Q&A With Ahleah Balawender, Ohio Native Running For Village of Tinley Park Clerk
There’s Something About Ahleah, Learn Why She Leads
Ahleah Balawender’s campaign is in full bloom for the 2023 Consolidated General Election this spring. Running for the position of Village Clerk of Tinley Park, this will be Ahleah’s debut running for any political office.
Tight knit communities like Tinley Park can be hard to weave into, so I was curious to get to know Ahleah who, like me, is new in town.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ahleah last Friday at one of the new Tinley Starbucks. Here is my Q&A with her from that day.
Q&A With Ahleah Balawender
Stephanie Pyrzynski (SP): Where did you grow up?
Ahleah Balawender (AB): I’m actually from Ohio. Born and raised there. I came to the Chicagoland area for the first time when I did my first master’s program. I came out for Midwestern University in Downer’s Grove. Went back to Ohio for my Master’s in Anatomy at Case Western University in Cleveland. While I was finishing up that program, I came back here for PA (Physician’s Assistant) school. Completed my PA program in the city (at Malcom X College), and then I never went back.
SIDE NOTE: Ahleah earned her 2nd Master’s degree at Saint Francis University in the Chicago, here in the southwest suburbs, in Medical Sciences.
SP: In Ohio, were you involved in student council or anything? Was there something from your childhood that brought you to this moment?
AB: No. I was very involved in some group things, like I was a cheerleader, my sister and I danced competitively from the time we were born, till the time that we all left for college. But I think one of the biggest things that I was involved in, were a couple of club activities and groups where I was president. Not that I wasn’t afraid to be a part of a group like that.
I’m very organized. I like to keep things organized, so maybe that came from part of it. I also had parents who were extremely supportive. Not necessarily that they were like, “Hey, go out and do these things,” but whatever role my sisters and I went into, they were there behind us. Cheering us on and supporting us the whole entire way. So more like, “Hey, you’re a strong, smart woman. You stand up for yourself. We have your back the whole way.” So maybe that aspect of my upbringing. But no, I was never involved in student council. In eighth grade, I was our secretary, but that was it.
SP: There’s been a big push in the last few years I’ve noticed, in national news and on social media—of new organizations and individuals trying to help women run in political races and to be more a part of government. Like for instance, SheShouldRun.com and the like. So I’m curious to learn how you got into this race. What gave you the drive for this? Did you do it on your own? How did you get here?
AB: A big part of it was I had known some other people who had been at the park district, and they were the ones who said there are a couple positions that are going to be up for election this year. And I had expressed to them a couple years ago that I would be interested in getting more involved in our community, and trying to make those positive changes that I really have been pushing for.
SP: What gave you the courage and drive to go for it? It can be intimidating for some.
AB: I think a big part of that comes from the job that I do. But more so because I felt like so many people just didn’t have a voice. Whether it’s they don’t have it, they don’t want to share it, or they’re afraid or intimated—I felt like I was willing to take that on no matter how scary it is.
But trust me, there are days where I’m like, “Ugh, this is a rough day.” Especially when there’s all kinds of things posted about on social media, things that aren’t true. Things from your history, your background, everything that’s being brought up and ridiculed. But I feel like I have very tough skin. I’m here to take on that fight. And I really feel like everyone in our community, regardless if it doesn’t match who is leading our community right now, should still have a voice. We are all entitled to have some opinion and a voice. And for me I was like, “Okay, well I can do this. It cannot be any worse than what I deal with at work on a daily basis.”
SP: You mentioned that you knew some people at the park district. Was that through being a part-time instructor or something?
AB: No, just people that I met in the community. My husband, I are very involved in the Bulldog organization [it’s a non-for-profit Tinley Park athletic club]—my husband has been a football coach, I think for the last five years. I’ll be a first time cheer coach this year! So we have kids that are similar ages. My husband has been here for 43 years, so he knows a lot of people internally. Even people he went to high school with that have actually moved back to the area are now raising their families here. My husband knows someone actually who’s on the [park district] trustee board right now that he knew from high school as well. So it’s more just through connections and people that we’ve met.
SP: Are there any female issues that you’re thinking about, to make happen for women in the community at all?
