If there’s something that I’m passionate about, it’s community. It’s connection.



Sara McGrath

Family Resource Specialist at Parents Helping Parents


I’ve done so many different things, and it’s all connected to life. It all circles back to work and career and life path and journey and what you do in the world. Most recently at the end of April I got a breast cancer diagnosis, which wasn’t completely surprising; I do have someone on both sides of the family but what was surprising was how quickly everything moved after that. It was recommended that I might just need a lumpectomy, but that surgery found that they didn’t clear all the margins and didn’t clear all the cancer out so one week later, back under anesthesia for a second lumpectomy. Much to my surprise, the doctor said, “We didn’t get it all. The option now is a mastectomy.” I had a mastectomy at the beginning of June, so three surgeries in five weeks. Luckily, after that third one I was cancer-free. What I appreciate about that experience is that it could to happen to anybody across all walks of life and all backgrounds, but when you have that common journey that you’ve shared with someone, you connect. You may meet people that you might not have met otherwise. At the beginning, I wasn’t ready to attend a local cancer support group, but after two surgeries and before the mastectomy surgery, I did join this support group because I was ready at that point and not only did I meet a variety of people that I might not have otherwise have met but the first person I saw when I got there was someone I knew.


That kind of relates to some other job opportunities and experiences that I’ve had over the past years, especially since coming to live here from Mexico, where I had met my husband; we married down there in Chiapas. I lived six years in Mexico but then when we did come here, that first year our daughter was born. After she was born, I had difficulty getting started with breast feeding, as many women do. Eventually successful and then when she was about a year old, the WIC program was hiring breast feeding peer counsellors, which was not a nurse, not a lactation consultant, but just kind of mom-to-mom support. That was my first job after having my daughter. It was part-time, it was two four-hour shifts per week, which was perfect. My husband was working in a restaurant and supported us and I liked doing a little bit of work, but not too much because I liked being at home with my daughter. I found that I really enjoyed the job. It was interesting because it was only by phone. We had a protocol of calling moms prenatally, so while they were still pregnant, and then at certain intervals after they had their baby. I just really enjoyed supporting other moms in that way, and I learned a lot. I had that job for about two years, so after two years if I was calling a mom for the first time, after a little while I could tell if they wanted to speak or not.


My job was to encourage breast feeding, it was to educate about what’s normal, what’s not normal, next steps, what to expect, there’s going to be a growth spurt around this time so if they want to eat all the time it’s not because you don’t have enough milk, it’s because they’re just going through a growth spurt. We wanted to encourage that but at the same time you have to have a certain finesse or intuitiveness to know that you also can’t push it, it’s not right for everybody. After some experience, I could sense how to talk, what direction to head, how much information to provide or when to back off. Obviously it’s always their decision, some are like, “It’s not for me, I’m not going to do it,” others will say, “I’m going to try but if it doesn’t work out or if there are issues then I’m totally fine with formula.” Others are going to do a bit of both, others really want to and may try really hard and may not achieve it… a whole spectrum of possibilities and experiences with these women. I enjoyed it. I felt that having had my own struggles with it at the beginning, that was the kind of person you want doing that job because you can empathize.


WIC is also about nutrition and I was not a trained nutritionist but I was there to provide support and information. There was a very young mom that I spoke to, she was still living at home with her parents. I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to talk about or any questions she had about anything, and she said, “Well, I realized that I want to start eating healthier,” and I said, “Ok, that’s awesome!” And I’m thinking to myself, where do you start with something like that? I’m no expert. So I asked her, “Having a young baby takes a lot of calories and energy out of you and you need to eat a lot yourself to maintain all that, what’s a snack that you like to have and that you gravitate to on a daily basis?” And she said, “I eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” So I said, “Ok, well, that has the possibility of being a healthy snack but it comes down to little choices like what kind of bread, what kind of peanut butter. With your WIC coupons, you can get whole wheat bread… what kind of peanut butter do you buy?” And she said, “Skippy.” And my first thought was that’s loaded with sugar, so I tell her, “With your WIC coupon, you can get the Laura Scudder's peanut butter, so maybe next time you can just buy it and try it – it’s no sugar, so that’s one step towards making healthier choices.” I know with that kind of thing, you can’t completely flip-flop and change your entire diet, it’s those little steps. I followed up with her a few weeks later and asked her how things were going and she said, “I tried that peanut butter that you recommended and it actually tasted like peanuts!” What a wonder! I was like, “Did you like it?” and she was like, “Yeah, I think I did.” That was one of the stories that made me realize I like doing this kind of work.

