Cross-Country coach changes attitudes about mental health

Mateo Cisneros’ tireless journey advocating for a climate of mental health and wellness across Colton


J. Dollins

Mateo Cisneros’ advocacy for mental health has left a mark on the Colton community.

Mateo Cisneros wants you to change your attitude about mental health.

The former Colton High School student—class of 2019—has been changing Colton’s attitudes about this issue. Since 2017, he has been actively involved in developing the Colton High School Wellness Center, Wellness Fair, a TEDx event, and with Assistant Principal Jorge Alvarez, establishing a non-profit organization called OneSimpleQuestion.

Moreover, Mateo is an assistant coach for the Cross-Country and Track teams.

With the 52nd Annual Colton Swarm Invitational happening on September 4, the young civic leader at the heart of one of the year’s biggest events is thinking about the future: both his and the city he loves.


Did you find my office okay?

Mateo’s journey began with Track and Cross-Country. “I was the team manager for Track and Field and Cross-Country,” he shared. “A lot of that was athlete paperwork . . . a lot of it was talking with the kids on a little bit more of a personal level . . . and them sharing that they can’t do this because they have other responsibilities, or ‘no, I can’t do this—I am really tired and just need to go home.’

“And that sort of interested me,” he continued. “I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t ready to go home.”

This recognition fueled Mateo’s curiosity and interest in helping others. Talking with the kids he walked the halls with at school helped him see how distinct each of our experiences are outside the school gates.

His curiosity put him on the radar of Mr. Alvarez, who enlisted Mateo to start a TED Ed Club in 2017.

He joined more out of duty than drive. “All I knew was that he was an Assistant Principal, and I probably shouldn’t say no to him.”

Mateo and Isela Bocanegra on stage before the CHS TEDx event in April 2019. (Courtesy Mateo Cisneros)

The TED Ed Club successfully hosted a small event in which nine students shared personal hardship stories. This led to a bigger opportunity. Alvarez asked Mateo to attend a student leadership conference through the San Bernardino County Office of Education.

At this conference, Mateo partnered with students from Inland Empire schools to research and troubleshoot issues facing kids. His group was assigned mental health.

Little did he know this would be a defining moment.

“Reading statistics of depression, suicide rates, attempted suicide rates was pretty depressing. It was saddening to be reading about kids my age who were facing serious, serious issues.”

Through his research, Mateo discovered the idea of a Wellness Center. He thought it might work. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know where we’d put it, or who would staff it, or exactly how it would work, but this is a whole lot better than having a required class.’”

When he returned from the conference, Mateo figured it might be a few days before administration would find time for him. He was barely in his English class before receiving the call to come to the Principal’s office. It was his first interaction with Principal Joda Murphy, and he didn’t even know where her office was. Nervously, he wandered about searching for it.

When he found her, she greeted him with an all-knowing smirk, “Did you find my office okay?”

He shared the idea of the Wellness Center, and she was excited. He didn’t think they would talk about it again, but Mateo soon learned “how enthusiastic Ms. Murphy is about ideas and creating things.”


Why don’t we just continue this thing?

The gears of education move slowly, except when they don’t. After meeting with Principal Murphy, the gears got cranking.

In 2018, Mateo met Mr. Terry Garcia, his new chemistry teacher. Since Garcia was working on his counseling degree, he decided to supplement the curriculum with life skills lessons about dealing with stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Mateo shared the idea of the Wellness Center. Garcia immediately loved it and hopped on board.

The two worked closely and pitched a real proposal to Murphy. She greenlit the project, and Garcia became the Center’s first Coordinator.

For Mateo, working on the Wellness Center was more than a way to help others. “At that time in my personal life there was a separation in my immediate family and I didn’t handle it well.” His involvement helped him find the answers he needed to cope with his struggles.

The Wellness Center opened in October 2019.

Mateo’s drive to support mental health and wellness in Colton didn’t stop there. He and Alvarez organized a TEDx event in April 2019. The size and scope of this event attracted attention from former CJUSD Superintendent Jerry Almandarez and former Assistant Superintendent Amanda Corridan. They championed the cause.

“At that time, mental health was not a thing is our district,” Mateo said. “Now it’s the whole district.”

Since the establishment of the Wellness Center at CHS and the TEDx event, mental health has become a districtwide focus, with Wellness Centers opening on other high school campuses, and wellness initiatives becoming the centerpieces of supplemental curriculum.

Mateo and Jorge Alvarez, CHS Assistant Principal and mentor, in Aspen as part of the Bezos Family Foundation grant. (Courtesy Mateo Cisneros)

Mateo and Alvarez decided to get even more ambitious.

They applied for the Bezos Scholars grant through the Bezos Family Foundation, founded by Jackie and Mike Bezos. Out of 450,000 applicants internationally, Mateo and Alvarez were among 17 pairs selected.

After a week in Aspen, Colorado at the Aspen Ideas Festival listening to and meeting “renowned thinkers of ideas,” Mateo and Alvarez determined the focus of their Bezos-funded Community Change project: a Wellness Fair.

The first Wellness Fair was held days before COVID-19 shut down the nation’s schools. Over 1600 students districtwide participated in a day featuring keynote speakers and workshops.

The Wellness Fair is now an annual event. It was held virtually in 2020.

Again, they talked about what was next: “Why don’t we just continue this thing?”

Mateo and Alvarez established OneSimpleQuestion, a non-profit dedicated to providing real and simple mental health resources for anyone across the community.

OneSimpleQuestion is deceptively simple: Mateo interviews someone, asking them “one simple question.” The result is a series of videos in which viewers get a wide array of answers to basic mental health problems.

Two series of videos are currently available on their YouTube page, answering questions like “What do you do to lift yourself up when you are feeling down?” and “What do you do to motivate yourself?” The respondents are teachers, administrators, community members, students, and motivational speakers.


Be kind to yourself

Mateo on campus at Cal State University, San Marcos, where he is about to start his second year. (Courtesy Mateo Cisneros)

Mateo graduated from Colton High School in 2019, and spent his first year at California State University, San Marcos online. Now that the world is reopening, he is headed back to school in San Marcos, but that doesn’t mean he is done with Colton.

This year, Mateo is an assistant Cross-Country and Track coach, working beside head coach Frank A. Ibarra. They organized this year’s Swarm event, and plan to continue building the Track and Cross-Country programs.

Mateo’s boundless energy has him balancing coaching, work, and going to school in two communities separated by 75 miles. Challenges like these have never stopped him.

At San Marcos, Mateo is already an officer in their chapter of the Active Minds Club, which is focused on mental health advocacy and education. Most impressively, he is also the elected representative for the students enrolled in the College of Humanities on the student body council. This job entails working on behalf of 10,000 of the school’s 17,000 students.

Mateo’s pursuit of supporting, educating, and representing others has always kept an eye toward the future. That has not changed. After he gets his bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences, he is intent on going into education.

“I want to be in a position to continue helping students in my career,” he said.

That involves teaching U.S. History, and eventually working as an administrator, following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor, Mr. Alvarez.

All this work bringing awareness to mental health issues has brought perspective to his own self-care. Whether it be working on Wellness Centers, TEDx events, Wellness Fairs, or OneSimpleQuestion, Mateo has concluded the most important self-care tip is this: