Thursday, January 22, 2015

Career as Ministry

Stacey Sangtian served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2011-2012 at St. Anthony of Padua School in New Orleans, LA, where she lived in community with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Stacey is currently working on a Master’s in Speech Pathology at the University of South Carolina and expects to graduate in August 2016.

This week I headed back to school to continue studies for my Master’s in Speech Pathology. Some weeks I wish I could go back to my DV year (2011-2012) in New Orleans as a pre-school teacher’s assistant where the lead teacher said my work “doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be better than a 3-year-old’s.” Those were the days of being with 3-year-old pre-schoolers by day and 70+-year-old nuns by night, an atypical, but invaluable, experience for a fresh college graduate.

Stacey teaching students how to cut paper.

Those pre-schoolers gave me something to genuinely smile and laugh about every single day. They found joy in the smallest things, an ability I try to imitate in my life. I mean, when was the last time I had an ecstatic response to getting an extra animal cracker at snack time? Over time, however, I discovered the realities some of those children faced outside of the school environment. That girl who loved playing on the magnet board? A different person picked her up from school every day, a glimpse into her unstable family life. That boy who loved running around the gymnasium? He lived in a neighborhood where it wasn’t safe for him to play outside in his own yard. Despite their adversities, the parents did their best to provide their children with a good Catholic education in a safe environment by enrolling them at St. Anthony’s. In return, it was my responsibility to foster that safe, nurturing environment for the children to grow and learn to love school.

Stacey helping a student hold scissors.

Generally speaking, working with three-year-olds was easy. When the children had something to say, they called out my name as their whole bodies wriggled with eagerness to share: “Miss Stacey! So-and-so touched my paper,” or “Miss Stacey! MISS STACEY! MISS STACEY…Today I ate a cookie.” But there was one child in my class, whom I will call DF, whose speech was more difficult to decipher than his peers’. DF didn’t live in the safest area of New Orleans and came from an unstable family, but he loved school. He loved learning, taking on challenges, and tried to choose right over wrong, which is why my heart sank each time a frown and exasperated look of defeat showed on DF’s face at moments when the neither the lead teacher nor I could figure out what he was saying.

One time I sent DF to the “calming square” because he knocked over someone’s block tower…or so I thought. His limited intelligibility made it difficult for him to defend himself, through no fault of his own. Fortunately, one of his classmates came over and explained that it was an accident. Given the context, I pieced together what DF had unsuccessfully tried to tell me and realized my mistake. I apologized to DF, thanked him for trying to tell me the truth, and he went back to playing – no hard feelings, no grudges, just a smile of satisfaction knowing that he was understood.

It was my experiences with DF that first inspired me to explore the field of speech pathology. It is easy for children (and adults) like DF to get brushed aside because they struggle with clearly articulating their needs; consequently, their needs are not met. Think about how frustrating it would be to have the words in your head but be unable to get them out. How does that impact your home life? Your social life? Your life at school? What about answering the phone, or ordering at a restaurant?

The children I served at St. Anthony’s faced a variety of challenging circumstances. Some of the challenges require systemic change for a meaningful effect to take place. Some challenges can be overcome through hard work by the individual. It is easy to get overwhelmed thinking about the levels of challenges people face in the world and figuring out where you fit in the midst of it all.

My experiences as a DV, through my ministry and through witnessing the great work done by the Sisters in a variety of areas, have taught me that there is always room to be part of the solution. I may not be able to fix everything, but I can fix something. At closing retreat, my fellow DV Margaret Knows The Ground (2011-2013) gave a piece of advice that worked as a spring board as I pondered how I would combine my call to service with choosing a job: “View your career as a ministry.” It didn’t happen right away, but I realized that speech pathology would be my career and my ministry.

Stacey beginning a day of school work.

As a speech pathologist, I am able to minister to others by helping them get their voices heard, whether it be through their actual voice or an alternative means of communication. Furthermore, as swallowing falls under the speech pathologist’s scope of practice, I am also able to help people gain the ability to enjoy eating that extra animal cracker at snack time!

As for DF, during my DV year he was ineligible for speech services provided by the state due to his young age. His family could not afford private services. Even though I no longer interact with DF in person, I am reminded of him in the patients I treat and do my best to provide these patients with the same care I would have wanted DF to receive.

You can learn more about identifying signs of communication disorders at