Centro San Bonifacio shines in promoting health, empowerment, and violence prevention in Chicago

This long-standing community organization located in the northwest of the city offers programs that help Latino and immigrant families in Chicago to care for their mental health, overcome the effects of violence, and achieve comprehensive development.

Health promoters gather to talk about their work in the various programs developed by Centro San Bonifacio in the northwest of Chicago. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

Health promoters gather to talk about their work in the various programs developed by Centro San Bonifacio in the northwest of Chicago. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza) Crédito: Impremedia

Resilience is the ability of individuals to adapt to challenges or adverse situations through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. Putting that concept into practice and overcoming the hardest loss a mother can experience, the death of a child, is the daily battle faced by Erika Barrera, 43.

She tries to smile for the camera of La Raza, but her sadness is visible at first glance. However, she believes that sharing her story can help others move forward.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when death was a palpable threat in Chicago, talking about mental health became a constant, even dominating headlines in the media and on social media.

Mental health is key to individual well-being, but it is also vital for the well-being of families and communities. Mental health issues are, with dramatic frequency, a cause of violence, insecurity, and pain.

Barrera suffered from depression during the pandemic and she was not alone, as it was a common affliction locally, nationally, and internationally due to social distancing, confinement, and fear of the virus, which in Chicago impacted the inhabitants of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, including the Hispanic community, the hardest.

Barrera not only had to deal with COVID-19 but also, in 2021, with the death of her 13-year-old daughter. The girl had depression, lost the battle, and committed suicide.

The girl never showed signs that she was going to end her life. Barrera asked her if she was being bullied at school, if she wanted to change schools, go out to the park. The girl didn’t want to. She was also afraid of catching the coronavirus, Barrera explained, as tears ran down her face remembering her youngest of three children.

“My 13-year-old daughter was a quiet, silent girl. That was the problem, she never gave me a sign. But as the COVID pandemic happened, I think that was it, because of the depression it caused us, because posts said that maybe we wouldn’t get out of this virus. Maybe she felt traumatized,” Barrera said in an interview with La Raza.

After her daughter’s death, Barrera didn’t leave her house, initially facing the mourning stage alone, with depression and without help, but later she was encouraged to take action.

“For about a year I didn’t leave my house, then when I came to Centro San Bonifacio to take the course, I started, as they say, ‘to wake up’ because it’s not easy to overcome the loss of a child. But we have to move forward because our family needs us,” the mother emphasized, who also have 22-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son.

While browsing social media, Barrera saw an advertisement on the Facebook page of Centro San Bonifacio and decided to participate. Barrera was part of the ‘Socioemotional Health and Well-being’ training course (‘Salud y Bienestar Socioemocional’ in Spanish).

“I took the course in October and finished it in December. It was a very good experience because sometimes one has sadness, many feelings, and what they did was help us. In my case, how one can deal with grief, how one can move forward because sometimes you don’t know how to deal with emotions,” Barrera said.

Centro San Bonifacio assists families from the Avondale, Hermosa, and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods in the northwest of Chicago.

Health promoters gather to talk about their work in the various programs developed by Centro San Bonifacio in the northwest of Chicago. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

Seedbed of health promoters

Centro San Bonifacio was founded in 1991 following the closure of the church of the same name. Its main goal is to train and mobilize health promoters within the Hispanic immigrant community of Chicago. It also offers programs for children, youths, and adults.

Charismatic, cheerful, and enthusiastic, Martha Prado, 71, recalls the history of Centro San Bonifacio, as she was a parishioner of that church and one of the people who founded this non-profit organization more than three decades ago.

“I am proud to see how the center has grown, especially with the attention of the health promoters who have shown interest in helping us, in supporting us, and they in pursuing a career, because I see it as a career,” Prado emphasized, who is the coordinator of the health promoters program.

Several health promoters who work in local and national community agencies and clinics have been trained in the program offered by Centro San Bonifacio.

Prado highlighted that they are pioneers in Chicago in this field. “The Erie Health Center and the City Health Department prepared us to be the first group of health promoters, and that’s how we were able to train our community,” she highlighted.

Its leadership in training health promoters has brought Centro San Bonifacio local, national, and international recognition.