AB: I will push anything that is going to promote any positivity in the community. Obviously empowering as many women as we can, like you said. There’s not enough of us out here running in political positions. We’re very underrepresented when you look at the village board right now. So trying to get more opportunities for, whether it’s moms or other women in our community who want to be able to do this, I think that is a great thing.
SP: How would you describe what you do, your non-political career?
AB: I am a psychiatry PA at Cook County Jail. I work on the men’s inpatient psych unit, officially eight years as of yesterday. I’m the only one who has been there for that amount of time. All of my other colleagues have left or gone on to other divisions. It’s a very high stress population, a very unique population.
And while the majority of my patients are mentally ill, there are plenty who are not. And those are the more difficult patients. The ones who are trying to get special privileges, housing, get off the tiers that they’re on, more of the institutionalized patients. And those are the ones who are threatening you on a daily basis, saying really nasty things.
So I have built up some very tough skin. But primarily my job is to educate my patients on mental health, diagnose patients, treat my patients, come up with patient plans, work with my mental health specialists, my nurses, my officers, to make sure that we are medicating these patients appropriately and advocating for their mental health.
So many of them have never been diagnosed with mental illness because of the populations they’re coming from, whether they’re homeless or they have no family support.
I’m working in inner city populations with two of the largest groups of individuals who have some of the largest mental health stigmas. So for me, that is what I get to do every single day. I get to walk in, see my patients, diagnose them, educate them on things, let them know you can still have a life outside of these walls, while still helping them process everything they’re going through in a correctional setting.
SP: You’re bringing up a really good point about mental health because I feel there isn’t enough awareness or understanding of how common mental health issues are. Mothers who suffer a psychotic episode after having a baby for instance. There are just so many stigmas.
AB: I feel like the mental health stigma and the education behind it, and just the awareness has started to become a little bit more full circle.
I think before it was always just very hidden, right? No one wanted to talk about it. No one wants to admit they’ve suffered with depression. No one wants to admit that they have schizophrenia. Or something that’s considered really scary in the mental health world.
I think the more people talk about it [mental illness], whether it’s these celebrities, or sports athletes who have come forward and said, “Hey, I struggle with this. It’s okay. And look at what I’m still doing with my life,”—I think that is a huge thing. The more that we talk about it, it’ll not be such a taboo subject anymore, and the more comfortable people will be talking about it, including our children.
So many kids are afraid to talk about bullying, things that they’re going through in school. So I think the more open we are about it and educating, it can affect anyone from any kind of background. I think those are the ways that we need to keep pushing. And that’s something I feel very strongly about.
SP: How do you deal with social media? What would be your advice to a mom (or woman) who maybe isn’t running for political office, but is thinking about running for say PTA. What are your views on handling social media? What are your thoughts on it?
AB: It can be scary, right? There are things posted about everyone every single day that may have truth to it. Maybe not. Maybe it’s someone just trying to tarnish your characteristics and your personality, or trying to only point out all your flaws. I try not to look at that stuff. I know it’s easier said than done. Obviously people are gonna talk about other people, right? I feel like if you do not know that person personally, there’s no reason you should be talking about those people. Also if people are saying things about you, I hope that you’ve stood up for yourself, but at the same time, is it really worth it sometimes? Like, is it really worth your own mental health staying out there and having to combat every single little nasty thing that comes across social media about you? Sometimes for my own mental health, it’s not worth it.
People can say things about me, but until you’ve actually met me and you know who I am, what I stand for, and ask the people who are closest to me—I feel that’s where we should really figure out who someone is. We shouldn’t be facing judgment based on what you read on social media. Now if there’s actual fact to it and there’s something that says, “This is what’s really going on,” that’s different. But other than that, I try not to pay attention to most of it.
My husband is a big supporter of mine. He’ll look and be like, oh, we’re not gonna talk about what’s going on today. Which I thank him for all of that. He’s been very supportive through this whole process, but I try not to look at it [social media]. Again, easier said than done.
