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Alum’s volunteering experience leads to better mental health

Woman sitting in front of video screen

Arlene filming for "Making Good."

When Arlene Waclawek’s ’10 mental health was at an all-time low, she embraced one of Illinois State University’s core values and turned to civic engagement to find her purpose again.

When Waclawek realized her passion for art, she decided to transfer to ISU to pursue a degree in graphic design. She longed for a design career and wanted to embrace the opportunities and competitive space that were offered at ISU.

“I heard great things about Illinois State’s graphic design program,” she said. “I was ambitious and wanted a good education and knew that ISU was the place to do it.”

Group of people smiling

Arlene Waclawek (far right) with University Housing staff and actor, Aasif Mandvi at an ISU Cultural Dinner.

While at ISU, Waclawek worked for University Housing Services as a student graphic designer where she designed the department’s marketing materials for students, which included Cultural Dinners. Some of her favorite ISU memories include meeting speakers such as rapper Common and actors BD Wong and Aasif Mandvi.

Along with graphic designing for University Housing Services, Waclawek was the art director for The Vidette and student photographer for the ISU marketing department, which enhanced her love for photography and marketing.

“ISU helped me understand that I had an interest in marketing and publishing because of my experience with The Vidette and other campus jobs,” she said. “My experiences helped me realize the type of work I wanted to do.”

Within a year after graduation, Waclawek found herself working in Peoria, Chicago, and then California in 2016, where she was the inaugural designer and art director for a start-up. She oversaw the creative marketing team and grew within the organization.

Waclawek found her calling and was excited for what was in store for her career.

“It was great for the majority of the time I was there,” she recalled. “Towards the end though, things changed for me.”

While with the company in Los Angeles, Waclawek went through situations that were less than ideal. Her environment started showing signs of hardship and difficulty. With a huge investment of time and energy in her work, she turned into a different person. As her environment grew increasingly difficult, she could see a major change in her mental health. “I was struggling to do very basic things around the house,” she said. “Going to the grocery store, getting out of bed, and other normal daily functions became difficult. When things got bad, I realized that I needed to find help.”

When Waclawek went to the doctor, she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t understand that it was a serious medical condition I had to work through,” she said. “I thought I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the difficult environment I was currently in.”

Every day was a different battle.

“I lost my identity and left my job for medical leave,” she said. “I felt completely lost. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose and I just felt like there wasn’t anything else left in me.”

Waclawek was not like her normal ambitious, self. Instead, she felt nothing. She was unmotivated and stuck.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, until one day she felt like she needed to do something that made her feel passionate again. She searched for volunteer organizations in Los Angeles and a list of hundreds of appeared. “I really wanted to start volunteering to allow myself to get out of the house and participate in something,” she explained. That is when she found CoachArt, a transformative arts and athletics community for children with chronic illnesses with branches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.


Waclawek practicing gymnastics in high school.

As a former level 10 gymnast, Waclawek was impressed with this organization because she knew her own life was built around principles she learned in sports. “Their values described me,” she said. “Having the ability to work with these children allowed me to give back with my talents and interests.” Waclawek began volunteering with CoachArt in August 2019 teaching dance lessons to a 10-year-old named Molly with type I diabetes, who she described as creative, independent, and bubbly.

“What’s amazing is we balance each other out,” Waclawek said. “We’re friends. She will tell me about her day, and I’ll tell her about mine. We’re both sarcastic and we just understand each other.” The two meet once a week, learning dances and creating art together. It helps Waclawek focus on someone other than herself and teach a skill that can be inspirational right now and in the future. In addition, she wants to be a positive female role model for this new and young generation of women.

“You can see the confidence in her eyes when she successfully does what she has been practicing,” Waclawek added. “That and seeing her laugh and smile is my favorite part.”

Two women posing

CoachArt participant, Molly (left) and Waclawek (right) practicing a dance routine.

In addition, she is impressed with the children for being able to step away from their daily world for an hour a week to focus and concentrate on something fun that can teach them lifelong skills that build character.

“Art and dance are ways to be creative and to allow self-expression,” she said. “They are therapeutic ways to acknowledge the fact that you may be suffering a mental health issue, and then to allow yourself to be immersed into the creative process to gain confidence, self-awareness, and even peace of mind.”

CoachArt is fully aware of the benefits for children that come from involvement in art and athletics. Currently offered in the California Bay area and Los Angeles, the organization is small but growing and wanting to expand more.

Their dream for expansion came true when Making Good, a television show focused on different volunteer organizations across the country, heard about the small organization and wanted to feature it on the fourth episode of its second season. The show highlights organizations that should be recognized for their volunteer work nationally.

The episode features Waclawek and Molly doing ballet and gymnastics with the host, along with segments featuring yoga, basketball, and music.

“The program manager reached out with this opportunity for me and Molly to be on the show,” Waclawek said. “It’s goofy, heartfelt, and really expressed what organizations like CoachArt are all about.”

Group of people

Arlene (fourth from the left) with the CoachArt team during “Making Good.”

Waclawek was excited to be on the show and for more people to know about CoachArt because she is so fond of the organization’s services and what it has done for her.

Along with helping these children accomplish their personal goals in growth and learning, being a part of CoachArt has forced Waclawek to take her mental health into her own hands. “It’s given me an outlet and allowed me to slowly come out of the depression that I was going through and has helped me manage a lot of my anxieties,” she said.

“I’ve learned that sometimes you have to accept that some things cannot be changed, but there are ways that you can find happiness in your current situation regardless of what is going on,” she added. “Whether it’s your environment or your mental or physical well being, it’s important to trust yourself when things are feeling off.”

Waclawek has been taking her mental health journey one day at a time with the love and support from her family, close friends, and boyfriend, Johnny.

Four people

Arlene (far left) pictured with her family.

Along with the support from her loved ones, CoachArt has also had a tremendous impact her life and her mental health. By giving back to the community and working with children who need her, Waclawek has begun to feel whole, healthy, and empowered. Being a part of this organization has made Waclawek realize that her passion is more than graphic design and marketing.

“Volunteering has changed me and made me realize that my true passion is not being creative or teaching, but it’s simply helping people,” she said. “It truly makes me feel like I have a sense of purpose.”

Waclawek’s experience with CoachArt has allowed her to apply mindfulness and find what makes her feel well and balanced. What she saw is that finding a way to be civically engaged and volunteer is not only beneficial for clients of an organization, but it has also made a lasting impact on herself.