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March 7, 2020

Rodolfo Salcedo thought he had the remedy to help make his young daughter, Natalia, feel happy again. She was struggling with depression, and the only thing he wanted to do was fix it. “I said to her, ‘Tell me what to do. We can go to the store, and I’ll buy you whatever you want,’” Rodolfo says. “She told me, ‘Daddy, there’s nothing you can do.’” Her words broke his heart.

Months before, 12-year-old Natalia had to give up swimming—her passion since she was three years old—while she recovered from foot surgery. Without swimming, she felt like she’d lost a part of herself, and her walking boot made it hard to do much of anything else to fill the void. Anxious and bored, she decided to get a new, edgy haircut where the majority of her hair was shaved off. She ended up hating the haircut but was stuck with it, along with the awkward walking boot, when she started seventh grade at a large public school after transferring from a charter school.

“I was wearing a boot, walking with crutches, and it was a two-story school,” Natalia says. “I struggled trying to get around the school, and I didn’t know anyone. I felt disconnected and out of place.” Natalia felt even more like an outcast once her classmates found out her parents didn’t allow her to use social media—she was even bullied because of it. “One time a girl took out her phone and started taking pictures of me on Snapchat, then she sent the pictures out to the whole school,” Natalia says. “That was bullying through social media, then it became physical.”

Natalia says a male student once pushed her against a wall so hard she made a dent in it. By the time her teacher noticed, Natalia was defending herself from the attack, so her teacher blamed her for the incident. When Natalia tried to explain, her teacher refused to listen.

“I didn’t know who to trust, because I was getting in trouble for stuff I didn’t do,” Natalia says.

Rodolfo and his wife, Jitendra, didn’t know Natalia was being bullied or having a hard time at school. There were no drastic changes in her behavior at home, and they had no reason to believe she was struggling with anything. But they did notice she seemed quieter. “I thought it was a phase—she was becoming a teenager, so I thought it was normal,” Rodolfo says.

Natalia was already attending Gateway Students, but when her friend stopped going with her, Rodolfo reached out to Pastor Matthew Hernandez and his team to ask them for additional support. One leader, Sarah Reyes, began to greet Natalia at the door and spend time with her throughout the evening’s events. “She would stop doing things just to sit and talk with me,” Natalia says.

Then, the Salcedos received a call from the school counselor, and everything changed. “They did a depression and anxiety test at school and Natalia’s came back with ‘suicidal thoughts,’” Rodolfo says. “Natalia said she was feeling overwhelmed with everything at school. We needed to do something.”

The Salcedos set up appointments for Natalia to meet with a counselor outside of school, but Natalia had a hard time connecting with the counselor during their sessions. They found her another counselor whose advice didn’t seem to be helping either and Natalia sank deeper into a pit. She began to fill her sketchbook with drawings of tear-filled eyes outlined with words like “ugly” and other negative things her classmates were calling her. As things worsened at school, so did Natalia’s response.

“One day at school we had to draw ourselves in the future,” she says. “I was telling the teacher I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future when this girl said to me, ‘You don’t have a future.’ That hurt me so much. When I got home the pain was consuming me, and I was tired of feeling pain on the inside.” Natalia started cutting, making cuts to her arms and wrists whenever the pain on the inside became too much. She wore long-sleeved shirts and baggy sweatshirts to cover up the cuts, so her parents had no idea she was mutilating her body.

The night before Gateway Students Winter Camp 2018, everything came to a head. Rodolfo was packing Natalia’s things for her weekend stay at the event. Still struggling emotionally, Natalia was surprised she even wanted to go but she felt compelled, and Winter Camp sounded like fun. She had also been pleading with her father to let her have a social media account and thought he might be coming around. Rodolfo had been praying about it and was ready to set up an Instagram account for her that night.

“I said, ‘I’m going to let you have an Instagram account, but your account will also be on my phone so I can see what you’re doing,’” he says. “After creating her account, the first picture that came up was ‘suicidal girls.’ I got so sick to my stomach I almost threw up—it was something I had never felt before in my life. I shut down the account.” Seeing what seemed like her last chance at social acceptance slip away, Natalia started screaming and crying and waving her arms in desperation. “That’s when her mom saw the cuts on her arms,” Rodolfo says.

Jitendra pressed Natalia about the cuts, and Natalia kept coming up with stories—they were scratches from the family dog, then they were scratches from a pencil. Finally Natalia admitted she had been cutting and Jitendra lost it. Rodolfo immediately told Natalia she needed to take a break from her school and be homeschooled. Jitendra had been praying for a year about homeschooling Natalia and their 10-year-old son, Daniel, and this devastating news felt like confirmation. They also told Natalia she couldn’t attend Winter Camp, but Natalia begged them to let her go.

“She needed to be on the bus the next morning to go to Winter Camp, but I said, ‘No, I can’t let you go with all this happening,’” Rodolfo says. “After my wife and I talked and prayed about it, I felt peace about letting her go.” The next morning at the Southlake Campus where students were meeting to ride the bus, Rodolfo found Pastor Matthew and filled him in on everything. “I told him, ‘I’m entrusting my daughter to you,’” Rodolfo says.

Natalia had no expectations for her time at Winter Camp but while there, she experienced worship like she never had before. She had been confused about worship and why people raised their hands in church like she raised her hand in class. During camp, she raised her hands in worship for the first time and almost immediately felt God changing her heart and perspective. “I was singing ‘Reckless Love’ where it says God leaves the ninety-nine for you, and I was like, ‘Wow!’” she says. She began to see worship not as a song but as her connection to God. As the students broke out into groups, Natalia was shaken by what happened next.

“Pastor Logan Claypoole looked at me and said, ‘Natalia, one day your pain will be your platform, and you’ll help other people who have gone through the same thing,’” she says. “I was confused about what that meant but I kept repeating it in my mind. That’s when the healing started.”

Rodolfo and Jitendra say Natalia looked and sounded like a different person when they picked her up from Winter Camp—she was playful, joyful, and excited to share her experience. She received additional support from Meredith Tilton, associate pastor of biblical counseling at the Southlake Campus, who referred her to a counselor who was also a former Gateway Students leader. Through counseling and homeschooling, which has allowed her to spend more time with her family and participate in activities she enjoys, Natalia has made great progress. “God has spoken purpose into my life, I have joy, and I’m so thankful,” she says.

As the Salcedos supported Natalia throughout her journey, they too found healing and freedom after struggling with feelings of failure. “The enemy wants to put out a lot of lies that you failed as a dad or as a mom and that’s the pain you have while you’re going through something like this,” Rodolfo says. “I used to feel I could do everything, and nothing could hurt my kids. But that’s not true—I can’t fix everything. I needed to let go.”

At Natalia’s request, Rodolfo now serves with Gateway Students at the Southlake Campus. And Natalia continues to receive encouragement from Students leaders. “Pastor Matthew told me he sees a purpose and future in me and that he didn’t mean those words lightly,” she says.

Natalia, now 14, has gone from believing she had no future to knowing exactly what she wants to do with her life: graduate early and become a nurse in the FBI. She’s also returned to the water and now teaches swimming lessons. She’s living a happy, healthy life and has a message for teens who are struggling.

“Find help from someone you trust and who will listen to you—and pray,” Natalia says. “God doesn’t say we won’t go through hard times, but He’s moving in everyone’s life whether you see it or not. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and you’ll get there.”

The Salcedo family attends the Southlake Campus.

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