Get to Know the 2021 MedicalMissions.org Clinician of the Year
CNS, APRN, psychiatric nurse practitioner
From a very young age, Sonata knew she wanted to help people. When she was in kindergarten, she recalls a nun being called back from mission work in Africa because of a teacher shortage in her hometown where Sonata went to school. She would watch this nun cry at times because she missed the children in Africa so much, and witnessing that emotion and passion moved Sonata so deeply that even as a child she felt an impact and call to serve others. Now she balances her time between treating mental health in rural communities in Kentucky, where she has resided for the past 40 years, and providing mission work in impoverished and often war-torn nations several times a year.
How did you get started in mental health nursing?
As I grew up, I wanted to help build churches, but now that passion has grown into an understanding that I am to use my life to build up communities instead of erecting physical buildings. No matter where I serve, I want to learn with the people in these communities, whether it’s in India, China, Central America, South America, Mexico or at home.
It was actually by accident that I got into nursing! I was very shy, and as a freshman in college I got in the wrong registration line with the wrong coursework and ended up in nursing instead of biology and art. When I graduated, I traveled to the Appalachian region, because I knew I didn’t want to just punch a time clock in a large hospital in upstate New York where I was from, so I got in my car in headed south. I landed in Kentucky, and after a year living and working there, my employer wanted to open a mental health unit in the rural hospital where I was working. My master’s degree was specialized in Appalachian community health and mental health, which gave me a needed orientation and cultural context to be able serve in this region. I’ve now been here for 43 years serving the community and trying to improve mental health.
While living in India a few years back, I became seriously ill. I had to accept help from others to survive. I remember a young 17-year-old Hindu woman who bathed me each day and would clean up my mess. She called me her sister, and she took joy in caring for me. It was then I learned how to be a better nurse. Love is about learning to receive as well as give. My time in India taught me to receive and taught me about grace. I learned how to love.
What is the hardest part about mental health work in a rural community?
One of the most endearing qualities of this region is its great love of family. Families are very tightknit and loyal to each other. It has been a bit of a barrier for me, or anyone not born and raised here, to fit in. I am still seen as an outsider, probably due to a remnant of the New York accent I continue to maintain. Like many other places in our country, there exists stigma, shame and stereotypes about mental illness. Often, families will hide their loved ones in efforts to protect them or deny mental illness exists. Certain religious beliefs may keep a person from seeking treatment or taking medication, believing mental illnesses are signs of weakness, a result of sin, or a defect in character.
The most rewarding part about living in a community, whether here or on the other side of the border, is the opportunity to work with marginalized people who may not have had the same opportunities in life due to lack of economic resources or barriers to education. I like to look for local leadership among these groups to help uplift and empower them. For example, I befriended a group of women working in a local sewing factory who were losing their jobs to outsourcing. They were angry and there was a lot of anti-Hispanic sentiment. With the help of churches, we organized a trip to El Salvador. I connected them with their Salvadoran counterparts, women working in a sewing factory there, who were experiencing the same poor working conditions and low wages. We shared our stories and they soon felt like sisters. I love when I can be a bridge to get people to understand each other better. I learned the value of human connection.
What kind of international mission work have you done?
I’ve seen all kinds of horrible situations where medical care was desperately needed. I was once in the midst of war in Central America, in Nicaragua, working in a makeshift ER where I was treating patients with machete and war injuries. The opposition there was burning clinics down and killing nurses and other medical workers around us. I worked with brave medical providers willing to risk their lives to serve others. I learned courage that has sustained me in many other life experiences.
What shaped my life profoundly was living in a refugee camp with my husband in El Salvador during the war in the 1980s and 90s. We were initially a group of three internationals invited to be witnesses of human rights abuses and to provide company to displaced families due to war. Getting to know their histories, families and dreams for the future was the most precious experience of my life. We set up a makeshift clinic to treat the war injured and other illnesses, like typhoid, malaria and dengue made acute by overcrowded conditions. Young women volunteered to be health promoters and were of great service while in this camp. Many continued to work in their home villages once the war ended. Each day as I crossed through the camp on the way to this “clinic,” the refugees would often bless me and tell me we would have our first child as a gift for our service. Never in my wildest dreams would I have planned a pregnancy while in that environment, but their prayers and well wishes came true. At the time, pregnant women in the camp were given more food rations, and the friendships I formed waiting in the food line with other women with big bellies were gifts beyond expression. Sharing suffering with people who pushed light into a dark time taught me about love. In Spanish the words for “to give birth” is “dar la luz” (meaning to give light). I learned to give light.
During my time in this camp, my life was shaped not only by courage but by generosity. I received so much more than I could give. I recall an 83-year-old woman climbing up an orange tree to find me an orange when there was extreme food scarcity. Not only did she climb a tree, she also risked her life because the tree overhung onto a colonel’s property. She was seen as the “enemy” and could have easily been shot out of that tree. I learned selfless giving, kindness and generosity.
