to create a safe space where teens can escape the pressure of the academic environment. While in school, Hyland had ADHD and Gervase said the basic class accommodations weren’t very effective.

“There’s a big emphasis on academics, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on keeping kids stress free and mentally and emotionally healthy,” she said.

According to Jessica Garcia, Mental Health Coordinator at Benicia High School, the high school currently has three mental health counselors and Benicia Middle School has two.

A 2013-2014 CA Healthy Kids Survey revealed that 22 percent of eleventh graders at BHS seriously considered suicide in the prior 12 months. The national average was 15.8 percent.

According to Garcia, a district-wide comprehensive suicide prevention manual is being drafted and is one of the policy changes that was spurred by Hyland’s parents advocacy last year. The school has also recently implemented a program called Sources of Strength, a youth suicide prevention project that Garcia said focuses on hope, help and strength. Several weeks ago, she participated in the training of sixty-four students as peer leaders, and eleven adults and advisors.

“We want to expand the program yearly and increase suicide prevention awareness by helping get teens to feel more connected,” she said.

As the School Resource Officer at Benicia High School, MarJonne Roberson diffuses conflicts, counsels students and teaches them about the law. He said that the school recently hired psychiatrists who are available to the students at no cost. He agrees that the improvements seem to be working.

Roberson is tasked with handling serious cases known by the code 5150, which are determined by whether a person is a danger to themselves or others, and/or is gravely disabled. He estimated that last year, he transported around 15 to 20 of these students to crisis centers. So far, this year he has only seen two cases. In his two and a half years at Benicia High School, he hasn’t seen many cases resulting in suicide, but admitted that depression seems to be very common.

Garcia said that for teens, boredom can translate to depression and that a lack of motivation and other behaviors of withdrawal are warning signs.

According to Gervase, there were 7 known youth suicide attempts in January and February 2015 alone. Since Hyland’s death, a number of teens reached out to Gervase about their own struggles with depression.

“He had a very short life but he had a very impactful life,” said Gervase. “Because none of this would be here if it wasn’t for him. So something good can come out of something very, very bad.”