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Esmeralda Hernandez

I can see we’re in a room right now . . . a small room. I can see the door and I can see the doorknob, but I can’t tell any details about it. I can see that there’s somebody sitting in the chair, but I can’t tell you if you’re facing me or not facing me. I can see shapes and color.

esm crop1I am the one sitting in that chair, and though she can’t quite tell, I am facing Esmeralda. She’s a small woman with dark hair and a round face; there’s something impish about her smile. We’re in one of the tiny conference rooms off the main floor of the Recovery Café, where the lively chatter makes it a little hard to hear her soft voice.

Over the next hour or so, Esmeralda tells me the start-and-stop story of how she came to be here. It begins with herself as a struggling first-grader in Sunnyside, Washington. The daughter of two Hispanic factory workers, she was trying to belong in a regular school. It wasn’t working.

Education was just then getting the technology for dealing with low-vision people. There was the materials, but there wasn’t necessarily the — because I lived in a small town, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of people who understood special education during that era.

So I was lonely.

And that was why, at the age of eight, she went by herself to live 185 miles away at the Washington School for the Blind, where she exchanged the loneliness of being different from the other kids for the loneliness of missing her mother. She was allowed one phone call home every week.

It wasn’t a harsh place. There were housemothers and school nurses and sixteen other girls to play with. There were adults who understood how low vision works – but, as Esmeralda tells me, they weren’t really a substitute.

I didn’t grow up with my mother, really. So that was another thing, you know . . . if I wanted Mom, if something hurt — when you’re a child and you’re sick who do you call for? Mom. When I was sick, we had the school nurse. The campus nurse is who would come. It was an absence of my parents.

But she did get an education; in fact she was valedictorian of her graduating class at the School for the Blind. She also graduated from the local high school that year, where she spent half-days moving through crowded hallways with her cane. By that time there were routines in place for her special needs, but I still have to pause at the reality of how much courage it must take to enter a new place when all you can see is color and shape.

Next would be college. Esmeralda began at Northwest College and then transferred to Central Washington University. She was working on a degree that would let her work in special education for elementary students. School was, for a while, the safest place . . . but – and her voice is low with regret when she says this – she quit a year before she would have finished. It was too hard to keep everything organized. Her professors didn’t think she could do it. She left.

So then once I quit I went into a depression . . . and I felt like I had nothing to offer. So I stayed in Sunnyside and stayed housebound with no transportation and nothing for me to do.

She made her way, finally, to Seattle. A pastor at her church challenged the congregation one day to ask themselves what they were leaving undone: what books weren’t being written, what subjects weren’t being studied, what was it that was being postponed?

To my great delight, Esmeralda tells me that that was the moment she decided she wanted to learn how to draw. She wanted to make art. The little girl whose sister refused to let her color in the coloring book because of her inability to stay inside the lines decided to take up watercolor, charcoal, and acrylic. She signed up for lessons, and those lessons led to the day she sold a piece in an art show organized by Artists & Craftsmen Supply in collaboration with Vision Loss Connection.

All of which is to say, Esmeralda is the sort of person who knows what it means to be open to the idea of doing more and who knows how much time and effort will be involved. About a year after the pastor’s challenge, she found herself in what she calls “a desert time.”

Her living situation wasn’t good, and she felt the need for a safe place to be.

The Café was, in the beginning, just a simple refuge. It was a cool, pleasant oasis during a hot, difficult summer – a place she’d found online and decided to try.

Unlike many members of the Café, Esmeralda doesn’t have an addiction or even a problem with substance abuse. She did have – understandably – a lot of unresolved trauma left over from her childhood.

I needed healing. Recovery from my own past. Recovery from my own not taking responsibility for my own feelings. I needed to know how to do that. And I also needed to know how to learn. In a sense I had a safe place with school . . . and I continued on with college, and that was my identity. School.

But once I wasn’t able to fulfill that identity, I was lost to myself. I didn’t know who I was . . . I needed a healthy way of dealing with people outside of school, and the Café has shown me how to do that.

She’s careful to explain that she knows now that her parents were not to blame; they were trying hard and doing the very best they could.

That wasn’t always obvious, though.

I was really blaming people for stuff that they didn’t do. Things that I needed to take responsibility for. And really blaming my parents for things that they didn’t know that they were doing.

They were just doing their best. And I learned that through the adult children of alcoholics. And I also learned a lot about myself and how I deal with trauma. I learned how my faith connects with that, and how I can understand it a little bit more to be able to help myself get better.

And I kept doing that  . . . I was connecting with the people in the circle.

esm crop 3She’s talking about her Recovery Circle. It’s a very small (usually less than ten) group of people who meet weekly and agree to be accountable to one another. Each group has a facilitator – someone who’s been in a circle long enough to know the ropes and who has gone through a training program. Today – two years after her first visit to the Café – Esmeralda is planning to become a facilitator herself.

She smiles when she tells me about the day she wondered if it was time to leave; she’d gotten what she needed, so maybe she should move on. And then a friend suggested that she might have something to offer in return.

So I thought, “You know what? I can’t just quit. Because I need the Café still. And I’m ready to give back to them whenever I can.” And so an opportunity came, and I’m able to give back. And it feels so good to be able to do that.

This language is the embodiment of the radical heart that beats at the center of this place. Every person’s life is exquisitely valuable. Every one. Every person is needed in a particular way by all the rest of us. If even one person is missing or left out or left behind, the whole is less than what it could be. We are all necessary; we all have an important and specific piece of the puzzle.

It feels so good to know that.