A new mural by Melrick Steele at the Albany Park Community Center's new location in Bronzeville. Credit: Melrick Steele

ALBANY PARK — The Albany Park Community Center has been a haven for immigrants new to Chicago for more than 40 years. Now the center is expanding to the South Side, with its counseling services a key component of its draw.

“Unfortunately, we live in a time where there’s just not enough mental health services anywhere,” the community center’s CEO Monica Woodson said. “You just simply cannot have enough.”

Given Chicago’s closure of half of its mental health clinics almost seven years ago, Albany Park Community Center’s expansion to Bronzeville (the location at 4455 S. King Drive is known as APCC-South) could be a lifeline for some of its residents.

“We know that counseling is an unmet need throughout the city,” Woodson said. 

Residents across the South Side — not just in Bronzeville — could benefit from the expansion. In addition to counseling services, the center offers free programs like ESL classes, legal counseling workshops and job fairs.

“It really was our desire to better serve our clients that were making the trek from neighborhoods further south up to our Kimball location in Albany Park,” Woodson said.

Monica Woodson Credit: Powell Photography

Woodson has lived in Bronzeville since she moved to Chicago in 2017, when she became the CEO of the community center. She is originally from Detroit and has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years.

The nonprofit plans to hold listening sessions in the new communities they will serve on the South Side. The center held its official grand opening last week, although the center had already started implementing some of its services in its Bronzeville location and surrounding neighborhoods.

Woodson said the listening sessions will be held with community leaders such as churches, human service agencies and school leaders.

“We know that they’ve been here doing the work and our approach is to see if there are any gaps in service delivery that we can through partnership or just through programming that we offer that perhaps they don’t,” Woodson said.

Chief among these gaps is providing mental health services to CPS students.

“Our South Side services are targeting a non-immigrant population, low-income, very needy… right now we are providing counseling services in [four] Chicago public schools on the South Side,” said Kathy Maher, the center’s director of counseling.  

Those schools are: Nicholson Elementary, Tilden High School, Bronzeville High School and  Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville.

Maher said the community center has a great relationship with CPS. So when it told CPS about the Bronzeville expansion, CPS chose the schools that would benefit from its counseling services. 

Maher said she’s noticed an increase in trust when it comes to clients using the center’s counseling services since she started working there almost 20 years ago.

“The parents are more open to counseling,” Maher said.

It’s due to a couple of factors, Maher says. The center has hired more bilingual and bicultural counselors than in the past and the community has a longstanding history of trust in the center.

Maher also has noticed an increased anxiety among the center’s clients, an uptick she blamed on proposed and implemented immigration policies from the Trump administration.

“I see sometimes, parents are afraid to bring their kids to the doctor or if they need medication for depression, a lot of times they just don’t feel comfortable, you know, reaching out to a system that they don’t know anything about,” Maher said.

In these cases, the staff talks through the situation with the client but ultimately it’s up to the client to decide what to do, Maher said. Albany Park Community Center has also brought in experts on immigration policy to inform the center’s clients of their rights. 

This story was produced by Block Club Chicago in partnership with Chicago Ideas, which is working to highlight organizations and individuals making a positive impact in all of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Follow The 77 Project here.

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