Advocacy

From Aunt Martha’s clinic on Chicago’s far South East Side, officials and activists sound call for greater action to curb gun violence

CHICAGO, IL — At a press conference originally planned as a celebration of the recently passed Bipartisan Safer Communities ActCongresswoman Robin Kelly and Mayor Lori Lightfoot called Tuesday for Congress to take more aggressive action to bring an end to gun violence.

The event, hosted by Aunt Martha’s Southeast Chicago Community Health Center, followed a holiday weekend that saw more than 70 Chicagoans shot (at least 10 fatally) and was also marred by the mass shooting at a parade in the north suburb of Highland Park.

Please read this Statement from Aunt Martha’s President and CEO
for more information and to access video content from this event.

Yesterday, Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness hosted Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Alderwoman Sue Garza, Reverend Michael Pfleger, and other stakeholders at our Southeast Side Community Health Center for a press conference regarding the bipartisan Safer Communities Act. As the Mayor, Congresswoman, and Alderwoman all shared, the Act’s anticipated impact throughout Illinois and the country in providing comprehensive community supports to address the gun violence we experience in this country is significant for our communities.

Pam Bosely, who lost her son Terrell to gun violence and now supports other victims and families, underscored this point by reminding us all that these preventable tragedies can and do impact us in places where we feel safest – on the grounds of a church and the sidelines of a parade – despite our best personal efforts. Congresswoman Kelly reminded us that it takes a village to keep each other safe and that this legislation begins to take these steps.

The importance of this legislation – the first meaningful federal gun legislation in nearly thirty years – is already known fully by those who care for our patients and participants in the many communities we serve. And after the horrific events that occurred in Highland Park on Monday during what was supposed to be a time of celebration, the importance of this legislation is brought into even sharper focus. As Governor Pritzker said, we should all be angry – angry that mass shootings have continued to occur in our communities unchecked for so long.

And beyond the tragic loss of life, the sorrow, and the personal grief, we know that gun violence traumatizes every member of our community. That trauma – repeated in our streets and replayed on our TVs – then lingers and festers. This is why the mental health, outreach, crisis intervention, and child welfare services that Aunt Martha’s provides in our communities are so vital. One important aspect of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act is that it aims to increase access to mental health services. We continue to rise to the occasion and provide these essential services in the communities that need them the most.

I pray that your loved ones are safe after the horrific events of Monday. Unfortunately, the current climate requires us to all stay vigilant and remain highly aware of our surroundings at all times. Please stay safe out there.

newspaper headline, youth center expands gay and lesbian teen support groups

“This is a place you can come to and express how you feel about your sexuality and you don’t have to worry about someone verbally or physically attacking you.”

We Support Kids. Without Question.

In 1996, Aunt Martha’s became the first South Suburban organization to offer a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (GLBTQ) support, education, and prevention group.

As late as 2003 (and possibly much later!), Aunt Martha’s was still the only agency in the south suburbs with an ongoing support group gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and young adults. Weekly sessions were attended by groups of 25 and more by participants making their way from as far as the north side of Chicago and the rural outskirts of Kankakee.

By then, many of the youth and young adults who turned to us acknowledged Aunt Martha’s as the only support and link to services that prevented them from contracting HIV.

The knock at the door came about 10 p.m. last Thursday. I was expecting my friend, Homero. I knew why he was there.

Homero Tristan is a good friend of Aunt Martha’s. He is a Founding Partner at Tristan & Cervantes, a legal firm that has supported our organization for a number of years. Both Homero and his firm’s Managing Partner, Pedro Cervantes, have become trusted advisors who, along with our in-house counsel have informed our strategic decisions and contended with partners who do not share our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Most recently, they have played a significant role in our continued fight for the rights of DCFS youth in the Village of Midlothian.

When I opened the door, the look on Homero’s face confirmed the worst. After being unable to reach his partner for more than a day, he had gone with the police to do a wellness check at Pedro’s home. They found Pedro there. He was only 43 years old when he died.