Obviously we know kids and adults are connected to their phones. We have access to everything at the touch of a finger. And we don’t let our kids go on social media. So I think that’s helpful, but eventually they’re all gonna be on there, right? So we’re trying to promote being kind, to treat other kids kindly. And I would hope that the people in our own community, especially our adults, are also giving those good examples. And we know not everyone does, but I definitely don’t like the bullying aspect, putting people down. Trashing people on social media to me, that’s just so immature and childish. Like just not necessary.
Now do I make fun of myself on social media all the time? Do I share my funny stories, or what my kids do on social media? Sure. But that’s not to make fun of them, it’s to show another mom going through this today, that I’m dealing with the same things. And I feel like that’s how we should be using social media—not as a way to take other people down. Especially women taking other women down.—it’s not helpful to anyone. It’s not good for anyone’s mental well being.
SP: As one of the few women that would be on the village board, how would you picture your first day to be? How would you go about fitting in? How would you handle your first day?
AB: <laugh>I don’t even know if I’ve thought about that. I already know that there’s going to be a period of adjustment, right? Everything that’s new or changes, no one likes to go through those things. So I’m already expecting to face some, not necessarily animosity, but, “Hey, this is not who was here before.” I also am running against the other person that they have in here right now. So I’m not expecting to walk in there and hear something like, “Oh my gosh, we love her. This is so great.”
I want us all to work together. I have no plans to come in and disrupt everything, or say something like “I don’t like what you guys are doing.” But there have to be better things to happen for our community.
I think one of the biggest things is not being afraid. I feel like I’m a pretty strong person, so if someone does say something negative to me, kill ‘em with kindness right? Respond with “Well, thank you for your opinion. Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure out how we can do it and get through this as a group,” instead of lashing out, or name calling, or putting other people down. That’s the only way I can go into it: thinking positively, hoping for the best, but knowing that it’s not gonna be perfect; it’s not gonna necessarily be easy my first day there.
SP: What’s one of the things that you really hope to introduce that isn’t a part of things right now at the Village?
AB: Just trying to stay really positive as a group. That’s, that’s all I can really push for.
Making sure that we are not hurting people’s feelings is part of it, but making sure that we are all being held to the highest standards because we are representing the voice of our community.
If there are kids who want to go into these roles one day, even other adults who maybe want to be more involved, but they’re worried about how things are going to be approached with them—we want to be able to say, “We do wanna work with everyone. We wanna represent everyone’s voices here, and that is our main goal.”
My biggest things [values]: ethics, accountability and transparency. I feel very strongly about those things, especially given my background, working in mental health. I feel like people need to be held accountable for what they say, and how they treat people.
SP: What’s one thing that you wish you knew before you started this? Something that would’ve saved you some time, or peace of mind?
AB: That’s a good question… Not that I didn’t think this was gonna take a lot of time and energy, but I’ve probably walked 50 to 60 miles since my campaigning started. There are Saturdays and Sundays where I walk 8 to 10 miles a day, meeting people face-to-face, which I love. I love getting to meet people. Thats’ why I’m doing this.
SP: That’s a lot of steps!
AB: Yes! So I go to work and then in the evenings my husband will normally come with me. We walk 2 and a 1/2 hours on Mondays and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and the same on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m walking from like 11 AM till 4:30/5:00 PM. If you look at my steps for the last month, I’ve hit well over 50 miles. So that is the one thing—I didn’t realize there’s going to be so much walking.
And then also the weather, which obviously none of us can predict. But there are nights where I’ve walked in the rain. There have been nights where it’s been snowing, and other nights where it’s been beautiful. The very first weekend I went out and started campaigning throughout some of the neighborhoods, it was beautiful out, like 49 F degrees. It was stunning! I was like, “I can’t ask for a better day.” Five days later, there was snow!
There’s even been a time I took my stepdaughter with us. We pulled her in a wagon. It was a whole family affair. She was wrapped up in blankets, had goldfish and all of her snacks. But, I mean, any way that I can get out there and meet more people has really just been been my primary goal right now.
I love meeting everyone and hearing people’s concerns. There are a lot of people, when I go to their door, who say “Oh, we didn’t even know someone else was running” and then they share their concerns with me. That is why I’m doing this. I have genuine concern. And I’m happy to meet those people and hear their concerns, and hopefully I can help foster that relationship with the rest of the board.
