What Laquita Becker-Zarecki learned on the basketball court has served her in ways she has never quite expected.
“I think we’re stronger together — together as team members,” Becker-Zarecki said.
Becker-Zarecki has a unique split job, serving as a behavioral health specialist for Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, and as the youth and family services director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse.
It’s the mentoring aspect she learned as a star player on the Caledonia Warriors girls’ basketball team, and later Viterbo University’s Lady V-Hawks team, where she played for four years.
“I enjoy being able to provide support to kids and their families on a daily basis,” Becker-Zarecki said of her current place on the court of life. “It is amazing to see the progress that can be made in a short period of time with added support. I love that my role provides flexibility to think outside of the box to meet the needs of every kid that I work with. I love getting to be part of program development because then I am able to tailor the program design to the needs that I am seeing.”
Becker-Zarecki is the centerpiece of a unique collaboration involving the Boys & Girls Club of La Crosse, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota, and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare.
In 2015, the groups joined forces to create the position of an onsite behavioral health specialist to serve young people, particularly those in trying circumstances, as well as their families. Becker-Zarecki was chosen.
“I feel motivated to work with youth because they all have so much potential, despite the challenges that they may have encountered,” Becker-Zarecki said. “It’s easier to help an individual get back on track during their adolescence compared to adulthood. I have always been motivated to help people ... I want to help make this community a better place, and I can’t think of a better way than by helping youth reach their full potential.”
So much of what she does, Becker-Zarecki said, is helping youth articulate their goals and apply them in real life, which she did first as a mentor in basketball camps through high school and college, and then working for My Innovative Services, a community-based mentoring program.
“I fell in love with it,” said Becker-Zarecki, a two-time Viterbo University graduate who earned a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a focus on children and adolescents.
“Regardless of the circumstances,” said Teri Wildt of Mayo-Franciscan, who nominated Becker-Zarecki for Rising Stars Under 40, “Laquita’s first task in any new encounter is to build rapport and trust. After that, she looks to learn as much as she can and to be as helpful as possible. Often, she says, her role is to provide parenting education. As she identifies specific needs, she reaches out to others, including the social workers who are now embedded in neighborhoods as part of the La Crosse Family Collaborative. Her goal, ultimately, is to help create a foundation that will lead to a more positive future for those she serves.”
Becker-Zarecki is also a member of the Youth Mentoring Collaborative, which includes representatives of more than a dozen local agencies, united by a goal to promote youth development.
She participates in the Teen Service Provider Network, which brings together organizations and professionals working with youth in any capacity to discuss how to better serve them.
She’s also been working to develop a “Mentoring 101” training program that will provide an overview of mentoring and offer helpful, consistent information for any group that reaches out to young people. She serves on a committee supporting the goals of a community behavioral health grant, working with others to build resiliency among youth by developing training courses for college students who want to become mentors.
Becker-Zarecki takes it all in stride, especially when her jobs become overwhelming. She tries to follow the advice she gives to the youth she supports.
“What I really try to encourage is for them to build connections and relationships with others,” she said.
Her success, perhaps, is that she makes it all look so easy.