[dropcap]J[/dropcap]uana Ballesteros is from Little Village. She is a single mom, an activist, an employee for the Illinois Department of Public Health and the founder of Project Embrace. What began as an idea in late 2011 to give back to her community has flourished into the third year for Project Embrace. It provides an entire prom-ready outfit, including a gown, shoes, purses and jewelry to area high school girls.
With over 20 volunteers on hand, nearly 100 girls will receive help in picking the right dress and the right accessories to match. To date, Project Embrace has collected over 600 dresses, along with tons of shoes, purses, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Money raised goes towards paying for the actual prom tickets of randomly selected lucky girls.
Ballesteros remembers back to her senior year of high school and the excitement that lead up to prom. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience. That day is full of so much fun and represents the conclusion of one chapter in a girl’s life and the beginning of another. I was hearing from friends that work in local high schools in Little Village that girls are missing out on proms because they can’t afford it. I just didn’t want that to be a barrier to miss out on that milestone.”
Ballesteros had her daughter when she was 19 years old, just as she was leaving for her freshman year in college. Right now, her daughter Priscilla is 18 years old and she is a freshman with a double major in political science and sociology at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. “It wasn’t easy. If it wasn’t for the support of my family, I couldn’t finish college. Because of them I have been able to grow as a professional and be here. Priscilla always kept me focused. She is such a wonderful kid,” said Ballesteros.
Even though Ballesteros is a single mom, she started saving for college when her daughter was born and has helped her search for scholarships. “People see that as financially impossible. Don’t look at it that way. It’s not an expense but an investment that will give you so much more. I am constantly looking for scholarships for her. Every little bit helps. I would save money here and there and the money adds up after so many years. I think it’s about prioritizing,” said Ballesteros.
Ballesteros also sits on the board of several organizations, such as Mujeres de Hace and others. She said she gets personal gratification from helping women in Little Village to help mentor them and to help them reach their full potential. “Project Embrace is more than a project, but a mentorship program. Latina professionals can help mentor teen girls because this is what they lack. They need guidance,” she said.
Ballesteros advises all Latina moms: “Don’t lose sight of the important things in life. Focus not on the negative but the positive aspects of your life. Look for your support system and don’t be afraid to use them. We try to be super women and do it all and we drive ourselves crazy. Don’t try to be that. For me, it was about making sure I did well in school. The priority was not to rush and cook and get the house clean. Juggling is hard.”