By Rebecca Hopkins, Paraclete Mission Group – Writer about nonprofit work.
This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.
Part 7: A Leadership Profile: Shesnarda Rivera
Shesnarda Rivera has learned to walk and talk twice in her life. She’s adjusted to several different versions of her own face. She’s adjusted to various cultures, countries and is bilingual. And she’s had to get used to the fact that she—a Guatemalan woman—is also a leader.
In Guatemala, especially in certain areas, “women are not really seen as leaders,” she said.
And since disabilities are often considered a curse from God, Rivera’s condition—Crouzon syndrome—could’ve disqualified her from many things, including being a leader in an international physical therapy ministry.
When she was little, her parents noticed something was off. At that point, doctors in Guatemala couldn’t figure out what was causing the pressure on her brain, and didn’t know how to treat it.
“The prognosis is she’s not gonna walk, not gonna speak, not going to be able to go to school,” she explained. “My parents didn’t know what to do or where to go, except pray.”
She did manage to learn to walk and talk, but as she grew, her future was uncertain. At age 5, her family moved to the United States for two years so Rivera’s dad could get his master’s in education at a university in Albuquerque. While there, doctors discovered the syndrome, in which her skull bones fused together too quickly, not allowing her brain to grow, increasing the pressure. She had her first operation at age 5 to open up her skull, giving her a scar that crosses her head from ear to ear. She lost the ability to walk and talk for a while, but, with the help of therapy, regained those abilities. She had 11 more surgeries throughout her childhood, many of them altering her face.
“My image would change depending on surgery,” she said. “It took me weeks to get used to my new face.”
She couldn’t attend regular school because of all the procedures, so her mother homeschooled her instead. Her medical needs required much sacrifice for everyone in her family. But the ordeal also offered something more than just a chance to heal. It gave her a dream.
“I had to go through the whole rehabilitation process,” she said. “That’s how I got interested in being a PT (physical therapist) Since I was little, I wanted to use my skill for serving others, but I didn’t know exactly how.”
Her dad was on the board of a pastor training center and clinic in Guatemala called Association Equipping the Saints International. He asked Rivera, at age 8, to translate for English-speaking medical teams so that she wouldn’t lose the English she’d learned in the States. Years later, after earning her physical therapy degree and license, doors started opening at a university for her to teach. She could make a decent living, live in the same city as her parents and use her new degree. But something seemed to be missing. She remembered enjoying watching the medical teams with ASELSI and asked if she could volunteer a couple days a week with American physical therapist Jennifer Hoines for three months while conducting her research (Hoines was featured earlier in our series).
“The original plan for me was to go two times a week, just to do my research,” Rivera said. “Then I just felt like I had to stay longer. I said, one more day, then one more day, then a whole week. At that time, Jennifer had to travel to the States because her mom was ill and was diagnosed with cancer. At that time, I had a better understanding how everything was run. I said, ‘You can go, I’ll stay here.’ I was there a year. Now I’m in my seventh year.”
Though the opportunity meant being separated from her tight-knit family, Rivera’s father told her he was excited that she could be mentored by Hoines.
“She’s a woman, she’s in leadership, she served the Lord,” Rivera explained her parents’ reasoning.
These days, parents are encouraging their daughters to find organizations that will let them grow, said Wendy Wilson, executive director of Women’s Development Track, an organization that develops women in ministry and leadership, including both Hoines and Rivera.
“We’re seeing this with more men in the boomer and Gen X generation who have raised gifted daughters,” Wilson said at a recent Webinar for Missio Nexus. “More parents are looking for organizations that will be a place where their daughters can grow up with models of women serving and thriving as kingdom partners across a spectrum of roles. They’re concerned that their daughters will have a way to make their most meaningful contribution.”
Hoines started out at ASELSI, too, but then saw a need and an opportunity to start her own organization to train rehabilitation promoters—Guatemalans from remote areas—to take therapy into the villages. Most physical therapists and clinics are located in the cities, but people with disabilities from the villages have a difficult time getting there. Parents have to leave work, pay transportation costs, and even walk miles carrying a child.
“Sometimes the public buses won’t take them when see a kid with a disability or a wheelchair because they think it will take more time, or an extra seat,” Rivera explained.
Hoines founded Therapy Clinics International and asked Rivera to join her as the director of TCI in Guatemala.
“Jennifer has helped me a lot with developing those leadership skills that I didn’t know I had,” Rivera said.
Women often don’t see themselves as leaders, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have those giftings, Wilson said. Being a mentor to a woman with leadership potential is an important bridge for her.
“Women seem to wrestle more with a lack of confidence,” Wilson said. “This too is often an issue of recruiting gifted women into your leadership team. Women still have fewer women role models and female mentors in leadership to help them confidently envision their contribution. So, (organizations should) help provide mentors and an opportunity to gain new skills that they feel they lack.”
Rivera is a good example in communities that often don’t educate their daughters beyond third grade, where girls grow up to become cleaners, with few other opportunities.
“Mothers and fathers can see what their daughters can do as well,” she said.
Hoines remembers a story that highlights all that Rivera brings to TCI. A boy needed therapy because of seizures and cognitive delays such as having trouble walking. As soon as Rivera saw him, she knew what was wrong, due to his scar from ear to ear, like a headband—like hers.
“I just realized that could be me,” Rivera said.
He’d had one surgery, but his parents were too scared by the procedure to keep going with more surgeries, which limited his ability to keep growing well.
“I had the same thing your son had and went through the surgeries,” Rivera told his parents. “The mom said, ‘You had the same thing? I look at you. You’re OK.’ That was the first way I could see how my story could help others.”
“A lot of caregivers don’t know what to do,” Hoines said, adding that Rivera “has an understanding of culture. She’s a great teacher, too.”
Rivera and Hoines are trying to do more than change lives—they’re trying to change a culture.
“We encourage our families and help our families understand to value people with disabilities and all the things they can do,” Rivera said. “Especially working with churches, we’d like them to see that people with disabilities are not just there to be served. They can serve and be part of the body of Christ.”
This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track. Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.