Despite living with spina bifida and a learning disability, Rev. Dr. María R. Barrera has stayed true to her multi-cultural American Indian and Mexican heritage by giving back to the community in all aspects of her life. As a vocational rehabilitation (VR) specialist for the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) within the District of Columbia Department on Disability Services, she provides bilingual supportive services to individuals with disabilities to help them achieve independence and integration within their workplace.
One of the first steps María takes is to ask her clients what they would like to do with their lives. “Sometimes they have no vision, because in order to maintain their benefits, they give up their dreams and stay poor,” she explains.
María develops an Individualized Plan for Employment by working with clients to discover their interests, strengths and abilities, as well as their physical, mental or emotional limitations. Then, she guides them toward the appropriate education and training needed for the job, assists with their personal adjustment through the rehabilitation program and, later, helps qualified candidates find employment. María always tells her clients that if they have a goal to try. “Even if you fail, it’s better than someone saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ It’s important to invest in yourself.”
Her personal experience as a recipient of VR services often helps her relate to clients. “I always encourage people with disabilities to get higher education, because we need to become role models and represent the community.”
María says a friend on her wheelchair basketball team suggested she apply for VR services to help pay for school. They not only sponsored her bachelor’s degree in social work, but also her master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling. In 2007, she received her doctorate in bilingual special education from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. with the financial assistance of RSA – a major reason why María wanted to give back to the agency that made her dream of higher education a reality.
In her free time, María provides one-on-one and group counseling to incarcerated American Indian prisoners through the Native American Indian Inmate Prison Project in Pennsylvania. Following the guidance of her tribe elders, she was asked to take a leadership role and establish With-In With-Out the Circle, Inc., a nonprofit organization named by the prisoners, located in Washington, D.C.
A 2005 graduate of All Faiths Seminary International, María ministers to those who are “behind the iron house” by using traditions, such as the drum, songs, sacred Pipe and Sweat Lodge Ceremonies and other spiritual teachings, to help them find inner peace. Since many of the prisoners struggle with intergenerational traumas and substance abuse, she encourages them to choose alternatives to drug or alcohol use and violence, with the hope that they will become better husbands, brothers or fathers when they return home.
Believing in the importance of her work, María also assisted with the establishment of American Indian Spiritual Cultural Councils within prisons across the nation.
“People may say, ‘You are wasting your time,’ but I am not, because I see the long-term effect,” says María. She shared how one prisoner told her that every day, he follows her advice to think before he hits. “It’s a beautiful thing to see the change. I tell them that I bring the tools, and you decide what to do with them.”