Social Justice

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.

A commitment to social justice has always been key to the foundation of Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness. From the start, diversity, equity, and inclusion were a genuine and natural piece of the model of care for youth, families, and the community. Early employees tell stories of the incredibly diverse staff and volunteer base – all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, and abilities were represented from the ground up.

newspaper headline, pastor says racism drives opposition to home for boys

Our internal diversity gives Aunt Martha’s an appreciation of and dedication to social justice. It’s part of who we are – to be a voice for the vulnerable or marginalized our community.

Aunt Martha’s has taken its advocacy for the people we serve all the way to the federal courts in order ensure they get the care and services they need in an environment without prejudice or restriction.

Quite simply,

We do what’s right.

That’s our commitment to every child and adult – for the next 50 years and beyond.

Aunt Martha’s worked hard to overcome public resistance to its group homes for DCFS youth.

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.

During his final February in office, President Obama said of Black History Month, “It’s about the shared experience of all African Americans…and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America.” This year, focused around a theme of Black Health and Wellness, Black History Month recognizes the legacy of medical scholars and health care providers. It reminds us of the continuing contribution of the hospitals, schools and community clinics they created. It reminds us of the partnerships they forged to support one another in the face of mainstream discrimination and all of the injustices and disparities it breeds.

In the midst of month 23 of a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged communities of color, Black History Month provides an opportunity to learn from the sacrifices of the past, but also to recognize and to reaffirm our support for our Black and African American coworkers and colleagues as they write their own narrative and shape, as they always have, ours. It seems appropriate to recognize Speaker Welch for his place as the first African American to hold the position, and for his work with the leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus to ensure the historic measures of reform passed last year are implemented with the same vigor and in the spirit of diversity, inclusion and justice with which they were created.

Of the more than 120,000 patients and participants Aunt Martha’s is privileged to serve, over half (53%) identify as Black or African American. When they visit Aunt Martha’s, they see doctors, nurses, child welfare specialists, care coordinators, home visitors, crisis responders and other professionals who come from their community and understand that the most powerful word is always TRUST. Aunt Martha’s, as an organization, is proud to be a part of that vital relationship. And we are, moreover, proud to share the work and impact of our colleagues and friends as they continue to shape and strengthen the communities around us.

On Monday, November 8, 2021, Aunt Martha’s was privileged to serve as the setting for a Roundtable Discussion on Maternal Health, hosted by Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra. Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s President and CEO, joined a panel that included Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the Director of Illinois’ Department of Public Health as well as other leading advocates and respected providers.

Recognizing Rep. Underwood’s Leadership

The purpose of the event, which took place at Aunt Martha’s Humboldt Park Community Health Center, was to highlight Rep. Underwood’s Momnibus Act, HHS investments in maternal health, the Affordable Care Act, and the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine. 

“As the co-founder and co-chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Representative Underwood has helped define the vision for equity in maternal health care and outcomes,” said Garza.

“We applaud her leadership and look forward to building on our own 45-year history as a maternal health provider by ensuring the values of equity and diversity she has emedded in the Momnibus Act are always reflected in the way we care for our patients and our community.”

Aunt Martha’s Legacy as a Maternal Health Provider

Congresswoman Underwood asked Aunt Martha’s to host the event as a way of recognizing our organization not only for the work we do today, but also for the role we’ve played over the last 45 years as a pioneer and as an advocate for the rights of all patients to make informed decisions about the care and services they choose to receive. In 1976, Aunt Martha’s introduced a birth control counseling program for teens in south suburban Park Forest. We stood up tough opposition, including threats of physical violence. Aunt Martha’s response was to offer more. Aunt Martha’s became a place where people could ask honest questions and get direct answers.

We’re still that place.

Left to Right: Audrey Pennington, Aunt Martha’s COO; Jose Sanchez, President and CEO, Humboldt Park Health; HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra; Congresswoman Lauren Underwood; Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s President and CEO; Dr. Charles Barron, Aunt Martha’s CMO.

A Leader in Quality Prenatal Care for Moms of Color

In 2020, Aunt Martha’s health centers provided prenatal care to nearly 3,000 moms. Our providers delivered over 1,000 babies. According to the most recent data, the Latina and non-Hispanic Black and African Moms we serve at Aunt Martha’s are, respectively, 62% and 55% less likely than moms who choose other health centers to have a babies with low or very low birthweights.

Aunt Martha’s Latina Moms are 62% less likely than their peers at other Illinois health centers to have babies with low or very low birthweights (and 70% less likely than health center patients nationally).

And our non-Hispanic Black and African American Moms are 55% less likely than their peers at other health centers (in Illinois and nationally) to have babies with low or very low birthweights.

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.


Media Contact

Rick Meza
Meza Law
(708) 321-4693

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