Meet a Health Hero: Chera Kowalski

"We need to do better, so people feel more empowered to ask for for assistance when needed, whether it be once, twice or fifty times ... "

» You can vote for Chera here from August 22nd through September 18th.

Chera Kowalski

Role: Librarian turned lifesaver at McPherson Square Library, who brought Narcan training to the staff at the library where she works to help combat the opioid epidemic.

What motivates you to try and make Philadelphia a healthier place?
The community I serve as a librarian at the McPherson Square Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is what motivates me. This community is resilient and strong, especially in the face of all it experiences. The entrenched poverty, food and housing insecurities, and being at the center of the city’s drug use and trade for years, along with being the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis, impact this community, affecting both the mental and physical health of its residents. And so, what we strive to do at the library is create a safe, welcoming, and responsive space that meets the needs of the community, which takes form through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) and literacy programming, connecting residents to resources and services like Prevention Point or Community Legal Services, offering the Federal Lunch program year round, being trained on Narcan, and more.

Describe a health or fitness-related turning point in your life.
Learning about how stress and trauma affect the development of the brain and the effects it has on mental and physical health, social and economic aspects of life, which has the potential to create an inter-generational cycle of trauma itself. Learning that put things into perspective for me, both personally and professionally, and enabled me to better understand people and myself. Trauma-informed practice provides an understanding, not an excuse, that can be utilized in way that brings about positive change and healing. This is an extremely important concept because it can help break down stigmas and stereotypes, and empower people.

What policy would you institute to make Greater Philadelphia a healthier region?
Trauma-informed customer service training for all city agencies and quasi-city agencies that interact with the public in any aspect. I read that a couple of city departments, including the Water Department, have already received training, but we need to keep going, especially with the library system. We are working with the public day-in-and-day-out, and our role is to build trust and serve the neighborhood’s needs. Learning more about trauma and how it affects individuals can help us provide better customer service to the residents of this city and possibly improve policies and programs in the long-term.

What’s the most important part of your health or wellness regimen?
Self-care, and for me that is therapy. Mental health and physical health are tied together. You can’t focus on one without the other. Therapy provides me with a safe space to be expressive about my feelings and moods along with learning ways to express and respond those feelings in healthy ways. Depression and anxiety have been present throughout my life, and coming from a family that has a history of substance use disorder as well, I had to learn how to keep myself healthy, which when I was younger was difficult, but I learned that therapy is a tool that helps me be my healthiest. And I am extremely grateful to have access to that resource, and unfortunately accessibility to mental health resources is limited for many, and that really needs to change.

What is your number one piece of health-related advice or encouragement?
Ask for support. The stigmas attached to mental health and substance use disorder or even poverty keeps many from asking for support. Many of us use offensive language, have misinformation, stereotype and more, which creates barriers to support and resources. We need to do better, so people feel more empowered to ask for for assistance when needed, whether it be once, twice or fifty times — maintaining your health is a constant and there will be challenges and setbacks, and placing shame onto others is not the way to nurture a healthy individual or community.

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