 

I was pregnant with my second child, and with both our kids we wanted that surprise, we didn’t want to know the gender or anything. Maybe a couple months before he was born, WIC lost funding for that particular role so I knew that after he was born I wouldn’t be going back to that job. When he was born, he had a diagnosis given at birth of Down Syndrome. And we didn’t know anything about Down Syndrome, we had zero experience. When he was about a year old, a friend had received a newsletter that a local nonprofit was hiring and they were called Parents Helping Parents, which is a family resource center supporting families who have children with disabilities of any age. She reached out to me and said, “I just heard about this job listing and it’s part-time, I don’t know if you’re ready to go back to work but you might be interested.” Long story short, I applied and got the job, and it started off as 10 hours a week, a similar thing to WIC, and it was just perfect to start off that way. He was about a year when I started that. Aside from one brief foray into early childhood education, I’ve been at that job for the last nine, ten years. That’s where I still work today. We do a lot of support groups, we do presentations with speakers and professionals on a whole range of topics, everything from language development, behavior, mental health, to big topics – people always need to find more information on Medi-Cal and Social Security and estate planning and big things like that. We have a library of resources to lend out to families, a lot of books. I have that job because of my life experience. I didn’t expect that I would be doing that kind of work, but it’s my experience that led me there.


We do a lot of outreach. We make a lot of phone calls. Some problems that some people come to us with, we just can’t solve. People want us to be advocates, they want us to be like, “Sure I can go to your IEP school meeting with you and help advocate for your rights.” Well, that’s not our role so we can’t do that. Which is kind of unfortunate, because there’s a huge need. Parents tend to reach out a lot more at times of transition. When your child with a disability is turning 18, they’re becoming a legal adult and there’s all sorts of things that change and that have to be considered, so we support a lot there. We get referrals from the regional center, which is a state agency all throughout California that serve people with disabilities through the lifespan. If a professional wants to refer someone to us, I tell them, “Sure, you can tell that family about us but I know from both personal experience and from working here as a resource specialist that families sometimes don’t even know what they want or need. They don’t know what their question is. Send us their contact info and we will call them and that often works a little better.” I know that when my son was born, I was told about all sorts of things but it was too much at one time. I think most of it I didn’t retain because there was just too much happening.


As I said earlier about now being part of that breast cancer survivor community, I’m part of this parents with special needs community that I didn’t anticipate. You come in with certain shared experiences even though everybody’s life experience is different and unique, but still you have something in common to share and support each other. People from all walks of life, friends I have now that I might never have met if not for that. At the beginning I wasn’t ready to be part of any larger special needs community, I wanted just specifically families with young children with Down Syndrome, because that was my journey I was starting on and that felt like enough. But as the years went on with my own process of understanding and acceptance… I’ve felt more a part of a larger community.


What I like most about my job is the human interaction, doing those support groups. If I can provide actual informational resources to people that they’re looking for, that’s very satisfying. I really like connecting with parents on that emotional level, too. I’ll hear someone later say at some point, “It’s so nice to feel that I’m not alone,” and that just fills me up. This is everything to me.

