Fhernanda’s Forum

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Chicago Volunteer shines on NJFON YouTube Channel.

“I was so nervous,” Fhernanda Avila says of her first experience being interviewed on television. “I was shaking. It was hard to get the words out.”

Different Drummers is Chicago’s faith-based television program for and about teens. When the producers wanted to do a show on immigration earlier this year, they invited three teens to come and share their experiences. At 14, Fhernanda, a longtime volunteer for Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors, was the youngest.

Fhernanda’s moment in the spotlight can be found on National Justice For Our Neighbor’s newly minted YouTube Channel.

“I’m really shy,” Fhernanda insists. Watch the video and you might have trouble believing her. On screen, she seems so poised and mature. Speak to her and you realize that Fhernanda, shyness aside, is one very determined young woman. She already has her future neatly mapped out. She’s even written it down.

“I have been thinking about this since I was 12,” she confesses, as she starts listing her top three goals: “I want to finish high school and college. I want to go to the Air Force Academy. And then I want to work in either the intelligence community or become an FBI agent.”

Ready to serve her community and her country.
Ready to serve her community and her country.

Lots of teenagers have big dreams and even bigger talk. Fhernanda, however, has moved beyond the talking stage and into the actual doing. An excellent student and athlete at her Chicago charter high school, she is a member of their Marine Corps JROTC. She was also recently chosen to participate in the FBI Explorer after-school program.

“We go through 12 classes in all,” she explains, her face shining with enthusiasm. “We look for clues, interview suspects, and take all the steps a real FBI agent would take.” Fhernanda cites her favorite characters on her favorite television show, Law and Order SVU, as her inspiration. “I love the way they are so kind,” she says earnestly. “They are so persistent in serving and protecting people.”

Kindness and a persistent desire to serve and protect are qualities that Fhernanda calls upon as the youngest volunteer at Northern Illinois JFON’s Chicago clinic. She’s been volunteering at the clinic since she was 12, although she candidly admits, “my mother dragged me to it at first.”

In spite of her initial reluctance, volunteering at the clinic has become a family affair. Three generations of her family—grandmother, mother and daughter—are all valuable members of the JFON team.

“Grandma is a receptionist, and my mom and I are upstairs doing hospitality,” Fhernanda says. “We serve the clients when they come in and talk to them so they can get comfortable. Trust is very important because a lot of people try to take advantage of immigrants. We don’t do that at JFON. We help them.”

Volunteering at the clinic with her mother is fun, Fhernanda says, “because we get to spend time together, but on a different level.” Her serious voice ends and she flashes a dazzling grin. “Here she doesn’t get to boss me around.”

Fhernanda, her father, sister, and mother on a visit to Guatemala.
Fhernanda and her family on a visit to Guatemala.

Fhernanda, born in Guatemala, is a U.S. citizen. She’s never experienced personally the struggles of the people she works with at the clinic, never known what it is to live with the constant fear of the undocumented, or to be the child worried her father will be deported and her family split apart. She has, however, witnessed these struggles in friends, relatives and neighbors.

Ask this busy high school student what motivates her as a JFON Chicago clinic volunteer and she talks about the clients so anxious for their families and so eager to stay in the United States that they keep coming back to the clinic, over and over, at all hours of the morning and evening, to check on the progress of their cases.

These are the people that keep Fhernanda coming back, too.

“I thank God I am bilingual and have the good heart to help people,” she says quietly. “Here I can put my talents to good use.”