The best insight you need to hear about Resilience

The best insight you need to hear about Resilience
Lessons from a Belmont Cragin native 

She’s your neighbor, a listener, a resilience-builder, she’s Belmont Cragin’s own Alejandra ‘Alex’ Corral. For the past six years, Alex has been involved with the Northwest Side Housing Center in many capacities; intern, Americorps VISTA, block club representative, and for the past year as our Resilience Coordinator. In this role, Alex has helped launch the Resilient Belmont Cragin Collaborative, facilitated community trainings on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), organized a resilience-building group for young women of color, and served as a resilience mentor to hundreds of students at Steinmetz College Prep. In August, Alex is embarking on a new path to pick up her next title: M.D. She’ll be starting medical school at the University of Illinois in Peoria. With her departure, we’d like to share this interview about growing up in Belmont Cragin, her lessons learned from resilience work, and the importance of making healthcare culturally relatable.

How did you first get involved with the Northwest Side Housing Center?
It was 2013, my senior year of high school, when the Housing Center created a block club on my block for safety. And I went as a youth rep with my mom to help her translate. I thought the NWSHC seemed really committed to the community, it wasn’t a short-term thing. So the following year, I started helping with PlayStreets and youth work.

What have you learned about Belmont Cragin through your work?
First, I realized I didn’t know my community as well as I thought I did. I went to another neighborhood for high school, and I didn’t focus on what my community needed. I felt like I was focused on my own life during my youth. But this work has made me realize my own privilege. Growing up here, it felt like people didn’t care about their neighbors. About saying hi. About the parks. About violence. And the NWSHC learns the needs of the community to help people take ownership of their community.

Let’s talk resilience; what does it mean to you?
I think resilience is the power to bounce back and adapt. It’s realizing that some situations are out of your control, but you can control how you respond. And it’s using the strengths around you- the activities, hobbies, the people- who can help you thrive. 

Do you think resilience was part of the narrative growing up here?
I don’t think resilience was part of the narrative growing up here, mental health is very stigmatized in the Latino community. No one wants to talk about it, no one wants to deal with it, and growing up here I heard a lot of ‘it’s just a phase, I’m not crazy, I don’t need therapy.” 

How do you think your work has helped change that narrative?
I think people are getting curious and peeking in- even my own family. Now that we’ve begun raising  awareness around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma, people can see mental health as normal, and understand they should deal with it like you would with a cold or flu. I’ve seen people become more aware, start learning the ACEs language, and are more willing to talk about it.

Can you give an example?
I see resilience building everyday in our youth. At the start of the year, we saw a lot of kids failing. But at the end of the year, just one example of a student I connected with, told me he graduated, got into two colleges, he’s going to therapy to manage his anger issues, and is avoiding friends who got him into trouble. And this was a kid who was failing classes, skipping school, and who felt his teachers had given up on him.

I’ve seen it in the parents, too. One parent after an ACEs presentation told me she didn’t realize her ACEs may lead her to harm herself or others and she came to us to ask us what can she do and we directed her to health resources. And I couldn’t help but wonder; if she wasn’t there that day and felt she could trust us would she have asked for help? 

You’ve said you want to come back to work in Belmont Cragin after medical school, why?
The community made me who I am. One of the biggest reasons I’m going into the medical field is because I’ve experienced the health disparities in Belmont Cragin growing up. Me missing school because I had to translate for my parents at the doctor- that’s not okay. And going to clinics where there’s no one who looked like me- that’s not okay either. My family didn’t have doctors who could relate to them culturally; my dad had high cholesterol and doctors would just say ‘cut out tortillas’ without understanding our culture. 

In this community, people are woking two jobs, raising children, and many have undocumented immigration status and they’re scared to even go to the doctor. But if we meet people where they are, understand them culturally and build trust- that’s what I want to bring to this community. I want a young girl to see me and say, wow she’s first-generation, her family is from a small town in Mexico, she looks like me and speaks like me- I can be like her. I wish I had that when I went in for checkups growing up. And I want to give to the community that’s given me so much and to my parents who have given me the privilege to even go to medical school. But it’s most important to give back to the kids that look like you.

What lessons will you take with you as you enter the medical field?
Support people, meet people where they are, and use relatable examples that are culturally aware. So much of my role was just being supportive; asking people how they are, and removing the perception of being an ‘authority’ and instead allowing people to confide in you. One of my biggest lessons is meeting people where they are. You can’t tell a student what to do, but you can challenge them and ask what they can do. And I’ve loved seeing that help people grow. For example, a student showing up to school when before they were skipping classes and failing. I would reinforce and celebrate that victory with them, because getting to school might be the biggest deal for that student. We don’t know what that kid might have to go through to even show up. Even though it’s what they should be doing- regardless, encourage them. We don’t know the ACEs they have, showing up may be the hardest thing for them. 

How critical is it that ACEs and resilience be at the center of health care?
Without understanding someone’s past, you can’t understand their actions. We can’t know why someone has an unhealthy behavior without asking: ‘what happened to you?’ People are more than just who you see; they are their families, their communities, the resources they had growing up. 

What’s the biggest eye opener that you’ll take with you from your work here?
Every role I’ve been in at the Housing Center has taught me something different, but the youth have taught me to not think I know everything. Really see and give young people a chance to teach you- they’re so willing to talk. Be humble and willing to be taught by people you never thought could teach you a lesson. My role has put me in rooms with impressive doctors, experts and PhDs where I’ve told myself I don’t belong. I’m not only a woman, but a Mexican woman and only 23- and I convince myself I’m not an “expert.” But this role has taught me about owning your experiences. No one else has your experience, and that alone makes you an expert.

This interview was conducted June 2019 and was condensed for clarity.

By Laura Slabaugh

Laura Slabaugh