ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A local student is being recognized for his efforts in the Rochester City School District and community.

18-year-old Isaiah Santiago has received the New York State Commendation Award for his ongoing work addressing violence and mental health needs. While he recently graduated from Rochester’s School of the Arts, his efforts are far from over. 

“The goal is to make the community a better place,” Santiago explained to News 8’s Ally Peters.

Santiago has seen first-hand how violence has plagued the city. He’s lost his uncle and two friends to gun violence, which has inspired him to want to make a difference. 

“When I was 16 I started an organization called, ‘We Got This’ to help combat youth gun violence by youth-to-youth mentorship. Nobody understands us, like we understand us,” Santiago said. 

‘We Got This’ helps youth explore their passions and spend time bettering themselves, instead of being out on the streets. 

“At first they were part of gangs and they were drug-dealing and stuff like that, but by the end of the program, they were no longer part of that because I didn’t give them time to go out and do that,” Santiago explained. 

Santiago has also worked with the mayor’s office in Rochester and the New American Development Center to help provide connect youth to jobs in the area, keeping them busy.

“Part of the answer is getting young people jobs, as we look at our community and the problems in our community, and we just need a way to communicate that to them, that we have jobs for you and there are opportunities out for you,” Santiago said. 

But most notably, Santiago may be known for his efforts in creating a mental health literacy course to better support his classmates and peers, many of whom have experienced violence or know someone who has been a victim. 

“Sometimes we are illiterate when it comes to our mental health and sometimes we don’t understand that everybody has mental health,” Santiago said. “You have a lot of frustrated young people right now in our community, who don’t understand why they’re so upset or don’t understand why they’re so depressed. So having a class in our school district to help them understand this is why, and this is how you deal with it, and this is how you speak about it, it really helps our community overall.”

Though he recently graduated from the School of the Arts, Santiago said he continues his work for the course and hopes to have it in schools next year. 

“This class will be ever-changing. It’s going to continue to change as we deal with new generations,” Santiago said. “Part of the issue in our community is you have old policies dealing with new issues, and it’s not working out, so I definitely don’t want to fall into that category.”

For all Santiago’s work in the community, he received the New York State Senate Commendation Award from Senator Jeremy Cooney (D-56) at his graduation party. Sen. Cooney said Santiago is the youngest person to receive the award from him and the first RCSD student.

“This award recognizes individuals of all ages, who do extraordinary work in the community, specifically for those who have done something notable,” Sen. Cooney said. “Leaders should be recognized no matter their age, and he is someone who is doing extraordinary work at a young age and I think the best is yet to come.” 

The senator, who also went to the School of the Arts, says it’s important our younger generation is a part of the conversation on addressing violence. 

“About a few weeks ago, when we saw a real uptick in violence in our community, there was a community violence prevention and gun violence prevention meeting organized at a local church, and the room was packed,” Sen. Cooney said. “Isaiah came in, he took the microphone, and he said something that was so powerful, which is, ‘I’m looking around this room, and I don’t see any young people, where are all my peers? where are the people who you’re trying to help? They’re not in this room.’”

Sen. Cooney said he saw this moment as an opportunity for the community to do better when it comes to violence prevention and gun violence reduction. 

“We need to recognize our young people as leaders in our community, not in the future, but right now. They are not future leaders, they are leaders, period,” Sen. Cooney said. 

Santiago plans to attend St. John Fischer College where he will study political science. His hope is that his work continues to inspire others his age and younger.  

“I hope that in the work that I’ve done, it encourages other young people to understand that you can do it too. You can make systematic changes, you can make changes as effective and innovative,” he said. 

Santiago was also the recipient of a proclamation from Senator Samra Brouk and a Young Citizen of the Year award from the Monroe County Legislature and Executive Offices.