 

I went to school for art education. Since childhood, I’ve always been creative. In high school I became more active in theater and set design and the school newspaper and then I was into punk rock music and I started making zines and was copying them late at night at Kinko’s. Nearing the end of high school I applied to art school in the Bay Area and I got in, but I was also in a local community theater group and we were invited to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in late August. I decided to defer my enrollment in the art school for a year and after the theater performances in Scotland to travel around Europe for a while.


I travelled around for about six months and then decided I would go up to the Bay Area but I decided not to go to the art school. I went to city college and San Francisco City College was phenomenal. During that time in San Francisco, my first day living there I was walking around the Mission District and came across some women finishing a mural called Maestrapeace. The mural was on two sides of a four story building in the Mission District that housed many nonprofits and organizations dedicated to women. The mural was all women of all cultures and backgrounds, Rigoberta Menchú, who won a Nobel Prize in Guatemala, was featured on one side. I had never seen anything like it. They told me about an organization Precita Eyes Mural Arts Project that were founders of many public art projects around the city, particularly in the Mission District. I ended up volunteering with them for a little bit and then I had a job with an after school art class for kids and I got to paint on a couple of murals. My whole perspective broadened, my interest in community engagement and neighborhoods and art that was accessible for everybody, not just in a gallery or museum.


I decided I want to go to New York City so applied to two different art schools. I wanted to double major, art and something that paired with that. I ended up going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and my major was art education. My first jobs there in New York, aside from waitressing, I got the chance to do student teaching in kindergartens, in the junior high, at a gallery in SoHo-Chinatown area. After I graduated, a couple of things happened. The degree I got allowed me to become a licensed public school teacher. It was a provisional license, though, until I got a masters. But as I did after high school when I thought, “Here’s a big transition; I’m going to travel,” same idea. My roommate and I were parting ways and leaving our apartment so I put all my stuff in storage and said, “I took Spanish classes in high school, I know some basic conversation, but I would really love to be bilingual and I grew up in California and never went to Mexico. I think before I launch into a teaching career, I’m going to travel.”


I put my things in storage, flew back to California and visited family; I have a lot of family in San Diego so my aunt and uncle dropped me off at the border with my big backpack – this was in 2000 – and said “Adios!” I had an amazing time. I spent again a total of about six months travelling and ended up going to Guatemala as well. I was passing through Chiapas, the southernmost state, and that’s where I met this guy. I had developed a group of travelling partners, there were probably rotating eight or so of us that would travel together and then veer off and then come back together. We all went out one night to this bar with a reggae band. This was San Cristobal de las Casas, it’s a beautiful colonial city, touristy. Pedro was there with friends and he asked me to dance and we spent the evening dancing and chit-chatting and he walked me back to the place I was staying and he said, “Can I see you tomorrow?” We ended up bumping into each other the next day and we spent some more time walking around and exchanged e-mails and I went to Guatemala and stayed for a couple of months. Pedro and I stayed in touch via e-mail. I went back up to Chiapas after that, met him again, kind of fell for him, stayed for a month until my money really had run out. I came back here to San Luis and stayed with my parents for six months and saved up my money and then went back to New York expecting to launch right into teaching. For some reason – it’s possible that the New York City school year starts later in September – my plane ticket was for September 12, 2000. I was staying with a friend in San Francisco waiting for my flight and the next morning we heard the news about the Twin Towers. I was really anxious to get back, and it took a week for flights to get back underway. I flew in on a half-full flight, still seeing the smoke coming up. But getting there and finding this – and it sounds cliché or cheesy but it’s really true – there was this kindness, people were connecting with each other and being helpful to strangers; I had so many examples of that. That kind of grief and horrible things can bring people together. I had this thought in my head, “Oh my god, government funding for everything is going to change. They’re going to put all the government funding towards defense and war and security and maybe the arts are going to be in trouble.” I kind of freaked out and thought I have to take any job I can find. I was not picky, I just thought I’m in a city full of people looking for work and if I get something I’m just going to jump on it and take it.


