Ivette Guillermo-McGahee: The Latina breaking mental health barriers in South Jersey
The founder and CEO of Allies in Caring is a visionary for supporting the Latinx community and is a vital cog in their transition to a new country.
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Despite being born in Toluca, Mexico and growing up in Guadalajara, Ivette Guillermo-McGahee’s first language was not Spanish.
Before she mastered the language native to her country, she learned American Sign Language (ASL) as a way to communicate with her deaf parents and siblings.
The family created was a very “tight” and “beautiful” one for Guillermo-McGahee to grow up in despite the disabilities present.
But harder than any disability confronting the family was the loneliness.
“We were pretty isolated,” said Guillermo-McGahee.
In addition to not having any extended family that knew ASL, people in their surrounding neighborhood were also hesitant to interact and invite the family to any social events.
“We didn’t have a lot of relationships or support,” she said.
Mexico as a whole also provided little support for people with disabilities. At the time, there were not a lot of services available to help those who needed assistance with their disability and for deaf people, an emphasis was put on “converting” them through speech therapy to lead lives as if they had hearing.
However, amid the lack of support and isolation, Guillermo-McGahee’s parents carved out a unique upbringing for their kids.
“They were more free to choose how they wanted to live,” she said.
As a child, that meant a vegetarian diet and an early exposure to meditation as a way to maintain physical and mental wellbeing.
“We were different in how we were raised because my parents were always thinking outside the box,” said Guillermo-McGahee.
They also took every opportunity they could, though scarce, to socialize.
“Every time we were able to develop a relationship with someone… that was a great source of joy and relief,” said Guillermo-McGahee. “My parents were very, very loving and appreciative of that.”
Their young daughter, Ivette, would carry that importance of connection and personal relationships throughout her life and career.
“That became what I wanted to cultivate in my life,” she said.
It started at 19.
Then, at the pressing of her mom, Guillermo-McGahee started volunteering at a local hospital to talk to people coping with various ailments.
“They were more accepting,” she said, of her young self in constant fear of rejection.
In that experience, Guillermo-McGahee learned she had a skill for listening to others and hearing out their problems.
The realization spurred her to start her own youth group in the community that would volunteer at different places together.
One thing the group accomplished that made a significant impact was to repaint old parks and breathe life back into decrepit playgrounds for children in the community.
The group also had a radio program that featured young people talking about their emotions and philosophy, and created an early mentorship program.
If the experience showed Guillermo-McGahee anything, it was the power of relationships and their ability to do good.
“We didn’t have a lot of material things, but we had ourselves,” she said. “We had our creativity, we had each other’s support.”
Beyond the support of her community group, Guillermo-McGahee also attended therapy growing up, in a time when it was looked down upon
“It was a stigma. I didn’t tell anyone,” she said.
For her parents, therapy represented their worst fear that they weren’t doing a good job as parents.
In the grand scheme of society, Guillermo-McGahee said therapy’s “stigma” came from ignorance.
“There is not an acknowledgment as a need to manage our emotions,” she said. “We assume that’s a given.”
As a result, whenever someone does struggle with their mental wellbeing, it’s automatically assumed to be negative.
“It’s associated that something is bad, something is wrong with you,” said Guillermo-McGahee.
Add that to mainstream media’s emphasis on the positive and further rejection of the negative, and an incomplete picture of the human experience is painted.
“That’s part of our experience too. Of course you’re going to be sad, mad or disappointed,” she said.
Early in life, working through those emotions alongside a therapist helped Guillermo-McGahee navigate a better work and home life.
She also told her therapist that she wanted to do the same for others, and he was in total support.
Guillermo-McGahee’s opportunity came in 2004, as she was visiting her sister in Washington D.C.
In the lead up to the visit, she had been looking at various mental health counseling tracks at universities across the U.S., but didn’t make a decision until touring Gallaudet University in the nation’s capital.
On the tour, Guillermo-McGahee met the school’s dean, who offered her a scholarship, and the rest is history.
While pursuing her Master’s, she was the only Latina in her program, and unlike when a foreigner would come to her town in Mexico, she remembered other students not caring to learn about her country when she first arrived.
“It was painful,” Guillermo-McGahee said of the early experience in the U.S.
It was also a shock for her to learn that Latinos on the whole were thought of as second-class citizens in the country.
Those prejudices wouldn’t get context until she took a multicultural awareness class as part of her curriculum.
There, Guillermo-McGahee first learned about the U.S.’s long history of racism and the prevailing white privilege that still acts as an echo of the country’s times of slavery.
Most importantly, she was also able to draw connectors between what she was experiencing in the U.S. and her time growing up with disabled loved ones in Mexico.
