February 9, 2022

Volunteer Spotlight: Sergio Gonzalez, 2021 Health Education Volunteer of the Year

We’re so happy to shine this month’s spotlight on Sergio Gonzalez, a long-time volunteer at CommunityHealth. In the course of his eight years with us, he has taken on many roles, including Spanish interpreter, Patient Education volunteer, Patient Advisory Board volunteer, Promotor de Salud class facilitator, and UIC Student-Run Clinic participant. Sergio is a joy to work with, and we feel so lucky to have him!


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

I am rising third year medical student at University of Illinois College of Medicine. My work in community involves expanding pipeline programs to increase the matriculation of Latinx students in medicine. I am passionate about mentorship, I am curious about biomedical innovation, and I am dedicated to a career in decreasing structural violence in our communities. I am happily married to Ruth Serrano, and I have a dog named Jackson.


Is there a specific area of healthcare you are interested in or healthcare experiences you are seeking?

I am growing increasingly interested in hospital leadership, community boards, and academic medicine. I would love to work in a hospital and teach at a college of medicine.


If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?

I would love to be able to parallel park with incredible skill, dexterity, and truly, a level of suave on par with any boisterous self-proclaimed parallel parking expert.


Do you have any special talents/skills you’d like to share?

I love to garden, and care for plants.


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

I love helping students on their path to medicine. Any time (whether free or not), I like to check in on students and support and motivate them to keep going.


What’s your favorite book or movie?

My favorite movie is Ratatouille, my favorite book is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.


What is something that not a lot of people know about you?

I really really really love amphibians and reptiles and aquarium keeping. I found my passion for the sciences in grade school when I would ask my science teachers for library passes to “learn more about the topics we were learning about in class,” and I would spend so much time (all the time) looking at aquariums and learning about pH requirements, nitrogen cycle, species compatibility, and filter mechanics. Sorry Mr. Blindt, I still got A’s in Honors Science even without the extra library studying ;)


If you could be one animal, what would you be and why?

I would be a phoenix, I have always found a lot of meaning in ‘rising from the ashes’ so to speak.


What does your ideal vacation look like?

I would love to have a hefty Home Depot gift card, some comfy clothes, lots of caffeine, and time to DIY some projects.


Why and how did you begin volunteering at CommunityHealth?

I started volunteering in 2014 and I found out about the clinic by chance, really—I was googling volunteer activities that could help me work with Spanish speaking patients. I didn’t really have clinical skills at that time, and I was a child interpreter for my family, so I felt I could use my linguistic skills to support patients like my family. I wanted to volunteer because I was looking for a ‘home’ to build my confidence and motivate me to apply to medical school. At the time, I felt I didn’t feel like the kind of person who went to medical school or got accepted to medical school. It took about 5 seconds into my first encounter with a patient to know it felt right—being in the clinic felt right, working with patients felt right, and that I had something special in me to be there (both literally and figuratively).


Do you remember your first day? What surprised you?

Yes! I remember it like it was yesterday…I received an orientation in the conference room and I remember feeling so small in that room, how the light shined in through the windows, how I wished to be on the other side of the table being someone who represented the clinic. I have given classes to patients on the other side of that table, and that growth is something that still gives me immense pride to think of.


What has kept you volunteering all this time?

I would like to serve as a physician at CommunityHealth and so I continue volunteering so that I may serve at every stage of my formation.


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

I have learned how much people care. I have personally seen how my family and people in my community have these past experiences in the healthcare system, in which they recount terrible apathy, discrimination, and feelings of hopelessness. At CommunityHealth, I see compassion, and humility in every encounter, and I know our teams our constantly trying to do right by patients and trying to replace those recollections from other healthcare systems, with positive and empowering experiences.


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

I think my biggest takeaway is awareness: we can make a choice every single day to use our story, our education, our connections, our time, to disrupt a greater system that allows thousands of hardworking, inspiring, heart-warming, and grateful people to fall through the cracks of the healthcare system. My life and career goals are committed to the humility, advocacy, and power that comes from a daily decision by a collective of people to be different, do different, and seek a different reality for our communities.


How has working with CommunityHealth influenced your perception of healthcare?

Working with CommunityHealth has emboldened me to forge my own path in healthcare. If I see an injustice being committed on a collective of people, I do not need to be complicit to advance in my training. I can be different. I can work towards a healthcare system/future that aligns with my values.


Can you share an especially memorable moment working with a patient/fellow volunteer/staff member?

I remember when I was working with a patient in a class, and we were asking each participant why they came to the class to learn about diabetes. She said she was here for her granddaughter, she wanted to learn about the condition her granddaughter has and wanted to support her making changes in her life. I was awestruck because I was reminded the faith patients have in us to help them seek wellness in their families. It’s an invaluable reminder that we have in immense responsibility and privilege to serve.


What does being a healthcare professional mean to you?

Being a healthcare professional means I get to serve the other, I get an opportunity to use my mind and my lived experience to see someone, truly see someone, through a lens of trust that comes with a person allowing you into the intricacy of their life and the nuance of their wellness journey.


Why is volunteering important to you? What do you get out of it?

Service is really important to my understanding of self; my upbringing, my culture, my perception of the world, seeks from me a fulfillment of my potential through service.


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

Allow yourself to dream big. If you are an interpreter on that bench reading this right now, just know, things will work out, you will look back and remember all the things that seemed uncertain, are now resolved. Set your MCAT study book down and talk to the other person on that bench. On that interpreter bench, you will meet parents of celebrities (I’m not kidding), high ranking corporate people, international medical graduates, freshmen in college, medical students, parents, people—beautiful people. People who want to see you succeed, people who are hoping your schedules line up next month and you see each other next month to catch up. Take care and good luck, new volunteer!