I found a job as an art teacher at a middle school in Brooklyn, and I think the middle school was relatively new, they were kind of starting out and they didn’t have an art department or an art teacher so I started something there but it was part-time. The year after that I did get a full-time teaching job in east Harlem. Full-time teacher at a public school, it kind of kicked my butt. All the new teachers at that school, it kind of kicked our butts. We had code words on Friday afternoons: “Are you going to that poetry reading tonight?” It was code to going to the bar for happy hour because we had to debrief and unwind after an intense week. I thought teaching art that it would be the class that the kids wanted to go to, it’s not math or English, this is art. But I discovered that there’s kids that it doesn’t matter the class, they don’t want to be in school. I knew that every year it would get easier; it’s inevitable that your first year teaching at a public school is going to be hard and challenging and a big learning curve, but it was hard. I was frustrated dealing with all of the behavior issues and the talking back to the teacher and all these things and having to grade everybody on all these thigs. Reflecting on it, you’ve got to go in with a fabulous program because that is what engages kids. Whereas I went in a little bit nervous and intimidated.

 

Here’s the interesting twists of life that make you think about destiny and fate and whatnot: during that year of teaching, which ended up being my last year in New York, I was walking through the East Village and the was this fair and there were all these different nonprofits and organizations, and I come across this booth about this group teaching young teenage girls from the Lower East Side how to take photographs and how to learn different skills related to documentary work; documenting their own lives, interviewing others, how to develop film and print and all these things. I’m looking more at their booth and they have a sister organization in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, with young indigenous women, teaching them the same thing. My head is going, “Oh my god, this is speaking to me, this is amazing.” I start talking to them and I tell them that I was just recently in that part of Mexico and how much I loved it and that I’d like to return someday… not just because of the boy I met, but partly, among other things! And the woman says, “Well, do you think you want to go back? Are you looking for a job?”


Around this same time I find out about a similar program called Art Corps, which is similar to the Peace Corps but for artists. They send and artist to work with a nonprofit in Guatemala to help them with the work they’re already doing but using creative means to do it. I thought, “Chiapas, right next to Guatemala, I’m going to apply,” and so I applied and I was accepted and that was going to start in January. I went to Chiapas, fell in love with Pedro all over again, and then Pedro travelled with me to Guatemala and I started this job. I did that for a few months and then I was transferred up to the Caribbean side of Guatemala and then I worked for Save the Children. I collaborated with kids and teens and we painted murals in the parque central in the main plaza, we painted murals at the health department about vaccinations, with the teens we started a zine – going back to my own teenage years – on different issues and had all the kids collaborating and published it each month.


When that project ended I went back to Mexico with Pedro. We went and stayed in a hostel somewhere the two of us and I saw a poster that said, “Do you love art? Do you love kids? Looking for volunteers” and we ended up both staying and volunteering there. They had an afterschool arts program, they went and did arts in different remote very poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city and we helped with all of that. In addition, the couple who ran the organization, it’s called Vientos Culturales, they had two daughters, the youngest of whom who as about five or six at the time, has trisomy 14, which is a chromosomal disability and they were doing this intensive therapy program with her. We helped with that therapy as well and the mom found that she needed to spend more time doing that with her daughter and so I took over some of her administrative roles and I got hired on. It’s just so interesting how things work because that was our first introduction into the world of children who are genetically different, neurodiverse, this whole world of disability. It was an interesting sneak peek.

 

I may be doing something that might at first appearances seem very different from what I studied and from what I wanted to do, but as you can see there are threads there that connect it all. If there’s something that I’m passionate about, it’s community. It’s connection. Connecting others, making sure that people don’t feel alone and that they have the resources that they need. It’s educating, it’s listening to people. I’d like to think that in my current job, that’s what’s helpful. I’d like to think that even if there’s a time where we don’t have a specific answer or information that’s going to help them, that occasionally just being there to listen to someone can be a help.


