Why I Do What I Do

Giving birth can be a joyous experience. It can also be scary and intimidating, especially if you are an unsure teenager, with little support from family or friends. No one understands that feeling better than Wandy Hernandez. Her journey from fearful 19-year-old to self-assured mom ultimately led to her life's work. At 28, Hernandez is a doula trainer with the Chicago Health Connection (CHC), a nonprofit organization providing community-based training for maternal and child health issues. The word doula, which stems from the ancient Greek word for respected female servant, refers to a woman who provides physical and emotional support to a mother in labor.

Hernandez became pregnant during her senior year of high school. "People stereotyped me, and I felt very alone," she says. Then a visit to Chicago's Alivio Medical Center changed her life. Located in the heart of a large Hispanic community, the center had been built only a few years earlier, in 1990, to serve the community's uninsured and working poor. The staff's caring and nonjudgmental support helped Hernandez believe that she could be a good mother. "They saw me for who I was. I felt empowered for the first time since I became pregnant," she says.

At Alivio, new mothers learn to breast-feed, and 70 percent of the center's patients are still breast-feeding at four weeks, a rate far above local and national norms. Hernandez proved a quick study and a natural teacher. In the waiting room, she found herself coaching others who were frustrated or having trouble.

Hernandez's talent caught the attention of the Alivio staff, who offered her a job as a breast-feeding peer counselor. After a year, they encouraged her to become a home visitor, which was the beginning of her doula apprenticeship. Three years later, Hernandez earned her certification from Doulas of North America.

Now a member of the CHC team that launched the Chicago Doula Project, Hernandez finds that training other doulas allows her to balance her work with the needs of her own children. "Teaching allows me to still do the work that I love," she says. "It's where my heart lies."

—Tami Anderson