Shana Harrison’s journey to the Sheltered Workshop La Esperanza led her from an Arkansas catfish farm across three continents to Santiago, an unfamiliar city of nearly six million people whose language she didn’t speak.
What began in 1997 as a nine-month tour in Chile with Volunteer in Missions has become a long-term commitment to La Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”), the workshop for mentally handicapped adults that Harrison helped found. As workshop director and a field executive of the General Board of Global Ministries for the United Methodist Church, she works with local governments in Chile, international mission organizations, and mission groups from across the United States to meet the needs of a special group of people who regularly help her see “ordinary moments turned into worshipful ones.”
These moments still catch Harrison by surprise. During a walk back to La Esperanza after a recent field trip at a nearby park, Harrison’s group began making animal noises. When she tried to establish order by asking, “Are we animals or humans?”, she was promptly reminded by one of the group, “The animals are of God too.”
The Journey Begins
The first leg of her transcontinental journey took Harrison across the Atlantic to the British Isles. At the suggestion of Brett Webb-Mitchell, her Christian education professor at the divinity school, she took a leave of absence during 1995-96 to live in L’Arche, a community for adults with handicapping conditions, in Inverness.
“It was there in Scotland that the pieces of my life began to come together,” says Harrison. “At L’Arche, I began to practice gifts of hospitality, learned to enjoy simple things, and was humbled on a regular basis by persons with disabilities.”
When she returned to Duke in the fall of 1996 to complete her M.Div., Harrison’s plan was to continue the familiar rhythms of academic life. She applied and was accepted for the master of theology degree program. But during spring break, she accompanied a family friend on a mission trip to Chile. The experience “excited my imagination enough,” says Harrison “that I decided to delay the Th.M. and return to Chile for a nine-month tour with Volunteer in Mission.” That nine months has stretched to seven years and counting.
Harrison’s first few months were not particularly promising. As a volunteer assistant pastor in a Methodist church in Quillota, a village outside Santiago, she visited the sick and shut-in, taught Sunday school, and led prayer meetings. Although she had studied Spanish in high school and college, the Chilean dialect was difficult to speak and understand, and few of the residents in her village spoke English. A private tutor helped, but mastering the language was a slow process. With no Internet access, Harrison had trouble staying in contact with friends and family back in the States. Headaches became a daily occurrence.
But through her work in Quillota, Harrison gradually made connections in the Methodist Church of Chile, a small organization in that predominately Roman Catholic country. In the spring of 1998, a friend introduced her to the John Wesley School in Santiago. “Once I visited, I felt I was exactly where God was calling me to be,” says Harrison.
Santiago is a far cry from Carlisle, Ark., where Harrison grew up. Her father is a catfish farmer and caterer, her mother a high school teacher and local pastor in a small United Methodist parish. The only girl between two brothers, Harrison decided as a child to become an elementary school teacher. Her mother likes to describe Shana, a preschooler, patiently teaching her infant brother his vowel sounds. Following high school, she earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education from Lyon College, a small Presbyterian school in Arkansas.
Harrison’s passion for teaching has proven invaluable at La Esperanza. “My education training has helped me to see each moment as teachable,” she says.
When she began working with the school, it served all ages. Recognizing the need for a more stimulating and appropriate environment for the adults, Harrison and Raquel Pavez, the director, set to work. Soon they had developed new spaces where the adults could work without interruption from younger students.
In 2000, the Chilean Ministry of Education designated John Wesley School a public-private institution eligible for student subsidies. The government funding, while welcome, was limited to students up to age 24. That left a dozen of the school’s older students in a bind. In order to maximize the school’s funding and physical space, the older students would have to go to another facility.
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