Speaking of storytelling and community and connection, my husband’s been working at a restaurant ever since we moved to California. He moved up from dish washer to busser to waiter to manager as his English improved, but he’s a natural manager and business person. About four years ago he and a friend who he had worked with at one point, who was at a different restaurant, they started chatting and said, “There seems to be a real need for catering, maybe we should start up something and make tacos There’s a million Mexicanos who are having parties every weekend and wanting tacos, we’d surely have tons of business.” Pedro is more the front-of-house person and his partner is a chef and a kitchen manager so they had skillsets that complimented each other. Interestingly enough, I got really excited about all of this. I was like, “Ok, so the name, the logo.” I really got into the creative side of it. It’s been really fun. For the past four years, I’d say that I almost have a second job. I created the logo, I do all the social media, and storytelling. You’re not going to see me making any of the food. But I’m like, “Ok, so you’re going to make that, great, but is there a history behind el pastor? Let’s teach people about where that comes from and what spices you use.” I like using social media to try to tell the stories. I like capturing image and text together, I like making community connections.


Occasionally I help out, too. I’ve been the rice and beans gal for all recent events. It’s not a buffet style because they make it fresh on the spot and they make their own tortillas as well. It started with my husband making the tortillas but they were getting bigger and bigger so they found a few different tortilleras to help make the tortillas. I’m a lifelong vegetarian and I’m married to a man who will eat anything and when they started I said, “God help me if the only veggie taco that you do is a fajitas-style thing… I don’t want fajitas. We need to get creative.” I’m always proud and excited to tell people, “You do not have to be a vegetarian to order that taco, it stands on its own.”


It’s called Corazon 805 Tacos. When I first met Pedro, I kept a journal and a sketchbook of my travels and I had a quote at the beginning: “At every crossroads, follow your dream, it is courageous to let your heart lead the way.” When I finished my first travelling in Mexico and went back to New York, I went on my birthday and got a tattoo of a Mexican-style heart, sort of a Corazón Sagrado with a flame at the top, in the middle of a compass with directions. When we were thinking about a name, we were like … corazón, heart, heart’s a symbol of love so there’s all these things that can connect to it, like made with love, cooking with the heart, we’re in the heart of the central coast – San Luis Obispo’s in the center of this area.


A dream project for me would be that we find the perfect location, we open up a brick and mortar, and it’s also a coffee shop. I just love coffee shops, I love cafes. I love the cafes that I’ve grown up going to here, I love the ones I went to in Mexico; coffee is a big crop in Chiapas. Maybe we find this great unique way to bring culture to this town that goes way beyond the typical taquería that has the sombrero on the wall, et cetera. There’s so much to Mexico that people here don’t know. It’s an amazing county. I would love to take their business that’s already started and has a good grounded following now – four years has been enough to really fine tune a lot of things – and fine tune a vision, a brand, a style and see that they’re doing something a little beyond the typical here locally.


At the same time, I’m thinking that in the line of work that I’m presently doing most of the week, what’s my future there? Does it have a good enough pension and retirement plan? Professionally, is there another direction I should go that will give me a little security? I really want to be able to retire at some point and travel and do all the things that one would do if one has more time. And I think, if my husband’s going to be a small business owner, should I be the one with the good job with the good benefits. I feel like I’m in a little bit of a flux right now thinking about all of those things.


The breast cancer experience these last few months has really opened up some perspectives for me thinking about priorities and trying things even if I’m nervous. It was scary but I never felt that it was a bad enough cancer… I knew from the first surgery that it hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes. I knew that this is hard but it’s not a horrible, horrible thing. But even so, it does make you stop in your tracks and think, “What do I want my life to be?”


You can read Sara’s blog about her journey with her kids at:

www.lupeandliam.blogspot.com

Check out Corazon 805 Tacos on Instagram at:

www.instagram.com/corazon805tacos