For Salvador A. Pacach, life these days has been pretty hectic and busy, but in a good way. He is currently working towards a bachelor’s degree at the California State University, Northridge and also working part-time at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as a sexual health counselor. When he is not studying or working, he volunteers with various local organizations that serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning – or LGBTQ – youth, and in October he attended a conference about AIDS in Miami.
For all his cross-country activism and influence in the LGBTQ community, Pacach leads a fairly modest lifestyle, living in an apartment with his partner in Koreatown and taking public transportation to school. Still, life for this 23-year-old activist and student has gotten immeasurably better since he was a homeless teenager, going from shelter to shelter.
Though he tells the story now with a calm and reserved tone, those few years in his midteens were indeed a dark and painful period in his life. After telling his mother that he was gay at the age of fifteen, his mother disowned him and kicked him out of her home. With no father and now estranged from his siblings and relatives, he found his way to a series of homeless shelters. His life quickly spiraled down until one day, he found himself at a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt. He had hit rock bottom, and in that darkest of moments he decided he had had enough and became determined to turn his life around.
“I tried to commit suicide and ended up at a mental hospital; after that, I never thought about suicide again… Then I started making a new family, I met new friends, kids like me,” he said.
Through this new network of family and friends, Pacach got to know Bienestar, a non-profit organization in Hollywood that provides services for the Latino LGBTQ community. Pacach quickly developed a passion for serving this community and eventually moved up from being a client to a volunteer and then to an actual employee of Bienestar. When he decided to go to college, he left Bienestar for a more flexible part-time job at the Children’s Hospital, where he still works today as a counselor for a program that aims to reduce AIDS among youth.
It was not exactly an easy path, but his passion and commitment to serving LGBTQ youth kept pushing him forward.
“I worked at McDonalds for a while, and I’m not embarrassed about that, we all have to start somewhere. But I fortunately became very passionate about helping youth, my passion kept growing and growing, and even now the passion is still growing,” he said.
Pacach may indeed have had a rough start in his young adult life, but now his life and career seem to be falling into place. In 2012 he received the Paul Andrew Starke Warrior Award from the City of West Hollywood for his years of volunteer service, and in 2013 he was selected as a Young Professional Scholar to attend the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in New Orleans. This past October, he was invited to the 16th Annual Community Summit in Miami organized by Viiv, a pharmaceutical company that makes medication for HIV patients. The summit had a youth component for the first time this year, to address the growing number of youth who are infected with HIV.
Pacach said the conferences were a rewarding and eye-opening experience, and he was deeply inspired and moved by the other young participants.
“When you put together a lot of young people, it’s amazing, a lot of ideas emerge,” he said.
Advocating for the rights of youth has been an enduring focus in Pacach’s work, not only because of his own hardships as a teenager but also because he sees a big gap in the services and resources available to that age group. He said that programs serving the youth – defined as individuals between ages 14-24 according to Los Angeles County – are not as prioritized as those serving women or children, for example, and they are often the first to be cut by organizations when funding is short.
Pacach said that young people are incredibly resilient and brave in the face of hardship, and he wants to help support and celebrate them as they go through their struggles. In order to support youths who are in the process of coming out, or telling their friends and family about their sexual orientation, Pacach used to organize informal support groups in local coffee shops. His work and school schedule leaves time for little else these days, but he has a growing list of goals for the future; one day he hopes to create a national young professionals network to prevent HIV, start his own non-profit organization for youth called Proud Phoenixes, and write a semi-autobiographical book about youths overcoming obstacles.
Another issue he would like to focus on is homelessness among LGBTQ youth. According to Lambda Legal, a national organization that advocates for the interests of the LGBTQ community and individuals with HIV, 20-40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and 62% of LGBTQ homeless youth attempt suicide compared to 29% of their homeless non-LGBTQ peers.
Pacach himself eventually reunited with his mother and his family, but his sexual orientation remained an issue for his mother until the end.
“My mother passed away five years ago, and we unfortunately never fully reconciled. We started talking again, but she never fully accepted me. We agreed to not talk about that part of my life,” he said.
While the scars and painful memories may remain, that dark chapter of his life has more or less closed, and Pacach is now busy doing advocacy work while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies at California State University, Northridge. Though he does not have any friends or family members who are deaf or hard of hearing, he said he came to admire the tight-knit deaf community and developed a passion for serving that community. He said he is not entirely sure where his career will take him next, but he would like to become a therapist or other service provider for youth, whether they are deaf, identify as LGBTQ, or have AIDS, and he wants to make sure he is well-prepared for the work.
“Regardless of what you do, whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit organization, you always want to be culture-competent… I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing, but this is what I’m doing for now,” he said.