SP: What do you think is unique, or a big difference between the North side and the south suburbs? What do you notice?
AB: I feel like it’s a lot easier to have a family and have a home out here. I’m not saying that I didn’t love the time that I spent in the city, but I was single in my late twenties. It was great, right? I loved the nightlife. But I love being able to have this homey feeling and growing up where I feel like our community is very family-oriented. I want to make sure we stay that way, making sure that our kids have this place, which I think is really important. And I feel like that is really strong out here. Making sure our school districts are great, making sure that we have safe places for our kids to be able to go.
I will say that the biggest difference is probably your food options. Living in the city, you could order from anywhere, any time of the day. So if I wanted one food for lunch and something else for dinner, it was so easy out here. But I do appreciate all of the family owned businesses, the small businesses, and of course, all the chain restaurants here. Who can say no to all of those, right?
But whatever your family may be, or whatever family means to you is very important to the south suburbs compared to what you see in the city. I feel like a lot of people in the city are just go, go, go, go. It’s nonstop, 24/7, and you live a very busy lifestyle. I give credit to the people who can raise their kids in the city where, you know, you may be living in a high rise and that’s where you have your kids. And if that works for you, that’s awesome. But I love that we have yards and parks and great school districts and places for our kids to be.
SP: April 4th is coming quick. What is a call-to-action that you want to give people?
AB: It’s getting very close to even early election, which starts March 20th.
The biggest thing is really just getting my name out there and making sure people are saying, “Hey, make sure you’re registered and that you’re going to vote.” Share posts for me on Facebook, or, if you’re not on social media, request signs from me.
I can have thousands of people say, “Hey, we love her, we want her to do this,” but if you don’t show up to the polls to vote, it doesn’t mean anything. So the biggest thing is that people have to show up and vote.
For more information about Ahleah, like requesting a sign, contact her through her website: https://ahleahforclerk.com.
You can follow Ahleah at her public Facebook page by using the search term: Ahleah for Village of Tinley Park Clerk.
Homer Glen Mayoral Race
Did you know that neighboring southwest suburb Homer Glen could see the election of its first woman mayor? Read about the candidate at the Chicago Tribune’s Daily Southtown here: The battle to be Homer Glen’s 1st woman mayor: Clerk Christina Neitzke-Troike, Trustee Rose Reynders face off.
Ethics Disclaimer On This Profile
This article is not a political endorsement, but organically written and pursued out of curiosity by the writer. I received no form of compensation and the subject of this article did not reach out for coverage. Nor did anyone attached or in someone connected with her campaign team contact me. The other person running for Village of Tinley Park Clerk is Nancy O’Connor, who is the current Clerk for the Village of Tinley Park.
Given that most persons running for other positions are either running uncontested, are incumbents themselves or are well known by most voters, I decided to concentrate my work elsewhere. As well as I saw nothing newsworthy for readers during this election year, to make it logical for me to do interviews this election cycle.
Unfortunately I caught wind of Ahleah’s running only recently, giving me not much time on my side to cover the other candidates with my schedule. This can also be attributed to the announcement of her intent to run being made soo late in the game, and other factors outside of my control. But being completely new in everyway a candidate can be made it unquestionably newsworthy to pursue her story further for readers. And it would be worse to not write anything for fear of seeming outwardly exclusionary or showing favoritism, etc., when in reality this interview was an afterthought.
Also, as a one woman operation, the volume of articles I can write is dependant on my time outside of my business affairs and personal affairs as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. It is also illogical and unfair to assume the same level of news coverage output from a local lifestyle mom blog. Politics is rarely covered on this blog as a fact, and in those few articles you will see how context and transparency are given; with not a drop of endorsements, misreporting, or yellow journalism in them.
So I hope I have made clear that I have written this article unbiasely, and as objectively as anyone who wants to learn about someone unknown. Remember, this is one mom’s blog who dabbles in journalism, but is full-time in her life as a business woman and mother. I write as someone who wants to stay in the know about what she doesn’t know, and save others like me time by sharing what I learn.
To see all offices up for election, search filed candidates, and follow unofficial election results, citizens of Illinois can visit the up-to-date Illinois State Board of Elections website’s mainpage for the 2023 Consolidated Election.