For years Cecilia Mannion has been helping victims of gun violence on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Now that same community is rallying to support her as she faces mounting health problems.
Mannion has worked since 2016 in the Little Village neighborhood where she grew up as an outreach worker trying to pull people out of gangs, and as a victim advocate — providing services and support to people who survive gunshots and families whose loved ones are shot to death. Her work was at the center of the most recent season of WBEZ’s Motive podcast about former gang members trying to stop the city’s gun violence.
“She’s the one that helps us out in the neighborhood, nobody else is gonna help us, nobody else is gonna do what she does,” Andres Vargas said of Mannion.
Vargas met Mannion after his brother-in-law Erick Macedo was killed in 2021. She helped the family plan his funeral, pick out a burial site and find help paying for all of it.
“Nobody is prepared for that, nobody’s prepared for you to bury your brother-in-law, and you don’t have the money,” Vargas said. “And she was there for everything, from the beginning all the way to the end. She never left our side.”
Vargas’s family was one of dozens Mannion provided similar help to each year. She’s facing a staggering combination of ailments and is no longer working.
Mannion has struggled with diabetes for years; it runs in her family. Among her many diabetes-related issues, the disease has started to take a toll on her kidneys and her doctors believe she will need dialysis soon — something Mannion is resisting. Years ago, doctors removed cancer from her gallbladder, but they are now concerned they didn’t get all of the cancer and it has spread to her lungs.
And late last year Mannion had heart surgery to implant stents meant to help with narrowed arteries. However, her doctors fear her body is rejecting those stents, which would mean a second heart surgery.
It was those complications that caused Mannion to suffer chest pains a couple weeks ago. She turned pale and had trouble staying awake. Her friend Nanette Luna rushed Mannion to the hospital that evening. Mannion spent the night in the hospital.
The day after she got home from the hospital, a group of young people and families she had helped throughout the years came to her house to show their love and support.
“People were bringing … food and soft drinks and sweets and flowers. I mean, she has flowers everywhere,” Luna said. “That is Cecilia’s biggest thing, she loves flowers. And she said she would rather have them when she’s alive to enjoy them than have them at her funeral.”
Mannion was by Luna’s side when Luna’s son Victor Felix was murdered seven years ago.
“She never says no. She will go above and beyond to help you. No questions asked,” Luna said. “It’s never, ‘it’s too early, it’s too late, you know, I don’t have the time right now.’ She never says any of that. She’s always there.”
Now Luna said, it is time for everyone else to step up and help Mannion.
“I tell her, you know what, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, you have helped selflessly, you have helped so many people,” Luna said. “You’ve helped people that didn’t even ask to be helped. But you offered yourself. So there’s nothing wrong with accepting help from anybody else.”
To aid in the effort, Luna set up a GoFundMe to help cover health care costs and provide for Mannion’s sizable family while she recovers. A previous fundraiser set up by Nikki Swoboda, another mother who lost a son to gun violence and who got support from Mannion, raised about $1,800 for Mannion and her family.
Mannion said for years her doctors have warned her to avoid stress because it is so hard on her heart. But that is a tough ask when her work brought her everyday into the center of the city’s gun violence.
“My job was a very stressful job, but I wouldn’t change it because that’s just me. You know, I’m there to help everybody,” Mannion said. “But I have to get myself right in order for me to help anybody.”
Mannion, who is caring for seven children in her house alongside her husband who is in a wheelchair, said the litany of health issues has sapped her of energy and darkened her outlook. But she said she feels uncomfortable about the support.
“I feel useless,” Mannion said through tears. “Why do I want people to help me? That’s not me. I don’t ask for help. I don’t want nobody to help me. I have to do it.”
Still, Mannion acknowledged the toll this has all taken on her family, and the way the support has been a lifeline. She said the other day, when the family was out of milk, one of the mothers she had helped in the past stopped by with a gallon.
“I know one day I’m gonna get better. I hope I’m gonna get better. A lot of people are depending on me and I have to get right for them.”