Desteny Espinoza has spent almost all 13 years of her life in a wheelchair. After years of expensive, failed rehabilitation attempts, she still uses her wheelchair, but recently started walking with the help of crutches. Her breakthrough came when she was treated Children’s Rehabilitation Institute of TeletónUSA (CRIT USA) in San Antonio.
"I have dreams and CRIT has helped me work toward those dreams," she said.
Espinoza would like to be an immigration lawyer and an actress, she told more than 100 local community leaders at the Plaza Club atop the Frost Bank Tower during lunch on Thursday.
"A wheelchair doesn't have to stop me," she said to the audience's applause.
Epinoza spoke during the first annual DreamVoice Award Luncheon, which honored CRIT USA with its Advent Award, one of the largest acute pediatric rehabilitation systems in the world. Its services are essentially free, based on a "pay what you can" model.
The luncheon was hosted by DreamVoice LLC, which produces DreamWeek, a calendar of events celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., cultural diversity, and conflict resolution in San Antonio.
"The award is given to the organization or person that celebrates what DreamVoice is all about," said DreamVoice President Shokare Nakpodia, and it's all about "advancing the voices of tolerance, equality, and diversity."
CRIT USA provides comprehensive treatment to pediatric patients with disabilities, which means going beyond physical therapies to the psychological, social, and spiritual for patients and their families.
"Emotional support is one of the most important things in our model of care," said CRIT USA CEO and Chief Development Officer Ricardo Guzman.
The model of care CRIT offers was first started in Mexico in 1999 when the country opened its first rehabilitation center. Soon after, patients from the U.S. began traveling to the facility in order to receive the quality of care that they could not find in the U.S. It was then that the TeletonUSA Foundation was established in order to raise funds to bring a comprehensive care facility to the United States.
Through a televised fundraising event hosted by Spanish-language broadcasting company Univision in 2012, the Foundation raised enough money to begin construction on what would become CRIT USA.
In Latin America, the CRIT fundraisers are “bigger productions than the Oscars” in terms of the audience they draw, as well as the famous guests who contribute, one CRIT spokesperson told the Rivard Report before the center opened in late October 2014.
Teams of specialized doctors have since provided treatment for patients from more than 28 states in the country. With an enrollment capacity of 600, the outpatient facility located in the city's northeast side has a waiting list of more than 900 patients.
"Our program is superior to any other in the U.S.," said Guzman. "It's a great project of love."
As far as the future of CRIT USA, Guzman said he has hopes for expansion in other cities.
"We're hoping to achieve international accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities," he said. "And we're hoping to bring a lot of people here."
Shetigho Agbuke of Redeemer's Praise Church, led a prayer to open the luncheon in which she proclaimed her pride in the city's abundance of passionate and giving people.
"San Antonio is a model for how other cities want to be," said Agbuke, who is Nakpodia's sister.
After the day's ceremonies, Nakpodia honored a few unsung heroes of the city with Voice Awards.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, Hotel Emma Concierge Michele Jacob, Choice Neighborhood Programs Director Beverly Watts Davis and Musical Bridges Around the World Director of Development and Marketing Suhail Arastu, all received an award.
"San Antonio, as most big cities, tends to award the same people, and rightfully so," Nakpodia said. "But my team and I have chosen to honor those behind the scenes."
*Top image: CRIT USA CEO and Chief Development Officer Ricardo Guzman (left) looks on as Desteny Espinoza tells her story. Photo by Camile Garcia.