In my 20 years of service in Southern Mexico working with indigenous groups at the Guatemalan border, women were seen as men’s property, and the women lacked self-value and recognition of their gifts. I was invited by the community to teach first aid, so I packed up and agreed to go for a minimum of a year and learn the Indian language. However, when I arrived there was great conflict in the village with both adults and children throwing rocks at each other. So, I began with using the mental health skills I had acquired in life to address conflict resolution and forgiveness. I worked with these women to bring out their worth and value. I loved working with them and learning from them, but men saw this as a threat, so my life was threatened, and they tried their best to get me deported with false accusations. As angry as I was, I had to look inward and deal with some of my own past pain and learn side by side with the community what forgiveness really is so I could continue to work with them. I learned what total forgiveness is and how freeing it can be.
What is your biggest goal in your mission work?
I want to build people up and develop their leadership skills. I want to make sure people aren’t dependent on me or the ministry in which I am involved. I want to leave behind sustainable projects giving worth and dignity to the individuals and communities. I like to help provide and teach certain skillsets, whether medical or practical. For instance, in one community I learned children weren’t able to go to school because their families couldn’t afford to buy the required uniforms. So, I invited a group of local women back home in Kentucky who were seamstresses to come teach basic sewing skills. We gathered sewing machines from summer yard sales to bring in our suitcases and promoted ongoing home-based employment for these women receiving the training.
What kind of advice can you give someone who is considering mission work?
The key is being committed to long-term relationships. You must keep at it. It may feel unpleasant to leave your comfort zone of what is known and predictable, but pushing through is worth it; you grow and learn so much and find you have even more to give. It is so much about just listening and being. It’s not so much about “doing.” Spending time listening to stories is often what is most appreciated. It is to arrive without an agenda and to allow yourself to fall in love. And at the same time, it is to allow your heart to be broken. You will find an amazing capacity of the heart to continue expanding.
I feel like I haven’t done anything monumental or extraordinary. We all have something to give, whether you are someone who knows how to sew, bake bread, use carpentry skills or teach children. It is giving of self and the willingness to be vulnerable and learn from others what is the most transformative. Just offer who you are and what you love to do. It doesn’t matter who you are; you don’t need to be a medical professional to help change lives for the better, both yours and the people you serve.
I’m able to devote so much time to mission work due to locum tenens. Locum tenens work has sustained me, and it works perfectly for me to do what I love (and the salary is pretty good!). I take a portion of what I earn and put it toward the work I do. I couldn’t do this without the flexibility of locum tenens.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
As I said earlier, you don’t need to be a medical professional to effect change in your community. All you need is the desire to make a difference and the determination to figure out how to do so. For example, as I mentioned previously, there is a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in my rural community. We have local sawmills here, and many of the workers are Hispanic and live at the outskirts of the community in often bad living conditions. There was fear these Hispanic workers were here to take away jobs from local people. In an attempt to break down stereotypes, I solicited the help of Sunday school classes to provide a meal each week and sit down to eat with these Hispanic brothers and sisters. They were taught some survival English, and bit by bit were able to communicate with the parishioners and understand each other. By sharing their stories and learning about their families back home, soon friendships forged and a bond formed from this humanizing experience of sharing a meal. I believe we all can find situations to be bridges to build new understanding and empathy between people who are not in our cultural, ethnic or faith perspective.
About Sonata’s charity: Levanta, Inc.
I am especially grateful that through this awesome award, the importance and urgency of mental health work is being brought to focus. Now more than ever as we emerge from this pandemic, the need is great. There has been great loss and human suffering all over the world and we can bring hope and comfort.
I have chosen this prize to go to an organization called Levanta, Inc. Levanta is a Spanish word that means “rise up!” This organization was birthed locally in my hometown as I got to know Hispanics in my community. I would travel and be a bridge to their families back home. As I would come to know these families, communities and home churches, I wanted to do all that I could to address some of the root causes prompting people to migrate so far from their homes, causing families to be divided, all in efforts to feed and provide for them. This ministry works predominantly in rural Indigenous communities developing strong relationships and providing training to local leaders and churches to better serve their communities.
We are a group of nurses, teachers, agricultural workers, nutritional workers and pastors who share their time and talents. According to the needs identified in these communities, we dedicate our time to integrative interventions such as reforestation, planting community gardens, composting, caring for the environment, learning herbal remedies and training community members in health promotion all to address the basic needs of body, mind and spirit. We have promoted microcredit groups, with predominately groups of women, but also now with children. Microcredit teaches people how to save money together to avoid the trap of seeking bank loans with high interest rates and penalties. The group itself saves money to be able to make loans in their community, which often births home-based businesses, addressing local poverty. Levanta works with local churches in diverse communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas, some of the poorest states of the country of Mexico. We invite others to join us in support of the work.
I am very grateful to receive this recognition and opportunity to encourage others as I have been encouraged and mentored to serve. Many blessings!