Liam Chavez: Finding Help, Community, and Promise for the Future

Liam Chavez: Finding Help, Community, and Promise for the Future

Quick Take: Liam Chavez overcame physical and mental health challenges in childhood and adolescence by channeling his energies into academic success. Uncertain of a career path after college, he found the Unity Council, where he completed a WIOA-funded program that placed him on a path to employment success and helped him find a vision for his future.

Early Years. Liam was born in Thousand Oaks, California, an affluent community northwest of Los Angeles. “It’s wealthy, pretty conservative, and racially homogenous—mostly white folks,” says Liam, who is half-Cuban and half-white. “My dad left Cuba for Miami when he was seven, and like many immigrant parents, he was hard-charging and had very high expectations for his children.” As a result, Liam was pushed to excel in all aspects of schooling—grades, performing arts, and sports. “I thought of myself as a trophy child,” he says.

“I loved school and learning,” Liam explains, “but I had a tough time fitting in. It was a real struggle.” He did well in his studies, but his situation became increasingly difficult in middle and high school. “I hit puberty and the changes in my body made me so uncomfortable.”

Liam was regularly bullied by classmates for his gender non-conformity. “I wasn’t aware that transgender people existed,” he explains. “That wasn’t a language I had. In my household, ‘gay’ was a slur. So, it was really tricky for me as I was growing up, trying to find myself and pushing back against the more traditional values that many of my peers held.”

Unfortunately, his family wasn’t able to offer much support. “I knew what was happening at school was wrong. I’d come home crying but my parents didn’t know what to do,” says Liam. In retrospect, he believes that his parents did the best they could but didn’t have the knowledge or tools to help him. “I don’t want to throw my parents under the bus—they’ve done a lot of growing. And I think about my father and the cultural trauma he lived through—he never got any support to deal with his issues and that was basically passed on to my sister and me. And it’s tricky because I’ve enjoyed a level of privilege coming from a middle class family who saved so that I could go to college. Even so, it was really awful. I have such difficult feelings about those times—nightmares and strong reactions to certain situations. I didn’t have healthy ways of coping.”

Despite these challenges there were bright spots. “I loved reading—losing myself in a good book. And I joined the swim team and truly appreciated my teammates, who were kind and trusting. That became my home base in a way, and I was elected captain in my senior year.” Music was another safe haven. “I started taking voice and piano at about age 8 and found a lot of solace there.” And even at an early age, Liam understood the value of doing work you care about. “That was always a driving goal and internal motivation to get out of my current situation and find a better path.” received the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship, the most prestigious award the university offers to under-graduates who stand out for their creativity, leadership, service, and commitment to excellence.

Another positive was the encouragement Liam received from several of his teachers. “I’m really grateful to them,” he says. “They were the people who saw and appreciated me for my drive and passion and encouraged me when I didn’t feel that I was capable. They were really concerned about my mental state. ‘You’re better than you think you are,’ they’d say.”

Despite all the challenges, Liam was able to channel the adversity into preparing for the future. And the hard work paid off as Liam was not only admitted to UC Berkeley, one of his top choices, but also received the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship, the most prestigious award the university offers to und

er-graduates who stand out for their creativity, leadership, service, and commitment to excellence.

“I thought, this is my ticket out. I can be myself and hang out with my fellow nerds!”

College Years.

Liam was thrilled to be attending UC Berkeley, but his mental health quickly caused problems for him. “When I arrived at Berkeley it became clear that I had issues,” he recalls. “I was struggling with self-destructive thoughts and urges. Mental health wasn’t a concept I was familiar with.” Initially, he refused to seek help because he had been taught that going to therapy meant that you were weak, but a friend insisted that he get counseling. “It took a year or so for my providers to figure out that I had PTSD, based on the trauma from my childhood. And once I was diagnosed, that opened up new  treatments.”

His initial choice of majors didn’t help. At his parents’ insistence, he chose a major in chemical engineering. “My family insisted that I to do something STEM-related so that I could make a lot of money and be successful and secure. He stuck with the engineering program for a year before finally deciding that it wasn’t going to work. “I’ve got to get out of here and make a switch,” he concluded

Meanwhile, Liam was working hard to improve his mental and physical health. “It was a very intensive time,” he recalls. “Group therapy, individual therapy, self-help. I really don’t know how I did that much work, but it was worth it. I’m grateful that Berkeley has a strong support system for students with disabilities.” Based on his PTSD diagnosis, Liam was able to get accommodations like flexible deadlines and more time to take tests. “It was so strange and exciting,” he says, “to see how much and how quickly my grades improved.”

By this time, Liam had switched his major to history, and was particularly interested in the history of science. “I realized I loved everything about science except actually doing it,” he says. But his parents weren’t pleased. “They wanted me to drop out or take a leave of absence before changing majors. But I was like—no way—I’m finally with people who appreciate me.”

As a sophomore Liam won an award from the UC Berkeley Library for his very first history research project. “My mentor professor for that project became my role model—I saw myself in him. I felt that I was finding my stride.” He eventually completed his degree with a concentration in history of science and Latin America. “I loved the independence of the work and interdisciplinary nature of it. I’ve always been willing to go get what I need, and I had a lot of freedom to do that at Berkeley.”

