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Carmen Velasquez (BS ’63), founder of Alivio Medical Center, changed the face of health care in Chicago


IT WAS 1987, AND CARMEN VELASQUEZ (BS ’63) saw that Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood needed a community health center. Many individuals and families were uninsured or undocumented, or faced language barriers and were simply not receiving the health care they needed. “There was a clinic on 17th and Ashland,” Velasquez says. “But so many people needed care that there was a waiting list of about four to six months, which is not acceptable—and the staff were not Spanish- speakers, nor bilingual and/or bicultural. So I decided to do something about it.”

Velasquez, a former community activist, social worker, and educator,

had no medical background. In spite of this, Alivio Medical Center, a fed- erally qualified, bilingual, nonprofit community health center, opened its doors on Western Avenue in 1989. For 26 years it has been serving its Latino, predominantly Mexican, neighborhood, and the working poor, uninsured, and immigrant communities. Velasquez’s first move toward opening Alivio was to identify people

who were equally passionate about the cause. She called on her friend Ann Garcelon, MD, an internist who was on staff at Mercy Hospital. The two of them approached Sr. Sheila Lyne, then the CEO of Mercy Hospital and Medical Center. Sr. Sheila had been looking for ways to improve health care for the Mexican community but hadn’t found the right part- ners. Velasquez needed someone who would sit at the table and see the process through to the end. As Sr. Sheila stated, “The rest is history.” “I said, ‘I’m looking for a partner who is really going to be a hands-

on person,’” Velasquez says. “When I make calls to Mercy, I want them to know that the CEO of this institution embraces the purpose of our collaboration.” Sr. Sheila said yes, becoming an integral part of Alivio’s foundation. Velasquez and her partners began to define what they wanted Alivio to provide. “We wanted a comprehensive community health center,” Velasquez

says. “We wanted access to health care for all, we wanted immigration reform, and we wanted to address the lack of bilingual and bicultural health professionals—not only physicians and nurses, but also social workers and case managers. The questions on the table were, ‘How many fluent Spanish-speaking speech therapists do you have in the public schools? How many fluent nutritionists in the Department of Health?’ The need was great and we wanted everything.”

VELASQUEZ AND HER PARTNERS put their vision on paper, and they secured a $989,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust for opera- tions. But they still needed a space, and so they went in search of it on foot. “We went from door to door asking about properties,” Velasquez

says. “As we were heading north on Western Avenue, I saw a property that said ‘Velasquez Muffler Shop,’ so I thought to myself, providencia divina, divine providence! I do believe in that. To make a long story short, we went back to our core group, and at the end of the day, we bought that land, furnished it, and opened our door for service on Janu- ary 4, 1989. We raised $2.2 million to do that.” If Velasquez and her partners underestimated one thing, it was the demand that patients would have for Alivio’s services. The patient list


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