Youth Sunday 2022

Heritage Presbyterian Church

Good morning, everyone! My name is Cuquis Robledo, and I am excited and super honored that Reverend Plunkett invited me to come speak to you all again. I cannot believe five years have passed since I last spoke at this congregation. A lot has happened in five years, which I will get to in a bit.

Today I am going to be talking about growing up and how we are all continuously growing up and learning about ourselves. I know that for myself, I have grown up more in the last five years and am still growing up. I am still learning about myself, about how to be an advocate for myself and for others, and how the obstacles I have encountered in my life have helped me “grow up” to be a more resilient person and to live a more empowered life.

Last I spoke with you all, I talked about my experience with bullying in elementary school and how I overcame that experience. I talked about how I was made fun of a lot by the younger kids due to my short stature. At the time, the bullying did hurt, and to some extent, as I look back on that experience, I think I developed a little trauma from being bullied. I also talked about treating others with respect, just as one would treat Jesus, and my road to disability advocacy. 

Now, as I reflect back on talking about my past experience with bullying and sharing it with you all, I realize now that I have grown up so much not only from the time I was in elementary school, but also five years later when I spoke to you all. Last we met, I was just starting my new job at a disability non-profit called Rooted in Rights and my goal was to use videography as a form of advocacy for people with disabilities. I was 22-years old, straight out of university, ready to take on the world! Today, I have two master’s degrees and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor – Associate in the state of TX, as well as a Nationally Certified Counselor.

But, going back to five years ago, I did not realize that there was some learning of myself that I had to do. As I dove into working as a disability advocate, I felt a sense of empowerment. It was so amazing to use my love of creativity, video and empower myself and the voices of people with disabilities. Yet at the same time, I noticed I was starting to spiral into a deep vortex of negativity and depression. While yes, living with a disability comes with its challenges – for instance reaching and opening heavy doors, walking longer distances – I realized there was a sense of bitterness, and pitying myself I was developing from working constantly as a disability advocate. And I did not like that feeling.

As I learned more about what was needed in the disability community, the common theme was education. Educating those who may not know much about what is needed in the disability community – and being respectful while educating others. I often would hear stories of my co-workers or known advocates in the disability community getting enraged, speak in harsh tones, and show resentment towards institutions, lawmakers, or people in general who may not completely understand our lived experiences. And hearing my fellow disability advocates, colleagues, and friends speak this way to and about people who perhaps just don’t know what we need made me uncomfortable.

My last talk was about respect, and also that respect goes both ways. I have since left Rooted in Rights and while I am a disability advocate still in my personal and professional life as a counselor, I advocate in a respectful way that empowers the client and respects all parties. I even think back to the children that used to bully me and believe that a part of that experience was also curiosity that these kids may have had about my size. They may not have known the questions to ask at the time. For instance, when I was doing my practicum for my second master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I had to co-run a group for boys with ADHD. They were of course curious about my size, and I just said Oh I am short because my bones grow at a slower rate than most, but I can still do the same things that you can…just differently! And that was all they needed, just an answer. 

I now imagine the kids who bullied me are in their late teens and early 20s, grown up as well, and now probably are more knowledgeable about the world and world issues than I was in college. 

After I left Rooted in Rights, I decided to branch out and explore other parts of my identity besides being a disability advocate. In counseling, I talk about how our personalities are made up of different parts of ourselves, and I wanted to explore more of myself outside of having a disability and being a disability advocate. I received my first Master of Arts in Interactive Media from Elon University in 2019, and I used my love of advocacy and media in a way to produce documentary films. I traveled to Bogota, Colombia to do a service project where my team and I developed a website and video content for a non-profit that employs people with disabilities. I then created an interactive documentary about the effects of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, and how the people of the island came together and bonded over resiliency. Producing that documentary was a huge part of my growing up experience, where I and my small team navigated the island, lugging around heavy camera equipment as someone with a disability, and making sure that I authentically told these stories about the people in the same form of empowerment I had when I created disability advocacy videos, and promoting this beautiful island for tourists to come. My videos from my service project in Colombia and the interactive documentary have won multiple awards from different film festivals, one of them being our own Houston International Film Festival also known as WorldFest-Houston. 

I then became a Program Coordinator for a small research lab at Duke University, where I still used my video skills and web development skills to promote programming about the intersection between medicine and the humanities. I learned a lot from that position as well…I even created an event that promoted dance and wellness for the faculty, students and staff. I also learned that working on media, by yourself, in a cubicle, was not beneficial for my mental health, and I craved that human interaction and working on a team. The discussion about wellness, the humanities and medicine then led me to change my trajectory…yet again…to apply to graduate school for a second time to become a counselor.

I’d like to think that all of these moments I have experienced in my life have helped me grow. From dealing with bullying in elementary school, to learning how to walk again after a complicated spine surgery in 2007, to using dance to rehabilitate me from that surgery, to becoming a disability advocate, then a documentarian…has led me to this moment of being a counselor. I am able to apply what I have learned about myself, the obstacles I have overcome, my love of creativity and incorporate it all in this profession. And, I am still advocating all of the time for my clients’ mental health. But instead of that feeling of resentment and negativity I had while advocating in the environment I was in when I was doing just disability advocacy, I feel now I am surrounded by people who advocate with a sense of empathy, creativity and passion. And that is what I feel when I work with my clients. 

In that nurturing community that surrounds me today, I have found that I am a stronger person.  Part of that surrounding community involves my own faith.  Without the friends, family, and advocates, I would not feel as good as I do today; and not only do I have my surrounding community, I also have the Lord to guide me, to help me, and to protect me. I often look for signs from the Lord to ensure I am making the best decision for myself and to know that I am going to be ok. Whether it be a gust of wind that blows around me, to a male and female cardinal that crosses my path, I know the Lord is still here and guiding me through challenging times. Without the Lord to guide and help me, nothing I have done would even be possible.  Part of surrounding myself with help and love involves making a conscious decision every single day: the decision to live my life as a positive example for others. The Lord wants that from every single one of us – whether we have special situations or not.

Sure, there are still struggles I still deal with. However, as I learned to become a counselor, one of the philosophies I adopted, which is from the theoretical orientation called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is that we all have a form of suffering we deal with. That is just part of the human condition. And by following my values, which include advocacy, empathy, hard work, and family, I am continuously growing to accept whatever challenges I face in the present, which will help me face challenges in the future. That is how I have grown up. I encourage you to think about how much you have grown up in the last year or two. You’d be surprised with how much you have overcome.