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Chavez basketball coach uses 'celebrity' to help students overcome coronavirus fears

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Chavez boys basketball coach Alfonso Hernandez talks to team in a game against Shafter in 2017.

He may not be world famous, but Alfonso Hernandez is as close to a rock star as it gets at Cesar Chavez High School.

A guidance counselor at the school since 2012, Hernandez says he “moonlights” as the Titans’ head boys basketball coach, a position he’s held the past four seasons.

During that time, Hernandez’s teams have captured three South Sequoia League titles and twice made a run to the Central Section Division 3 semifinals.

But the friendly, outgoing figure, known across campus simply as “Coach Hernandez,” has also earned a following off the court, walking the halls during passing periods, offering one of his patented “fist bumps” to virtually everyone he sees.

“He’s quite a celebrity at our school,” said Chavez senior Alyssa Rivera, the school’s ASB president. “Obviously a lot of students go to him as their counselor, but everyone knows him as the basketball coach, especially this year with them being league champs. He has a really big name (on campus).

“He’s a good role model. He’s just always spreading positive vibes. Everytime we see him he says ‘hello’ and ‘have a good day.’”

Things have obviously changed in the past week or so with the closing of the school due to coronavirus concerns, but thanks to the power of technology, students have still been able to talk with Hernandez, albeit online.

In an effort to continue his interaction with students, Hernandez hatched an idea to launch a series of YouTube videos geared toward helping students deal with a variety of fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“With this whole coronavirus thing, for us, this is something new,” said Hernandez, a McFarland graduate. “As educators I think we’re used to being home in the summertime. We’ve never had a situation where you get sent home and have to work from home, so for me I thought about, how can I still reach out to our kids? You know, they still need to be serviced.”

The inspiration for going digital began to grow legs after he fielded questions from his daughter, Lucinda, a junior at Chavez.

“She’s got some serious concerns about the SAT, about college admissions for next year, what’s going to happen with that?” Hernandez said. “These were all questions being posed to me as a father, so the natural progression is that if she’s thinking about this, I’m sure there are other students who are thinking about this as well.

“So how can I get this out? And let me tell you, I don’t have any experience with social media. You’re talking to a guy that doesn’t have Facebook, doesn’t have a Twitter account, I don’t have an Instagram account. So what I said was, ‘what can I do to help these kids?’ ”

After seeing a few YouTube posts from other Chavez teachers, Hernandez thought he might give it a try.

“So I said ‘let me dabble with this and see what I can come up with,’ ” Hernandez said. “So last week I put up the first video and got some feedback from some of our students as far as the content and how useful it was. So I’ve been doing my best to pump something out every day. I just finished one up right now and am just waiting for it to (post).

“And again, It’s all about just adding that value to these kids, you know? The work doesn’t stop and they still have goals, so everything I do and everything I believe is about adding value to their life, and I guess this is one way of doing that.”

In addition to providing information, such as deadline date for registering to take the SAT, or notifying students about an upcoming webinar at Bakersfield College, Hernandez wanted to help alleviate some of his students fears surrounding the coronavirus and the changes that have taken place the past week or so.

That led to Hernandez’s first post, titled, “How to calm your COVID-19 anxieties in five minutes.” It has 579 views to date and appears to be picking up steam as more and more students find out.

“For our basketball team, one of the things that we do, is after every practice session we have a meditation session where we sit our players down and meditate,” Hernandez said. “One thing that I’ve found is that sometimes they get worked up. They get too high, they get too low. We want to keep them in the middle. So we’ve found the past few years that the meditation practice recenters our guys and really helps them keep focused.

“They do a better job of controlling their emotional state, so I know that it has helped me on a personal level to deal with whatever anger issues or anxiety. I resort to my meditation to help ground me and keep me on an even keel. So I put out a meditation video on that. I have my son in the video so that the students see how it kind of works out. It’s a 5-minute simple meditation video that they can use on a daily basis to help them deal with the anxiety of COVID-19.”

The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I think it’s important that even since we’re not at school that we still stay updated on what’s going on,” Rivera said. “It’s just nice to stay updated, and getting tips from our teachers and staff to help gets us through this (coronavirus) pandemic.”

Denisse Vega, a senior who is Chavez’s Rallies Commissioner and vice president of the French Club, has also appreciated Hernandez’s efforts: “I think the videos are very beneficial because I think as students we were all kind of lost with what’s been going on. We were confused about everything. So when he came out with the videos, it caught us by surprise. It was very helpful. It sucks in a way that our senior year has kind of ended, but I like the way they’re taking precautions.

“I feel like right now, we’re all overwhelmed with what’s going on. And when he came out with (his video), I was like ‘oh, I can do this at home without having to go out or I can do this.' We all have fear that we might get (the coronavirus), but I feel like the videos he’s putting out are kind of like giving us a sense of hope. That we shouldn’t worry too much, but we also shouldn’t worry too little.”

Chavez’s principal Uriel Robles is happy with Hernandez’s contributions, as well.

“He’s really taken on a different kind of approach to providing support for students and their mental health,” Robles said. “I know for most students it hasn’t been too hard on them, but there are students that are feeling a lot of anxiety. We want to make sure that we have support for them. I know his approach is a little different, but it fits his personality, and a lot of students took really well to it. And a lot of our teachers have said how useful it was to them, and they even shared it with their kids.”

So what’s next?

Hernandez has been working on sharing a research study on the benefits of gratitude.

“It’s all research based on this professor from Riverside that has done work with happiness and how expressing gratitude really helps it out,” Hernandez said. “I think sometimes we look for externals for happiness. If I was taller, if I was more handsome, if I had more money … I’d be happier. But the research shows that only about 10 percent of the happiness we get comes from our externals. About 40 percent — the money shot — is really in your internal state and the things you can control.

“So we control during these times how grateful we are for what we have and for the opportunities that we have here. So there’s a lot of things to be thankful for. It could be a lot worse. So at least myself, I’m trying to get that information out to our kids so that they focus on the positive.”

In addition to trying to help the students through the challenges they face, Hernandez also recognizes that all the changes created by the coronavirus have brought him clarity in his own life.

“Sometimes we take certain things for granted,” Hernandez said. “And I know myself, there’s been times when I took my own family for granted. So this really puts everything in perspective as far as what’s important and what we prioritize in life.”

Hernandez’s YouTube videos can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZk77sDXWcZgPFuy57n3HEA.

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