Liam came out as transgender in the middle of his senior year. “I’d been experimenting with my gender and thinking about it. I was exposed to the queer community through friends and was really interested in all of it.” He began doing research on transgender issues—peoples’ experiences and feelings. “I was like—OK—I feel pretty comfortable with this. But I also wanted to be thoughtful about it and to be sure it wasn’t coming from a place of trauma.” He sought help from the student health center and eventually began hormone therapy.

The Unity Council Makes All the Difference. When he transitioned, Liam’s parents wanted nothing more to do with him and terminated all financial support. “I was scrambling,” he recalls. “And when I graduated, I couldn’t pay for anything and was in this place of panic—I need a job!” He found work as a teacher and tutor but neither worked out, based in part on the lack of accommodations for his severe migraine headaches. And then the pandemic hit, further constraining employment opportunities.

As he considered his options, Liam learned about the Unity Council, a non-profit Social Equity Development Corporation in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland that works to improve residents’ quality of life. He applied to the Unity Council and was enrolled in a WIOA-funded youth training program in a cohort with 10 other young people. “Of course, I had a world-class education at Berkeley,” Liam says, “but because I spent so much energy addressing my mental health, I didn’t have that much time to think about careers or my readiness for the workplace.”

“Liam joined our program back in December 2021,” recalls Kalette Cole, the Unity Council’s Youth Career Services Coordinator. “He brought compassion, insight, and zeal to our trainings, career exploration workshops, and group discussions. He also has the gift of perseverance,” she says, “and is passionate about using his experiences as fuel to generate positive change.”

The Unity Council offered training in resume preparation, interviewing, career exploration, and asking for reasonable accommodations. “After the trainings I felt so much more confident and prepared,” Liam says. “It was a very comprehensive program, and the cash incentive was often the difference between having groceries on the table or not.

“Another thing I really appreciated,” Liam says, “was how Ms. Cole worked with me to consider my strengths and weaknesses. I knew how to sell myself, but we also discussed how I can have problems with authority. So, I discovered that I need to be in a job situation where my input is valued, and the supervisors see the whole person.”

Liam’s life changed dramatically when his Unity Council training cohort heard a presentation on workplace safety, discrimination, and advocacy from the Labor Occupational Health Program at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “I was moved and super impressed by the presentation,” Liam recalls, “since I understood first-hand many of the experiences they described. I was like—they really get it. They’re being totally honest and don’t sugar-coat anything.”

When he mentioned to his job coach how excited he was by the presentation, she replied, “well you know they have job openings!” Liam applied and was hired. “The trainer actually remembered me and advocated for my hiring based on my knowledge and experience,” he recalls. “So, now I’ve been back at Berkeley for five months in the Labor Occupational Health Program. It’s awesome!”

Liam’s unit conducts health and safety training programs, including for young workers. “We’re a like-minded group who are passionate about worker safety,” he says. “All of our training is project-based, and I do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work such as tech support, registration, evaluations, and reports to funders. There’s always this continuing desire to improve the program and outreach, which is so great.” In this spirit, Liam has made recommendations for improved outreach to workers with disabilities and those who are LGBTQIA+, as well as strategies to overcome tech barriers for older clients.

Reflections: Present and Future. “I’m really happy where I am,” Liam reiterates, “and would like to stay at the Labor Occupational Health Program for at least for the next few years.” But he does have some other thoughts percolating about his future. “My colleagues are urging me to get a master’s degree in public health or social work because I’m interested in helping people and advocating for them.” When in college, Liam advocated for people with mental health issues and currently works on a campaign called Bridge HIV, which provides research, outreach, and advice to residents on HIV prevention in the Bay Area.

Things are also looking up on the personal front since Liam has just moved into a new apartment, the first time he’s lived on his own. “It’s a huge accomplishment,” he says. “It’s been one of the things at the top of my checklist.” He has also cultivated other interests, including knitting, and establishing a pet-sitting business. And he’s found a way to continue his love of swimming, having joined an adult team in Oakland where he also serves as a board member.

Thinking about policy and advocacy, Liam is committed to giving people with disabilities the tools they need to succeed in work and life. He would also like to see more people with disabilities and who are LGBTQIA+ in leadership positions. “Having that representation and exposure is so key,” he says. “It’s such an important way to break down barriers.”

He also chafes at the transphobia so apparent in many places. “America could do a lot more for its kids,” he says. “There’s this trendy thing right now to discriminate against young people who are transgender. But they have some of the highest suicide rates and need our support. Historically, social-emotional learning hasn’t been part of American thinking about education, but that’s the kind of cultural shift that I’d like to see. Kids aren’t little dolls that you simply pour information into. We need to teach them how to interact with and value one another.”

Liam concludes with a sense of gratitude. “I’m just so grateful I ended up at Berkeley and the Bay Area in general,” he says. “There are so many resources and I’m proud of the community I have here. It’s so cool to think about all these people who know, accept, and care about me. They see me.

“Things are still hard in certain ways, but mostly I’m feeling really, really, good because I’m doing so many things I’ve always wanted to do. I’m grateful to everyone who has been there and supported me. It’s pretty great.”