April 8, 2024

April Volunteer Spotlight: Maja Miłkowska-Shibata

CommunityHealth shines the Volunteer Spotlight on Maja Miłkowska-Shibata during April.

With little interpreting experience upon joining CommunityHealth, Maja immediately unearthed a passion, completing the 40-hour Medical Interpreting Training School (MITS) course and receiving earing her Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

She now uses her advanced skills to not only interpret professionally, but also to train new volunteers.

Maja is so devoted to health care access that she evens reflects on her interpreting experiences through writing and drawing comics.

Lear more about how Maja prioritizes Quality Health Care For All both inside and outside of clinic doors…

In a few sentences, tell us more about yourself and your background.

“I have been volunteering with CommunityHealth for a year, where I have taken on the roles of a Polish medical interpreter and trainer. This experience also led to my recent certification as a medical interpreter. Born and raised in Poland, after earning my Bachelor’s degree in public health from Poznan University of Medical Sciences, I pursued further studies in European health policies and global health at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Prior to engaging in medical interpretation, I was involved in health policy research on access to health services, particularly in developing countries. I currently live in the suburbs of Chicago with my husband and a growing collection of typewriters.”

What is your favorite memory from your time with CommunityHealth?

“I particularly cherish the moments when all of our volunteers (or interpreters within the Interpreter Engagement Club) come together, whether in person or virtually. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow interpreters and volunteers on a more personal level and to get to know each other beyond our roles in the clinic. Those events are always a lot of fun, especially the seasonal gatherings and volunteer appreciation parties.”

Why and how did you begin volunteering at CommunityHealth?

“After studying health policy for several years, I recently became aware of a gap between my academic knowledge and the lack of firsthand experience working in community settings. Last year, while also recognizing signs of burnout, it became clear to me that I needed a break from research and an opportunity to immerse myself in community work. It was around that time that the opportunity to volunteer at CommunityHealth presented itself. Little did I know that this coincidence would lead to the discovery of a genuine passion and provide the sense of community I desperately longed for after my recent move to the United States.”

Do you remember your first day? What surprised you?

“My first day, which happened to be on Halloween of 2022, is still fresh in my mind. Even though I had not expected anything less, the warm reception I received exceeded my expectations. I will never forget my first interaction with patients and the appreciation I felt from them during my first shift. I recall receiving a lot of encouragement from the shift coordinator and the providers, which helped me deal with the stress of the new situation. That initial support and encouragement seem to have carried me forward and kept me going.”

What has kept you volunteering all this time?

“It is a simple realization: without an interpreter, there is no assistance for the patient – it is as simple as that. I personally encountered this challenge as a patient while living in Belgium and the Netherlands. My inability to communicate in the local language presented significant hurdles in interacting with healthcare providers. Ensuring that every individual has the right to be heard and understood is such a basic need, yet it is frequently overlooked. What I once took for granted, I now recognize as a gift – my knowledge of the healthcare system and language can be a valuable resource to others.”

What is something you’ve learned from volunteering at CommunityHealth?

“Volunteering at CommunityHealth has deepened my understanding of collaboration in healthcare, and I have come to appreciate the various roles involved in providing care. Witnessing the collaboration and coordination required for patients to receive comprehensive care, from the planning stage to the actual delivery of health services, has been particularly eye-opening.”

What has been your biggest takeaway from your time with CommunityHealth, and how does this impact your other life or career goals?

“Importantly, serving as a medical interpreter made me aware of how important this role is in the healthcare system, which may not be as obvious in less culturally diverse societies. What began as a volunteer opportunity gradually evolved into a career path, driven by my growing passion for interpreting. Recognizing my affinity for this field, I decided to take the formal training path, ultimately earning my interpreter license. I recently completed my first assignment outside of CommunityHealth, and I am astounded by the transformative journey that began when I took the initial step to start volunteering at the clinic just one year ago. Previously, I spent my days in front of a computer screen, analyzing data and writing research papers. Today, I find immense gratification from direct interactions with patients – a prospect I never imagined possible before venturing into medical interpretation. This experience has not only reshaped my career trajectory, but it has also given me a renewed sense of fulfillment and purpose in my daily life.”

What is advice you would give to a new volunteer at CommunityHealth?

“Take on the new role without fear, even though it may seem daunting. Remind yourself of how fortunate you are to be in such a supportive environment, surrounded by individuals who share the same values. Being bilingual, you possess the unique ability to fully understand interactions between the provider and the patient in your role as an interpreter. Allow this knowledge to provide you with confidence, but keep in mind that it also comes with a lot of responsibility”

Do you have any special talents or skills you would like to share? 

“As an enthusiast of graphic medicine, which combines comics and health narratives, I create comics based on my experiences working as a medical interpreter. My goal is to raise
awareness of the challenges faced by medical interpreters in their daily work. Processing my own experiences through this medium not only serves as a creative outlet for me, but it also helps me become a more aware and compassionate professional. This summer, I even had the opportunity to present those comics at the Graphic Medicine Conference in Toronto.”

Outside of volunteering at CommunityHealth, how do you like to spend your free time?

“Being an introvert, my free time is usually spent creating, which involves writing, drawing, and making zines. And the city of Chicago has a lot to offer in this regard. I enjoy visiting bookstores like Quimby’s that support independent and self-published authors. I also like going to zine and comic festivals around the city, where the energy and creativity of local artists are contagious!”

As the largest volunteer-based free health center in the nation, CommunityHealth is More Than A Free Clinic as a multicultural women-led organization serving the uninsured, underserved, and undocumented from every zip code in the Chicagoland area in partnership with more than 15 academic and medical instiutions.

The secondary mission at CommunityHealth is to train the next generation of health care providers. Help us shape the Future of Health, dismantle barriers, and expand access by becoming a volunteer.