ESL classes only the beginning for community volunteer

Originally from Torreón, Coahuila, Mèxico, Laura Ocon came to Chicago more than 30 years ago. A wife and mother of three children, she found it challenging to get important healthcare information in her native Spanish. After starting school, her daughter increasingly served as the family translator. Ocon promised herself that as soon she had time, she would study English—and she did.

Ocon enrolled off and on at Instituto del Progreso Latino and Arturo Velasquez Institute (AVI) in English as a Second Language courses. “I started watching cartoons to learn English, and it was like I was growing up with my kids,” said Ocon. “They also correct me.”

“Sometimes people who move to the U.S. don’t want to learn another language because they already lost land, lost families, and their native language is the last thing they own,” said Ocon. “But you are not invisible anymore when you learn another language.”

Ocon became a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and was also very active in volunteering at her children’s school and at Catholic Charities through her church. She became motivated to help ensure that young people didn’t have to miss school to translate for their parents at the hospital.

She found the community health worker program at AVI. “The community health worker program opened my heart and my brain,” said Ocon. It allowed her to build upon work she was already doing in the community, helping people with health questions and to make appointments and navigate care. She received a scholarship through Enlace Chicago, where she was helped by Eva Hernandez and the non-profit’s PAES program, a network for community health workers.

Through her community health worker program, she was exposed to the University of Chicago Medical Center. She sent UChicago her resume and ended up being hired as an apprentice and then community health worker. In that role, she works at eight University of Chicago-affiliated health clinics on the city’s South Side. “I want to be the bridge for the community,” says Ocon. “I bring ideas from the community to the clinic.”

“When you talk with honesty and you know what you are talking about, you get respect,” says Ocon. “I receive so many thank yous.”