The focus of Centro San Bonifacio is to empower the community through the health promoters program, which lasts 16 sessions. At the end of the training, participants receive a certificate of participation that certifies them as promoters. This course for promoters is free, and the minimum age for admission is 18 years old.

Health promoters offer education and referrals to needed services and seek to improve the quality of life and well-being of Hispanic individuals. They work not only in community clinics but also in some hospitals. Marina Patiño, director of health promoters programming at Centro San Bonifacio, said that through the organization, health promoters provide free resources and disseminate information that the community needs. Health promoters have noticed that some people do not seek medical care due to lack of insurance or because they lack financial resources.

The community trusts health promoters because they share the same culture, speak the same language, and explain things in a simple manner, Patiño noted. “Promoters are very essential to the community because we provide the support or sometimes that confidence that people do not have with their doctors or the people who serve them,” she emphasized.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker recognized the health promoters of Centro San Bonifacio for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic in communities of color, including Latino communities. Many of the promoters risked their lives in the midst of the pandemic, going out into the streets to educate people on how to avoid contracting the coronavirus. “Governor Pritzker acknowledged that thanks to the work of health promoters, we had confronted the pandemic and had significantly helped to reduce the rate of coronavirus infections,” said Alejandra Menéndez, executive director of Centro San Bonifacio.

Education and Outreach

“Mental health for us is a very important part because we are an integrated whole. To talk about the well-being of families, we have to talk about an integration of physical health, emotional health, and mental health,” Menéndez said. It’s crucial for the center that, in the area of mental health, there are programs focused on the Hispanic immigrant community and that are accessible to them.

Menéndez said that access to mental health services for immigrant families is very limited, either because they do not have health insurance, because therapy is expensive, or because the waiting list is very long. “We do not provide therapy, we help people acquire emotional health tools with which they can deal with the problems of daily life, with situations of stress and anxiety,” Menéndez highlighted to La Raza.

At Centro San Bonifacio, they also offer education and prevention in emotional health through the ‘Socioemotional Health and Well-being’ training course. Rosalba Moreno participated in that course along with Rosa Macías, Delia Bermúdez, and Erika Barrera, among others.

Moreno said that infidelity and domestic violence from her partner affected her self-esteem, and she takes medication for depression and anxiety. “I’m learning to value myself, so that people don’t underestimate me, not to believe people who tell me I’m worthless, that I’m useless. The course helped me value myself more.”

Macías’ children have noticed a change in their mother. “My children tell me: ‘mom, you have changed a lot.’ Yes, because the classes helped me to be a better mother for you,” the woman responded, who acknowledged having a strong character.

Macías learned about Centro San Bonifacio’s programs through a health fair. “First, I took the class for health promoters and then the ‘Socioemotional Health and Well-being’ course. I like to learn everything, but what motivated me to continue training was to be a better mother for my children.”

“There are many Hispanic women who stay silent about many things happening to them, either because they don’t know where to turn or how they can be helped,” said Bermúdez, who decided to take the course on Moreno’s recommendation. She wanted to learn how to deal with a teenager, “they are very strong changes,” she said.

She was struggling with a bullying issue at the school where her 14-year-old son was the victim. Due to the impact of bullying, the boy thought about suicide. In Bermúdez’s case, her son did show signs. “I found a letter from him, went and talked to the school. What they do [at school] is practically not help, it’s like blaming you for what’s happening, the social worker calls you, as if they blame you, they absolve themselves of the responsibilities that exist in the school.”

Bermúdez said she made a police report about what her child was suffering because, according to her, the school did not take action and neither did the parents of the bully. “After the report, only then did they pay attention, they placed the child with someone who would be by his side to watch over him.”

That incident was overcome; it occurred in the eighth grade, and currently her son attends high school.

Bermúdez said that applying what she learned in the course has helped her a lot. “My son now has more confidence to tell me things, we talk more, there is a greater connection with him.”

Café Fénix, located in the same building as Centro San Bonifacio, has enabled the business empowerment of its founders and offers employment opportunities that divert young people from street violence. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

A community center with the aroma of coffee

In most of Chicago’s cafes, people gather to enjoy a simple American coffee and also to organize meetings, appointments, and remote work.

