Melissa Hernandez and her hard working volunteers, including her two sons, serve the forgotten in Chicago.
With her Puerto Rico Project, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2015, she goes out to help those people that are often ignore under the bridges, at the stop lights, all over the city.
“Not everyone is going to make it out of drugs, but just because they don’t doesn’t mean we have to treat people like they are less than,” she said.
Hernandez distributes condoms, clean syringes and is also authorized to give out Naloxone, the emergency medicine used for the treatment of drug overdoses as part of a “harm reduction” program.
“What harm reduction is, is not just meeting people where they’re at and showing up with compassion and empathy, harm reduction also means access to quality care, access to housing, access to just basic needs,” she said.
Basic needs that Hernandez was once denied herself. She was once addicted to heroin and said no one treated her like a worthy human being.
“I’ve been in and out of jail. I grew up in abuse. I was homeless a few times and then I became a victim of human trafficking myself,” she said. “When I was about 18 a doctor told me I wasn’t going to live to see my 21st birthday. It was taking a toll on my heart. My heart was functioning compared to a 65-year-old woman.”
After that warning, Hernandez tried many times to quit drugs all by herself. She finally got clean at age 20.
She said the birth of her first son when she was 22 motivated her to not only stay off drugs, but to go to school to become a dental hygienist and secure a better life for her child.
“Then my child just became my drive,” she said. “I had to go through years of therapy to undo all the trauma that I went through and to be a better mom for my son.”
After years in the dental field, Hernandez went back to school and took courses in psychology and sociology which inspired her to do something for society with whatever she had.
“When I first started, I didn’t have anything,” she said. “I was on a quarter tank of gas and had a dollar to my name.”
To help or donate log on to the organization’s GoFundMe page
As she listened to the people she was serving, she also found her calling.
“It was a little weird because the first story I heard I had like this energy that kind of went from my head all the way down to the toes,” she said. “And I was like I need to be here and I need to be doing something about it.”
Hernandez realized it had to go beyond food. The homeless, the addicted, the abused, especially in the Black and Brown community that rarely had access to services that could help them. So she made phone calls, connected with programs and became a provider of those services for others that live the way she once did.
Besides the Puerto Rico Project, Hernandez now runs the food pantry for the nonprofit Above and Beyond and is the director of outreach for Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center.