UPDATE: Read another inspiring story about Dalila, her mom, and the inspiring work of our sisters at Rosary High School and the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora, Ill.
Here's an International Women's Day Special for the start of Catholic Sisters Week. Don't miss this moving account of how one woman's perseverance transformed her family's fortunes with the help of the Dominican Sisters. Watch and share this Catholic Sisters Week kick-off video or read the story below.
Dalila Alegria is a passionate advocate for mental health, a grateful champion of the fortitude she learned from her immigrant mother, and a believer in the positive influence of Catholic sisters.
She describes her executive director job for a small non-profit as “strategic planning, big picture work” through which she addresses issues of mental healthcare access and equity for the largely immigrant and first-generation population she serves in Aurora, Ill., and surrounding communities.
Her organization leverages government funds to meet the mental health needs of the citizens of southern Kane County. “We are fortunate to have these local funds available” she said, because so many regions of the state don’t.
“It’s hard to be the advocate for mental health because it is swept under the rug, or people face a long wait list, or a lack of bilingual services,” she explained.
“You pivoted our trajectory for life”
Dalila is a powerful advocate for others now, but there was a time when she couldn’t have imagined that. Her gateway to a meaningful, purposeful life was her mother Rosa, whose life and fortunes were turned around with the support of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield who sponsor the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora.
The center’s founder and director, Sister Kathleen Ryan, agrees. “Rosa’s decision to learn to read, write and speak English at the Dominican Literacy Center impacted her life and her future, and her family’s life as well. Dalila’s success is proof that literacy is life-changing.”
As immigrants from Mexico, her parents had a tough life, Dalila says. They lived in poverty on Aurora’s east side. “Dad had issues with addiction. We were just barely surviving. My mom was the one who got us ahead in life.”
Her mother did that by learning English at the literacy center, getting her high school diploma, and showing her children that by never giving up they could get ahead in life.
It was the support of DLC founder Sister Kathleen Ryan and Rosa’s volunteer tutor Sister June Volpe that “pivoted our trajectory for life” as Dalila put it.
“We did not leave our bubble”
“You have to understand. We were very first generation, very unaware of what was going on in our community. We went to school, church, and the grocery store. We did not leave our bubble,” she said.
That was, until Sister June arranged for Dalila to take the entrance exam for Rosary High School, the Dominican Sisters’ all-girls school on Aurora’s west side.
“Sister June set it up so I would be able to take the entrance exam at Rosary,” Dalila said. “I remember she had to spell out the street to my mom and give her step by step directions on how to get there because we had never been to west side Aurora. We were that closed back then.
“We went, I took the test, and I guess I did decent because you sisters figured it out. I got a full ride to Rosary for the full four years. Fr. Joe at St. Therese Parish where the center is located was able to pick up the tab for my books and my uniforms so that I didn’t have to pay a cent because otherwise we couldn’t have afforded it.”
First for Dalila and then for her younger sister, the sisters at the literacy center and at Rosary found sponsors so these young women could continue to study at the college preparatory school.
Dalila shared a story to illustrate the struggle she had adjusting to life at Rosary. “We came from such poverty that if you left a pencil in the hallway [at her middle school] you weren’t going to get it back because someone [would have taken it].”
At Rosary, it was customary for the girls to drop their bookbags in the foyer before going to the cafeteria. “I took my bookbag with me because that was not my style. I remember Sister Loyola told me ‘You can leave your book bag’ I’m like ‘No, they are going to steal it.’ that was my mentality. It took me a while to trust that my stuff was going to be safe at Rosary.”
The support for her family didn’t stop with only a high school education. Sister Kathleen got her part-time work at the parish. When she was old enough to drive, the sisters sold her a car they were replacing so she could get back and forth to school. “You guys are just miracle workers and really set us up for success,” Dalila recalled.
“If it wasn’t for that foundation, I don’t know what would have happened,” she mused. If she had gone to a different school. If she wouldn’t have gotten that job. “You guys didn’t give us a fish you taught us how to fish.”
“Set the world on fire”
Here Dalila stops to recall the recent publication of We Are Eagles, the book by Anna Marie Kukec Tomczak about the impact of the literacy center on the lives of five of its graduates. She said she read it in one sitting because she saw her family on every page. “That story is so powerful. We are just one family and that was 23 years ago. Think of all the families that have gone through there and how many people you’ve impacted.”
Dalila’s sister is in administration for a school district and her brother is a detective. She has six nieces. Two currently are enrolled in Catholic schools. The other four understand “They are on the track to go to Rosary,” she laughed. “We’ve already taken them to Rosary events. One of my cousins recently graduated from Rosary. If it wasn’t for Rosary we wouldn’t be where we are. We are huge believers that that is the path that set us straight.”
When asked what message she would like to share with her nieces, Dalila doesn’t hesitate. “St. Catherine of Siena” she says—as any Dominican-educated woman might: “Set the world on fire. Be who you are meant to be and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”