Summer 2023
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‘La Roca’

Javier Gutierrez Baltazar provides a solid foundation for the next generation as a school counselor By Sean Patterson

Javier Gutierrez Baltazar’s decision to become a school counselor began with a question – a query that popped into his head one day as he made his way home from work as a juvenile probation officer for Marion County.

“The question wasn’t so much, ‘What am I doing?’” he recalls. “It was more along the lines of, ‘Is there something more I can do for these kids? Something I can do before they get to this point?’”

After four years of working with troubled youth – many of whom were gang members – Gutierrez Baltazar felt the pull of wanting to intervene earlier in kids’ life cycles, before they got to the place where, oftentimes, even family members were ready to give up on them. He wanted a profession where he could build relationships, have honest conversations, and offer a safe space built on trust.

It’s no wonder, then, that he gravitated toward school counseling.

“As a juvenile probation officer, you’re the guy the kids don’t really want to see – the one who is holding them accountable,” says Gutierrez Baltazar, a 2022 graduate of George Fox University’s Master of Arts in School Counseling program. “As a school counselor, the kids want to talk. They want to see you and be heard – to be known. That’s what I find most rewarding. I’m simply there to listen, to talk, to give them that space.”

Gutierrez Baltazar serves as a school counselor at McKay High School in Salem, Oregon, where he’s also an assistant soccer coach. His dual roles allow him access into the lives of high schoolers, many of whom are Latino like himself, as they try to figure out their identity while straddling two cultures.

It’s work that is close to his heart. A native of Mexico who emigrated to Woodburn, Oregon, as a child, he grew up in what he calls an “untraditional” home, the son of an undocumented single mom. He always knew he wanted to work with youth – with kids who grew up in the same type of environment – but until his recent epiphany he was unsure of how the dream would play out.

Gutierrez Baltazar’s journey to his current role began after he earned a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral studies from George Fox’s Adult Degree Program in 2015. It was shortly after graduating that he landed a job as a probation officer, a position he held for four years before enrolling in the school counseling program in 2019.

As a student at George Fox, Gutierrez Baltazar says he learned as much about himself as he did about the practice of counseling others.

Mental health is generally not talked about in my culture...In doing what I do, I not only help the kids of our community, I can help my own family, my own situation. That’s a big turning point, when you culturally become aware of what’s going on and are in a place to speak into people’s lives and make a difference.”

“It was while I was in the program that I truly discovered who I am as a person,” he says. “I became a better listener and began holding myself to a higher standard. It was during one of my classes – a human growth and development class in which I explored my own journey – that I discovered my passion for helping young people through counseling. It made me wonder how my life would have been different had I met a counselor like me when I was young.”

The nature of his work challenges Gutierrez Baltazar to go beyond the surface level – beyond addressing the behavioral issues – to find out what makes a kid tick. That, in turn, forces him to examine his own actions, beliefs and behaviors.

“Mental health is generally not talked about in my culture,” he says. “A disability is usually seen as a physical disability. The idea of mental health is minimized. In doing what I do, I not only help the kids of our community, I can help my own family, my own situation. That’s a big turning point, when you culturally become aware of what’s going on and are in a place to speak into people’s lives and make a difference.”

For two years, Gutierrez Baltazar juggled his job in Salem and his studies. His dedication to both did not go unnoticed by the George Fox counseling department, which named him its “Outstanding School Counseling Graduate” for 2022. In her presentation of the award, professor Lori DeKruyf called her student “La Roca” (the rock) which, “when grounded, provides stability and a solid foundation.”

Gutierrez Baltazar relishes his role as “La Roca” – as someone who is steadfast, strong and reliable. “I honestly believe nine of the 10 kids I encountered as a probation officer were just looking for somewhere to belong – just looking for a place to fit in and be accepted. In my role now, I can instill in them the belief that they have value. That someone cares. I am in a position of high impact, and I love it.”

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