However, there is a cafe in the northwest of the city, Café Fénix, located at 2959 N. Pulaski Rd., that stands out not only for selling drinks, desserts, or sandwiches but because it operates in the same building as a long-standing community center that develops programs for Hispanic immigrant families.

“We supported them so they could open the business, now they are the Café Fénix cooperative, it’s in the same building as Centro San Bonifacio but is independent. After they were empowered, they were able to open their business, now we help them with the rent for the space, for the place, so they have where to develop their business,” Menéndez explained in an interview with La Raza.

Marina Patiño, Araceli Ocampo, and six others embarked on the business from scratch, and currently, Café Fénix has been operating for five years.

“We started with eight people, they gave us training on how to run a coffee shop, without any academic education level, we had no experience in administration, how to serve customers, handle food, how to use the machines to prepare coffee… We had no idea, but they empowered us, now three people operate the café,” said Patiño.

This business was led from its inception by volunteer women who participated in an entrepreneurship program at Centro San Bonifacio.

Ocampo said that many of their customers did not know that in the same building where Café Fénix operates, the community center also operates. “We started telling them that, apart from being a coffee shop, this is a project of Centro San Bonifacio where many activities are offered.”

Customers come to the café and at the same time ask for information, for example, about workshops on free legal advice or locations of low-cost community clinics, for which health promoters, if they have that information, provide it to those who need it.

Baristas and violence prevention

A federal government grant has made it possible to train baristas at the Café Fénix cooperative.

This barista program is funded by the federal government through a grant for violence prevention and youth work, Menéndez said.

Learning about the barista profession has helped young people work on their emotional part, learn a trade, and keep away from street violence.

“We had kids who were very depressed, who wouldn’t leave their houses at all. They were brought to the barista program and after the course, they got jobs even as managers,” Menéndez highlighted. And added: “other kids didn’t want to continue studying, but after being part of the barista program their perspective changed, and they returned to school.”

Some of the young people, besides being trained as baristas, get involved in programs to see if they have a vocation for community service or talent to be tutors for children. They are called the teachers of the future.

This barista program is for young people aged 15 to 22 years.

Moreover, ‘Juntos Brillamos’ (‘Together We Shine’) is a project that shelters various programs such as the plastic arts club for children and families; bohemia night with a focus on music, poetry, and stories; tutoring club for children and teenagers; reading club; gardening club; ‘Socioemotional Health and Well-being’ course and barista training at Café Fénix, to name a few.

“We have an entire project called ‘Juntos Brillamos’, and indeed we are working on violence prevention. And within this whole project, we have various activities that we carry out to work with the entire family,” Menéndez said.

A ‘Welcoming Center’ at Centro San Bonifacio

Recently, Centro San Bonifacio has been designated by the Illinois Department of Human Services as a Welcoming Center for migrants arriving from the southern border to Chicago.

Aliria Vilera, a case manager at the Welcome Center in this non-profit organization, works along with four health promoters to offer support services to meet the needs of the migrants, most of whom are asylum seekers.

Vilera said Centro San Bonifacio is expanding this service in the face of the new reality in Illinois and the United States, with the mass arrival of these migrants, mostly asylum seekers.

“Opportunities are being given through the Department of Justice and the Department of Human Services for supports related to knowing their rights as migrants, but also having the communication and the right information, to channel what their needs are, to improve their migration status and have a better quality of life in this country,” Vilera explained to La Raza.

Given that the demand has overwhelmed the support capacity regarding accommodation and the possibility of obtaining employment and receiving health services, efforts are being made in an integrated manner among different organizations, including Centro San Bonifacio. According to Vilera, actions to address the most immediate needs focus on ensuring migrants have health support and accommodation in shelters where they can, for the time being, meet their lodging and food needs.

“This situation is really considered an emergency, and what is needed among different organizations is to take actions under plans that allow for a possibility of adaptation, with education, training, and commitment,” Vilera pointed out.

Contact Centro San Bonifacio

Address: 2959 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60641

Phone: 773-453-5327

Email: staffofcsb@gmail.com

Website: www.sanbonifacio.org

The production and publication of this La Raza report have been made possible thanks to the support of the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact program.

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