Pedro Cervantes was not an Aunt Martha’s employee but, like his partner, he quickly became a member of the Aunt Martha’s family. He shared our calling to stand up for the rights of others. Those of us who knew Pedro respected his passion as much as his talent. Both were on full display in his work on Aunt Martha’s civil rights suit against Midlothian. He defended the rights of the DCFS youth who had been displaced in the midst of a pandemic, then positioned the agency to pivot once again. His efforts laid the groundwork for us to create a step-down program for youth who are ready to leave our Integrated Care Center. Pedro was a fierce advocate. He was a fine lawyer and an even finer gentleman.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Cervantes family, our friend Homero and all of Pedro’s friends and colleagues.

Breakthrough Services: CCBYS

Comprehensive Community Based Youth Services. CCBYS. It was 40 years ago this week!

In early-April 1982, state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis of Olympia Fields introduced SB1500, legislation that would establish a statewide network of local agencies to coordinate and provide 24-hour crisis intervention, counseling, employment and training aid, emergency and short-term foster care, medical and legal assistance, community recreation and delinquency prevention services. The network was expected to serve approximately 20,000 youth, many of whom were expected to be referred by local police departments thanks to another Deangelis-sponsored bill – SB 623, also passed in 1982 – which removed youthful “status offenders” from the court system.

newspaper clipping from april 1982, community-based youth services

SB 1500 was hailed by the National Conference of State Legislators. This was no small change. And it was no surprise this pair of bills had come from Olympia Fields, right next door to Aunt Martha’s home in Park Forest. In reality, both pieces of legislation were strongly (and proudly) influenced by Aunt Martha’s leadership, our board of directors and Gary Leofanti, whose work was by then being recognized on a national level.

When SB 1500 was finally enacted in February of 1985, Aunt Martha’s was awarded an annual contract of $111,193. Our staff were on-call 24/7, covering a 10-township service area south suburban Cook County and eastern Will County, including Bloom, Rich, Bremen, Crete, Washington, Monee, Will, Peotone, Green Garden and Frankfort. Today, our CCBYS team is still covering these areas – and so many more!

We are honored to serve our communities and give youth and families in crisis a safe place to land – one without judgement and one that works to support the whole person through any situation.

In mid-April 2020, State Representative Chris Welch, whose 7th District includes the area where our Hillside office is located, called on big banks to remove the restrictive, if not outright discriminatory policies that were preventing funds from the newly created federal Paycheck Protection Program from reaching small business – especially small businesses of color. Within just a few months, he would introduce legislation demanding corporate diversity and emerge not only as a strident advocate for minority-owned and women-owned and operated businesses, but for the cause of racial and social justice.

Shared Commitments

In many ways, his work during that period paralleled Aunt Martha’s efforts to ensure greater equity and representation, from leadership to the frontline, within organizations whose primary consumers are people and communities of color. It is an effort to which I am wholly committed, and one which we will see through as an organization. State Representative Welch – now Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives – shares that commitment and recognizes both the hardline we have drawn and the example Aunt Martha’s continues to set as a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In fact, I had the privilege of meeting with Speaker Welch twice over the past week, once at his district office in Westchester and then, more briefly, in Springfield, where he stopped to take the photo below.

Shared core values make Aunt Martha's an invaluable partner to leaders like Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, who met with Aunt Martha's CEO Raul Garza in October 2021.
Meeting with Emanuel “Chris” Welch, Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. October 2021.

Acknowledging Aunt Martha’s Impact

Other than his time, there was no ask from me. My intention on both occasions was to share the latest information about our work and impact in the communities we serve together. Yet in both our meetings, Speaker Welch volunteered his appreciation for Aunt Martha’s work, acknowledging in particular:

  • Our leadership in action and public advocacy for greater diversity in healthcare;
  • The important role we continue play in the state’s pandemic response; and,
  • Our innovative approach to integrated primary care and behavioral health services, especially within the child welfare space.

He’ll have an opportunity to see our integrated model in action when he visits our Integrated Care Center later this year. I know he will be impressed with what he sees, especially by the people whose knowledge, experience and personal compassion make it work.

