Lupe Arizaga accepts her SARC “Service Above Self”
award Support Staff of the Year

On Saturday, October 24, Lupe Arizaga, received the San Andreas Regional Center “Service Above Self”  Support Staff of the Year award.  Lupe has been an Occupational Therapist and led the Early Intervention Spanish-speaking parents groups at Abilities United for over 20 years. Over the years, we estimate that she has impacted the lives of thousands of children and their families from throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Lupe has an amazing personal story that has led her to being an exceptionally dedicated, talented, effective, empathetic, and compassionate occupational therapist for children and their families.
Lupe was only 3 years old when she was in a car accident. While the car tumbled over and over, her arm went out the open window.  A large piece of glass from the shattered window shield fell on her right arm and severed it above her elbow.  Lupe was one of thousands of people, who, each year, acquire a disability.  Unlike most people, Lupe was very young and grew up and into her disability.  She affectionately refers to her right arm as her “little arm”.   Lupe has adapted well to her “disability” and together with the experiences she has had in life because of it, Lupe is the strong, determined, accomplished person she is today.

As an amputee, Lupe spent entire days of her childhood and as an adult with doctors and residents throughout Northern California.  She experienced the medical model first hand (pun intended) and through her father who was born deaf.  Lupe is tri-lingual having grown up speaking Spanish with her mother, using sign with her father, and speaking English in school.  Learning English, and adjusting to life without an arm was quite an adjustment.  But adjust she did, and Lupe won a scholarship to the UC-Davis developmental preschool where she got her first introduction to teachers especially preschool teachers. She learned that school is a wonderful place to learn new things every day, including how to navigate her new world.  As an only child, Lupe needed to learn how to interact with her peers despite getting teased about having one arm.  When she wore her prosthesis, other kids and even professors noticed her arm looked different and teased her well into her college years.  She credits her father for being a great example of how to handle teasing.  Because Lupe’s father was deaf, he also got teased but put on a good face in public.  He didn’t receive the adaptive services he needed early in life or as an adult and this had a deep impact on Lupe and this drove her to want to ensure other people with disabilities and their families receive the therapeutic and medical services needed to minimize the long-term impact of their delays or disabilities.

Motivated by these early experiences, Lupe began to chart her professional course in life and by the time she was in junior high, she knew she wanted a career in Occupational Therapy to help the disabled community, especially in the Spanish speaking community. Lupe eloquently expresses why she became an Occupational Therapist and her passion for serving families: “I was fortunate my family and community let me be who I am.  They never belittled me, they didn’t treat me any different from before my accident.  I never heard ‘No, you can’t do it.’ They were very supportive and provided me an opportunity to be the first family member of our entire family to graduate from high school, read and write, and graduate from college.”

Explaining further, Lupe said: “I know exactly why I do what I do.  I am happy to have this opportunity to work at Abilities United and work with the families we serve.  I have worked with families from all walks of life; from the converted one-room garages in East Palo Alto to the mansions in Atherton.  But that doesn’t determine what is going to happen with the child or family.  Look at me.  I grew up with parents who were illiterate, who never went to school.  My father was deaf and couldn’t speak Spanish or English but developed his own verbal language.  My mother couldn’t write her name until I was in 5th grade, until then she marked a document with an X.  My family provided me a home and clean clothes and good food.  I didn’t even know I was low income until I went to school and got a ticket for lunch.  But they showed me the importance of hard work and making no excuses.  That’s why I value every family and respect their cultural experience.  I am being invited in to their family and am honored to have that invitation.

I’ve been with Abilities United for over 20 years because the organization shares my values.  I like the fact that we serve people of all stages of their life and of all abilities.  When I am working, I see the child and I get to be a part of their family.  I don’t pigeonhole a kid because that’s not how I see things; you don’t know what a child can do, what the family can do, what the community can provide.”

Lupe didn’t let anything stop her from taking every opportunity life had to offer.  She made some choices just to make a point.  Lupe played competitive sports in high school partly to show other kids what she was capable of. And capable she was!  She made varsity soccer as a freshman.  She tried out for field hockey and played all 3 years.  She amazed her coach who didn’t believe Lupe could hold a stick with only one arm.  She broke pushup records in the high school President’s Physical Fitness exam.  In college, Lupe made NCAA track shot put, discus and javelin. She also took up fencing and martial arts and practiced with the men’s soccer team because she played at their level.  By the time Lupe was well into college, she no longer felt a need to prove to people that she was capable.  She stopped using her prosthesis all the time and only used it when she needed it to accomplish a task.
Lupe says she became an Occupational Therapist because she wants to help others.  She received her Bachelors of Science degree in Occupational Therapy with a minor in Arts from San Jose State University.  She wanted to specialize in Pediatrics and did her 3-month internship at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto.  While working at the amputee clinic at the hospital, Lupe realized she needed to wear her prosthesis; to be a role model for children who were going to have an amputation.

The families at Abilities United have come to respect and love Lupe.  They value the fact that she has lived with and gone through many of the same things their child and family are going through.  And they appreciate her hopeful way of looking at life.  Her optimism is contagious and they have hope for their own children.  These families say Lupe is “inspirational”.

For the Spanish-speaking families experiencing the challenges and struggles of helping their child with a developmental disability or delay, it is vital to have therapists and educators who speak Spanish because the information they are getting is complex and medical in nature.  It is also very important for the therapists to understand the Latin culture and relate to families through their language and culture.  Because of Lupe’s personal background and cultural identity, she has empathy.  As an individual, she has experience with the medical model, the appointments, the emotions, and the translations for parents.  She understands how difficult it is for parents to know what to do and how they can help their child.  Lupe recognizes that her mother trusted the system but didn’t have the resources to help her as a child.  This has made a huge impression on Lupe and she wants to help parents feel empowered and better equipped to help their children.  Because she knows these children will have long-term or lifelong affects, she acknowledges and reinforces what families are doing positively.  Most often, Lupe is working with mothers and encouraging with every interaction.  She understands the psychological stages families experience and that each one is unique for each parent and family member.  Lupe respects where families are in this process and she’s sensitive to their individual needs and where they want to be.  Lupe states; “If they invite me to help, I am happy to encourage them and help.”

Lupe has successfully aided, encouraged and inspired families for over 20 years at Abilities United.  In those years, she has impacted thousands of lives…the lives of individual children, their parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, along with their entire community.  Lupe has taken on many roles to serve children and families who need early intervention services.  She is a therapist, teacher, role model, confidant, resource, and cheerleader.  And a dedicated friend.  Lupe’s personal experiences and her infectious philosophy and optimism, truly speak to the power of “the village” and she takes pride in taking on a matriarchal, or as she calls her “co-madre” role in this village of families who desperately need and benefit from early intervention and occupational therapy.  Lupe states: “My personal experiences have helped me to understand and highly value what families want for their child and I see my role as being one that supports, rather than hinders, their decision.  I believe in making decisions with them, not for them. And this in turn teaches the parents how to work with their children.”