Ana Mendez has been a community health worker for over 12 years. As a young mother herself, Ana experiences first-hand the systemic forces that can impact a family’s capacity to be healthy. Ana decided to dedicate her career to advocating and working with other young mothers as a home visitor and as a community-based doula. She is currently a family support worker for Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness in the Healthy Families of America program, while working on her bachelor’s degree at St. Augustine College.
What led you to work as a community health worker?
When you are going through a situation, you don’t think of the bigger picture. In our culture, no one talks about teen pregnancy or how to be healthy during pregnancy. By personal experience, I felt like I was in a dark hole, but I knew I wasn’t the only one. I knew that many of my peers and family members were teen parents. When I was a teen mom, I got involved in the Healthy Families program where I received home visits from a woman named Debra. It was so much fun and a great experience.
I finished the home visiting program when my daughter was 2 years old, and at that point, the agency offered me a position as a group coordinator and a family assessment worker. Eventually, I became a family support worker and then a doula. I worked primarily with other teen mothers living in Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards, and West Lawn. At the beginning, it was challenging because there were many do’s and don’ts. You want to tell the moms what to do, but you can’t. It was important to learn from my clients, their culture, and their environment. As much as you want to tell someone, “Don’t feed your baby at 2 months,” you must listen and respect the culture of each client and work alongside them. It is hard at the beginning to get a flow of how to work with families, so I created my own routine of how to provide families with information in a logical way. Since teenagers can be very sensitive when working with adults, it is important to listen to them and make them feel valued so that they are more receptive to hearing information from you.
After working as a family support worker, I began doing doula work. I thought a lot about my own childbirth because it was horrible. My mother wasn’t there by choice and I was only 16 years old. My boyfriend at the time was 23 years old. All I knew was, “don’t get the epidural because it’s really bad,” that’s it. I didn’t know anything about labor. I can still remember the nurses face when she came in, shushing me because I was yelling and moaning loudly. She kept telling me that yelling doesn’t help. To make things worse, I was on my back the entire time. When the staff offered me pain medication, I refused because I kept thinking that an epidural was bad. Yet, they ended up giving me narcotics in the IV. Thirteen hours later, Alondra was born. Reflecting on my experience, I can’t deny that it was horrible. Even though I was young, I knew that there had to be a better way to labor. When I learned about birth support, working through the pain, and comfort measures, it was the answer to my question.
Birth support was a whole new world that I didn’t know existed. I saw the opportunity to turn childbirth, something that had been described to me as negative, into something positive. I was able to transmit positivity and a sense of comfort to remind mothers that everything was going to be OK. I was able to reassure them that they had the power to birth a healthy child and that I would be there for them. Their bodies are made for this and they have that power within.
Now, I work in the south suburbs of Chicago at Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness. I am now a home visitor with the Healthy Families of America and still work with young families. I see many challenging situations, some are homeless or are part of the foster system and it brings other barriers. Working at Aunt Martha’s is different, and it has toughened me up a bit since the culture is unlike any I had worked in before. I am still learning new ways of engaging with families and young people.
What are the biggest barriers for your clients?
There are a lot, but transportation tends to be a common problem because my clients are young. Getting to the clinic, to WIC, or a grocery store is hard. In Chicago, there are many corner stores, but that does not exist in the suburbs, limiting food accessibility. Lack of transportation causes my clients to miss their appointments, preventing them from receiving basic necessities. For example, if they miss their WIC appointment, they can’t get their coupons. Even if they were able to pick-up their coupons, they then need to get to a grocery store selling approved foods before the coupons expire.
Also, it seems that information is not being brought down from generation to generation. This is a challenge because young mothers are often uninformed. There is the saying, “It takes a village,” and it feels like they many young mothers don’t have the information or support from older generations to help guide them in decision making.
What motivates you to be a community health worker?
I really enjoy talking to these young women. As the years go by, generations change. Now the clients are with apps and phones, making communication easier because I can text resources and talk consistently with them. I guess I just enjoy hearing these young women. They have so much to say and share. When they feel like the world is giving them their back, they have me that they can count on.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a community health worker?
It is not an easy field, even with social services and theory on psychology. The reality of the actual field is different than one may expect. I recommend individuals interested in becoming a community health worker be open-minded and not judgmental towards clients. It is important that you know that you are not there to “fix” people, but to support them in any way that you can.