Recognizing our employees

I’ve shared the Speaker’s sentiments with our employees. I share them with you because they are an important reminder of the support their work continues to earn, each and every day. It is important for our employees and our supporters to know that Aunt Martha’s work is recognized and valued by leading public officials like Speaker Welch. It is recognized and valued by external experts, as is reflected by our successful HRSA visit earlier this year and our Joint Commission re-accreditation last month. And it is recognized and valued by the people who matter to us most – Aunt Martha’s patients, clients and participants

Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness announced today the addition of two new members to the organization’s Senior Leadership Team. Katie Lewis, who most recently directed Bike MS fundraising campaigns across three states for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, has been named Vice President of Development. Graciela Guzmán, who most recently directed the Healthy Illinois Campaign to key victories that made Illinois the first state to expand healthcare to low-income seniors regardless of their immigration status and then to older adults 55 and over, will serve as Director of Policy and Advocacy.

“This is a critical time for Aunt Martha’s. Katie and Graciela understand that they are coming into our organization at a time of tremendous opportunity,” said Raul Garza, the agency’s President and CEO.

“Their perspective and experience will be instrumental as we adapt not only to evolving social, political and philanthropic landscapes but, more importantly, as we respond to the evolving needs of the communities we serve.”

Garza also announced the hiring of Jaskiran Kaur as his Executive Administrative Assistant. Before coming to Aunt Martha’s, Jaskiran served as an Administrative Assistant for a 30-physician team at The Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, a role she took on while completing her undergraduate coursework at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Katie Lewis joins Aunt Martha’s as Vice President of Development.
Graciela Guzmán joins Aunt Martha’s as Director of Policy & Advocacy.

Meet Katie Lewis

Katie Lewis is Aunt Martha’s Vice President of Development.

Her professional background includes media relations, as well as logistics in music and events management in both the for-profit and non-profit space. Since earning her Masters in Nonprofit Management from DePaul University, however, she has pursued full-time her passion for nonprofit fundraising and strategy, particularly on behalf of organizations focused on health care access, advocacy and equity.

Katie’s experience includes roles with national organizations such as the USO, the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer/Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, and the National MS Society.

Meet Graciela Guzmán

Graciela Guzmán is Aunt Martha’s Director of Policy and Advocacy.

Before joining Aunt Martha’s, Graciela served as Campaign Director for the Healthy Illinois Campaign, a statewide coalition committed to fighting for healthcare for all people in Illinois regardless of their immigration status. Under her leadership, Healthy Illinois won two key victories making Illinois the first state in the nation to expand healthcare to low-income seniors regardless of their immigration status and then to older adults 55 and over. She has also lead advocacy and policy campaigns on topics ranging from defending the Affordable Care Act from repeal, efforts to increase community enrollment in Medicaid and the Health Insurance Marketplace, and mobilizing community leaders response to COVID through mutual aid.

Graciela’s passion for healthcare, community, and helping others is derived from her family’s early experiences immigrating to the United States from El Salvador to escape the Salvadoran Civil War and her experiences navigating services as a multi-immigration status family on public benefits.

Aunt Martha’s CEO Raul Garza on CBS This Morning

Aunt Martha’s CEO Raul Garza was on CBS This Morning on Friday, December 11, at 7:30 a.m. as part of its nationwide Road to a Vaccine series. He talked about how Aunt Martha’s diversity and understanding can help to ease Black and Latinx communities’ hesitancy and concerns about taking the COVID-19 vaccines.

Olympia Fields, IL:  Officials at Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness learned Tuesday that the organization is among the latest recipients of funding from the Live Healthy Chicago collaborative, which in May announced $5 million donation from The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation to accelerate efforts to assist communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The $50,000 grant will offset a portion of the cost of the negative air pressure system installed in April at Aunt Martha’s Children’s Quarantine Center (CQC), the state’s only facility designed to care specifically for foster children whose living situation is disrupted by the COVID-19.

“We are grateful to have the support of the team at Live Healthy Chicago and appreciate their understanding of the connection between the disproportionate representation of children of color in the DCFS system in Cook County and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among African American and Latino communities,” said Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s President and CEO.

Leveraging Aunt Martha’s healthcare and child welfare expertise

The CQC leverages Aunt Martha’s status as the only organization in Illinois to be both a licensed child welfare provider and Federally Qualified Health Center. It provides a home-like setting where DCFS youth who are exposed to or test positive for COVID-19 can be cared for and supervised around the clock until they can safely return to their prior placement.

