Carmen Patlan: Waukegan library employee goes above and beyond to serve Hispanic population

Carmen Patlan emigrated from a rural town in Mexico to the United States at age 7.

For Patlan, the move to Waukegan with her family provided many firsts – running water, electricity, a library and access to education.

Upon arriving in Wauekgan, Patlan could not speak English, which is why she understands the hardships that non-native speakers face after settling in a new country.

Since growing up in Lake County, the Beach Park resident said she has always empathized with others’ hardships.

In November 2011, Patlan and other members of Waukegan’s Most Blessed Trinity Parish, opened The House of Peace Domestic Violence Shelter, a domestic abuse shelter for Hispanic women and children in North Chicago.

Artwork by the shelter’s clients hang in Patlan’s office at the Waukegan Public Library, where Patlan worked as community engagement and outreach manager – creating opportunities for the local Hispanic community to learn English – since 2011.

Patlan knows the value of hard work, being born into a life of scarcity and then surviving in a new country. After graduating high school, Patlan worked at Abbott Laboratories; but, after 20 years of corporate America, and a few years after that of running a boutique, she realized that she wanted to do more for those in her community.

A chance encounter in a courtroom inspired Patlan to become a Lake County courts interpreter.

“I saw a lady [in a courtroom] scared to death,” she said. “She asked me, ‘Could you help me? I don’t know how to speak English.’”

Patlan inquired about a court interpreter program the same day, and was hired on the spot.

“I began to see the struggle and my eyes were open to the reality this community is struggling with – the inability to speak English, the inability to drive without getting pulled over – they didn’t know the way the system operates and works,” she said.

Waukegan has a Hispanic population that is three times higher than the state average, with 55 percent of residents speaking a language other than English at home. Twenty percent do not speak English, and another 25 percent are not fluent.

But, as a courts interpreter Patlan could not educate clients about the law.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, seeing that I could not advocate for these individuals,” Patlan said.

In 2007, Patlan was offered the position of social concerns director with Most Blessed Trinity Parish. After accepting the job in May that year, she was soon fielding calls left and right from Hispanic immigrants asking about their rights.

Patlan soon was working 60-hour weeks, beyond what the position required.

Soon, Patlan also began seeing victims of domestic violence, many with nowhere else to turn.

“I began to advocate [for these women] and found it very difficult to find shelter for them, because of their status and because they did not speak English,” she said.

Seeing a need, Patlan along with other parish members, began researching what it would take to open a domestic abuse shelter. The House of Peace, the culmination of their hard work, opened in 2011.

Dennis Mudd, a past deacon at Most Blessed Trinity, said Patlan “walked with [the women and children] and accompanied them every step of the way. She listened to them, and had the courage to call on others to do the same.”

To provide new ways for the women to express themselves, Patlan started an art therapy program.

“The women always see the sunrise as a new day for them, and they are beautiful inside,” Patlan said about the tranquil images.

In order to sustain the shelter’s budget, Patlan resigned so that the parish could hire a licensed therapist.

She didn’t know what she would do next, until she was offered a job at Waukegan Public Library that included a specific mission – get more Hispanics engaged in library programming.

Patlan launched the Promotoras Ambassador Program, a key initiative of the library’s Path to Literacy and Learning program, which engages Hispanic community members.

Through the Promotoras Ambassador Program, Patlan helped created conversational ESL classes at the library. Since the classes launched two years ago, 455 students have participated.

“When they hear library, they think ‘liberia,’ which is book store,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘This is your biblioteca.’ They’re not used to services that are free.”

Executive Director of Waukegan Public Library Richard Lee said Patlan has been instrumental in helping the library meet all of its community members’ needs.

“Since hiring Carmen, attendance at the library’s bilingual classes and programs have increased by almost 50 percent,” Lee said. “She is a constant inspiration as we continue to break down the barriers that hold the community back and ensure that everyone, no matter where they came from or what language they speak, has every chance at being successful.”