“I had also experienced other people feeling like they were better than me,” said Guillermo-McGahee.
All those previous childhood insecurities once disregarded as issues of low self-esteem were also seen in a new light.
“I didn’t know if my experience of feeling less-than came from something internally,” she said of her previous justifications.
Now she saw clearly.
When she graduated from Gallaudet in 2006 with a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling, Guillermo-McGahee started her career in New Jersey working between multiple hospitals and schools as a mental health counselor.
She quickly found herself a hot commodity, being the only counselor that could speak both Spanish and ASL.
While other colleagues would have up to 30 active cases at one time, Guillermo-McGahee found herself managing 130.
It quickly got draining, and she also found it difficult to refer non-English clients to other resources in the system that didn’t have translation services.
“What I could do was very limited,” said Guillermo-McGahee. “I did not find enough will to really make sure these people were getting the care they needed.”
The experience sparked her desire to create her own service agency that would better meet the needs of her clientele, but she didn’t know how to get there.
Many would come from migrant Latino communities that were, for the most part, alone and without a proper support system to help them or look after their kids if they had any.
“It’s very overwhelming,” Guillermo-McGahee said of her clients’ experiences.
The anxiety she saw on a daily basis was at its peak, and a lot of people self-medicated with alcohol to cope with the stress.
In seeing their experiences, Guillermo-McGahee drew on her experiences with collaboration and the power of relationships to find solutions.
“What this person needs is to find friends that can help,” she said, “people need natural supports.”
Those supports come in the form of meaningful relationships, connections with spirituality and nature, and meaningful jobs to name a few.
Guillermo-McGahee’s efforts started with small community dinners and other events to bring members of vulnerable communities together to meet and build connections.
Her big break came after she worked as a crisis intervention specialist in Atlantic City with Burmese immigrants escaping genocide.
Not long after her work there, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families approached Guillermo-McGahee to start her agency as she had dreamed.
She agreed, and so Allies in Caring was born in Hammonton, New Jersey.
It’s goal? To “prioritize the creation of supports to help people live well,” she said.
Since its founding in 2012, those supports have expanded rapidly to include a wide-array of services that cover mental health counseling and education for individuals and families, professional development, events to build stronger communities, among other resources.
At first, the organization expanded rapidly to try to fit as many of the gaps in service as possible, but now Guillermo-McGahee says it’s about sustainable growth.
“I want to take steps that are grounded and fit with our capacity,” she said.
In eight years, the organization has also had an impact on the growing Latino community in South Jersey. Whereas before, individuals didn't come forward with their struggles, Guillermo-McGahee finds many are at least sharing when they need help, especially from the younger generation.
The field of mental health has also evolved since the organization’s founding, and most physical health crises and ailments are treated with a combination of clinical and mental health approaches.
The most recent crisis to get such treatment has been the coronavirus pandemic that’s swept the nation since March.
On the whole, Guillermo-McGahee is proud of how the organization responded to the pandemic and its economic fallout. It’s been a jack-of-all trades to say the least.
In the vein of its mission to build connections and support for communities, it also created them for itself, and collaborated with Hammonton’s Mayor’s Office, a local legal service provider, hospitals and the town’s chamber of commerce to produce webinars in Spanish with all the pertinent information about COVID-19 and various relief efforts.
When it started in March, the organization also created a free hotline to call for mental health counseling and domestic abuse, which has been on the rise amid the country’s heightened anxiety.
“Everything is connected,” said Guillermo-McGahee.
When food was in short supply, Allies in Caring partnered with a local farm to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and also brought hot meals to undocumented families suffering from the virus.
To get the word out about the virus, the organization got funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to hire a number of bilingual “connectors” to help undocumented families get in touch with the proper resources without the fear of repercussions.
It’s also provided pre-k assistance to families and has multiple job counseling services for those who lost work to reinvent themselves.
The goal of Allies in Caring is to help as many people as possible “live well.”
To live well hearkens back to something she learned growing up with disabled loved ones. While others wouldn’t take the time to consider it, Guillermo-McGahee got to see the intelligence and potential her loved ones possessed regardless of their disability.
“Everyone has something to contribute,” she said.
It was the same attitude thrown at her when she came for college from Mexico and the same heaped on immigrants today that come to the U.S. looking to build new foundations all alone.
In seeing the resiliency of her parents, Guillermo-McGahee was able to see their gifts. In seeing the same resiliency of immigrants that come to the U.S., maybe some in its general public would also be able to see their gifts.
“What are the gifts that every person has?” is now a question Guillermo-McGahee asks on a daily basis, and the support provided at Allies in Caring has helped many realize them.