It was a somber moment seared in Judy Alvarenga's mind when she heard that four Rancho Cucamonga students died by suicide in a two week period during the fall 2018 school year.
"When I heard the news for the first time I experienced a bunch of different phases of emotions like shock, sadness and confusion," Alvarenga told NBCLA. "You wonder why someone as young as 10-years-old feels like their only solution is to end their own life. As a parent myself, that is the stuff you cannot get out of your mind."
Alvarenga, who is a mother of three and Starbucks store manager in Rancho Cucamonga, remembers the large gathering of high school students in the Starbucks lobby in yellow shirts. Yellow shirts are a symbol of suicide awareness.
"All the local high schools came together to become one and remember the four students who took their life," she says. "It was sadness and shock in our community."
Alvarenga had a rough, traumatic upbringing herself. She was 3-years-old when she fled to the U.S. with her two siblings and mother to escape the civil war in El Salvador.
She reconnected with her father in the states and bounced around different cities in Southern California for most of her childhood. She was 15 when her father was brutally murdered right in front of her.
Get Los Angeles's latest local news on crime, entertainment, weather, schools, COVID, cost of living and more. Here's your go-to source for today's LA news.
"I was their age when my dad passed away and my life spiraled out of control," Alvarenga says. "I did not care about anything."
Alvarenga is grateful for her mother who was her constant support system after her father's death.
"My mom repeatedly told me 'I am here for you' and 'You are important,'" Alvarenga says. "Fast forward to 2018 and we have this happen in our community. I wanted to do the exact same thing my mom did for me, for these kids."
Alvarenga turned her life around when she became a citizen, earned a GED, and got her first job at Starbucks.
She will celebrate her 20 year work anniversary in March.
'We Will Never Move that Mailbox'
Her idea was simple: a mailbox, Post-it notes and pens.
She placed a mailbox on the pick-up counter at her Starbucks location where people could take an affirmation of hope and encouragement. In turn, the person would write an affirmation for someone else to take.
"I wanted to tell whoever needed to hear it that there is a purpose for them and that we all have a purpose in this life," Alvarenga says. "We are all important and I wanted to share it with as many people as I could."
"I'm so proud of you, I just wanted to tell you in case no one has. #YouMatter," Alvarenga wrote on her first handwritten note she placed in the mailbox.
Customers slowly started leaving notes in the mailbox and after a couple days the mailbox was completely full, Alvarenga said.
Nearly two years later, Alvarenga said she is overjoyed with the extent of kindness and hope this has encouraged not only in her community, but across communities.
Alvarenga's kindness mailbox idea was shared with 12,000 Starbucks field managers at the company's largest gathering of employees last year and has now been implemented in Starbucks stores around the country.
"If I do not have paper ready, our customers write notes on the stir sticks, napkins and cup sleeves," she says. "The local high school students write notes on the cup sleeves, so when we hand out drinks to people they are wrapped with a kindness note."
Alvarenga says the mailbox is a staple piece of her Starbucks location that serves more than 8,000 customers on a weekly basis.
Alvarenga was particularly touched by a note that was recently left that read: "In Japan, broken objects are fixed with gold. The flaws are seen as unique pieces of the objects history, which add to its beauty. Consider this when you are feeling broken."
"These are the kind of notes shared every day," she says. "We create the space and allow fate to get in the hands of the people that need to read it the most in that moment."
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among persons aged 10-24 years in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).