Austin organization brings healing, peace in the midst of trauma

CHICAGO-The weekly healing circles that Austin Peoples Action Center began hosting in December 2020 were a necessary and on-time source of therapy for both its staff and area residents.

"It actually came at a time when we needed it the most," said Cynthia Williams, executive director of the center, which helped bury many young people who lost their lives to violence in the summer of 2020. "When we're having these healing circles, it's an indescribable peace that comes out of it."

The center, based in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, provides a host of social services, including family case management services, a food and nutrition program for seniors, a teen after-school program, and a youth employment program. It used a $30,000 Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services to host its healing circles

A 17-year-old male from the community, a regular participant of the healing circles, attended the center's very first healing session just two days after losing his older brother to gun violence. Three months earlier, his younger sister was killed by gunfire.

"He really was able to share how he felt losing his siblings," Williams said. "He was always the kid that would be joking and playing, so we never knew how he felt. He was the happiest kid of the group. But out of these meetings, we saw a lot of hurt, we saw a lot of uncertainty. He was able to just share his feelings."

The healing circles-sometimes held twice a week-aimed to foster dialogue about race relations and the impact of the pandemic and violence on its community, and to encourage community healing and self-care, explained Tasha Wilkerson, the center's director of workforce development.

Some circles were planned activities at its 335 N. Mason Ave. location; others were unplanned 30-minute sessions, where people just gathered in person or on zoom to share, meditate and pray. The center plans to continue holding the healing circles until June, Wilkerson said.

"For all of us that come into that space [healing circles], everybody walks out of that meeting feeling like they're not alone. That's why we've had so many of them," Williams said.

Other Healing Illinois activities hosted by the center included an in-person African healing dance session and a two-day healing retreat at an Oak Brook hotel for 14 women who have experienced various forms of trauma.

Participants from the center's youth employment and after-school programs have begun working with a muralist to create murals on three shipping containers that will be refurbished into resource and peace hubs.

"At a time when there's been a lot of trauma in the community, we have been able to be that place of peace," Wilkerson said.

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