Reaching Her Potential

December 18, 2018 | Chicago, IL

Isis Mendoza (pronounced EE-sees) sorts through a small stack of photographs and keepsakes. A growing smile can be seen through strands of her bold, highlighted hair as she glances down at them, describing the memories that come with each item.

She comes across a photo of herself during a graduation ceremony at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. “I accomplished a lot,” she says, recalling the moment she walked across the stage to receive her master’s degree in counseling psychology. “I didn’t process that then.” 

The degree was the culmination of a 13-year journey, one that started at Erie Neighborhood House in 2005. Mendoza had arrived in Chicago from Mexico with her then 5-year-old son, Omid, and she desperately needed support as she adjusted to a multitude of changes, including a new culture and a new language.


Omid, then age 5, sits at a computer monitor while his mother attends a technology course at Erie House. PHOTO COURTESY ISIS MENDOZA

Her aunt directed her to the Community Literacy program at Erie House, an initiative funded by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. “She introduced me to (Community Literacy program coordinator) Susana Ortiz,” Mendoza explains, “and I started with computer classes and ESL.”

She shows a photo of young Omid seated at a computer alongside a girl whose mother was also enrolled in the program. “I had to take him with me,” she recalls.

A single mother, she felt like she had no other choice if she wanted to gain the skills she needed to deliver him a better future.

“That’s what people don’t understand sometimes, how much you have to sacrifice,” she says. “I had to do this to provide for him.”

Erie House helped Mendoza build a strong foundation. She points to the support Susana Ortiz provided, as well as the invaluable role her volunteer instructor, Dr. Sims, played. “Dr. Sims encouraged people,” she explains.

“I couldn’t even work at McDonald’s,” she says, referencing the lack of education and English language skills—not to mention confidence—that felt like insurmountable barriers, “but he believed in me. He saw potential in me.”

Mendoza moved on from the program at Erie House (she still has a completion certificate from one of the early technology courses she took) to enroll in classes at St. Augustine College, a bilingual higher education program with locations scattered throughout Chicago and its suburbs. She later transferred to Harper College in Palatine and began working in a psychiatric hospital as a patient care technician (PCT).

"I couldn't even work at McDonald's, but Dr. Sims believed in me. He saw potential in me.”

- Isis Mendoza, former Erie House participant

It was in that setting that Mendoza began to grasp what she wanted to do vocationally. “I could see that people who had depression also had physical illnesses,” she says.

As a survivor of domestic violence and having experienced the effects of homelessness, the idea of becoming a therapist and helping empower other to overcome obstacles in their own lives became more and more intriguing to her.

Isis Master's Ceremony

Isis Mendoza receives a Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology from Trinity Christian College at a ceremony earlier this year. PHOTO COURTESY ISIS MENDOZA

Mendoza ultimately landed in a bachelor’s program at Trinity in the southwest suburbs. Once earning a degree in psychology, she continued working toward her master’s degree. Her love for learning has grown over the years, and she credits Erie House will nurturing it early on. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak,” she says, “you are always learning.”

Today she lives with her partner near Michigan City, Indiana. Her son, Omid, is now 18 years old, and her daughter, Destiny, is 11. Parenthood is never easy, but Mendoza is proud of the example she’s set for both her children and hopes they will bring the same determination to whatever they end up doing.

The degree she earned—and the potential Susana Ortiz and Dr. Sims saw in Mendoza when she arrived at Erie House in 2005—are being put to good use. She is working as a therapist for Catholic Charities, providing support to people working through a variety of mental health issues.

"I like that I can work with people,” she says.

Isis with Susana Ortiz

Mendoza chats with Community Literacy coordinator Susana Ortiz during a recent return visit to Erie House, where she began learning English and her vocational journey 13 years ago. PHOTO BY BRIAN PAFF

As she speaks about her role, it is increasingly clear this is more than just a job for her; she has the opportunity to pay it forward and help others claim well-being in their own lives.

And that is just the beginning of her potential.


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