The CQC represents Aunt Martha’s response to calls from DCFS for agencies with the capacity to safely care for youth in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility, which since 2011 had served as a supportive and transitional living program for homeless young adults, was redesigned to accommodate and isolate the children placed there.

Hospital-grade protection in a home-like environment

That work included the installation of a hospital-grade negative pressure ventilation system to control the spread of airborne pathogens. The use of negative pressure ensures infectious germs do not spread through the HVAC system from youth rooms to the rest of the facility.

“There are communities willing to turn their backs on, if not outright discriminate against these them; but it’s in Aunt Martha’s DNA to stand up, to make the necessary investments, to innovate and, when necessary, to fight for these kids,” said Garza.

“Our expertise is in blending – integrating – the best practices of child welfare with the best practices of community health care. That’s the work we do at the CQC, and we’re proud to call Live Healthy Chicago our partner.”

About Aunt Martha’s

Aunt Martha’s serves over 105,000 children and adults each year with more than 35 sites, including 23 community health centers spread across nine counties. The agency’s integrated health home model offers value-based, coordinated services, delivering whole person wellness through the integration of primary and behavioral health care and linkages to additional support services that address social determinants of health. Aunt Martha’s has been continuously accredited by The Joint Commission since 1997.

About Live Healthy Chicago

Live Healthy Chicago is a community-based collaborative comprised of Forty Acres Fresh Market, The MAAFA Redemption Project, My Block My Hood My City, Rush University Medical Center, and West Side United. Its mission is to address the immediate wellness of seniors and high-risk populations in target Chicago communities experiencing the highest COVID-19 disparities and food insecurities. Its members are committed to dismantling the systemic racial and health inequities prevalent in target communities by implementing, funding and sustaining immediate, long term and collective tactics.

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Media Contact

Rick Meza
Meza Law
(708) 321-4693

Olympia Fields, IL:  Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness announced today that the UIC John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic has joined the organization’s continued effort to operate the state’s first and only children’s quarantine center for Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) youth in care affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UIC John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic will serve as co-counsel in a federal lawsuit filed by Aunt Martha’s on May 12 asserting that the Village of Midlothian has engaged in discriminatory actions in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Emergency order prevents shuttering of quarantine center for DCFS kids

On May 27, the US District Court granted the organization’s request for an Emergency Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) prohibiting the Village from shutting down the Children’s Quarantine Center (CQC). Earlier this week it was extended for 60 days.

“Aunt Martha’s has always stood up for the most vulnerable members of the communities we serve, especially DCFS youth in care, most of whom are African American and Latino,” said Raul Garza, the agency’s President and CEO. “We believe there are important civil rights issues involved in this case, and we’re proud to have the Clinic’s team on our side in this effort.”

The Legal Team

As co-counsel, the Fair Housing Legal Clinic will offer its extensive fair housing related background and expertise in eliminating discriminatory practices and will help represent Aunt Martha’s in all aspects of this litigation.

Ricardo Meza of Meza Law will continue to serve as lead counsel. The Fair Housing Legal Clinic joins Roger Derstine of Roger B. Derstine, Chartered, Homero Tristan of Tristan & Cervantes, and Sohil Shah of Posinelli, PC as co-counsel.

About Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness, Inc.

Aunt Martha’s serves over 105,000 children and adults each year. It has over 35 sites, including 23 community health centers spread across nine counties. The agency’s integrated health home model offers value-based, coordinated services that deliver whole person wellness through the integration of primary and behavioral health care, as well as links support services that address social determinants of health. Aunt Martha’s has been accredited by the Joint Commission since 1997.

About the UIC John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Support Center and Clinic

The primary goals of UIC John Marshall’s Fair Housing Legal Support Center & Clinic are:

  • Educate the public about fair housing law, and
  • Provide legal assistance to those private or public organizations that seek to eliminate discriminatory housing practices.

The clinic opened in 1993. Since then it has helped thousands Chicago area clients who were denied housing because of discrimination. Funding for the Clinic is provided in part by a grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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Media Contact

Rick Meza
Meza Law
(708) 321-4693

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