Written By: John Sukovich
Photos By: Magazine Photographer, Tori Steyne
My wife, Linda, is fond of saying “’Normal’ is a setting on a dryer.” What she means is that in life, “normal” can cover a great deal of variation, so it’s not a good term to apply to people.
The Rivera-Mesa family is a normal family, much like any other, except that they have a special needs child–Itzelt. And that’s how they want it to be - normal. As much as possible and in spite of her special needs, Itzelt is treated as a “normal” young person by her family and her community.
The family is very active in the larger Newberry community. Nichole, Itzelt’s mother, came to Newberry from El Paso, Texas in 1996, with her mother, Liz Rivera, in 1996. She comes by her community service orientation naturally: her grandfather worked with Cesar Chavez in organizing farm workers in their efforts for better pay and working conditions. He was also Chair of the Department of Hispanic Studies at a university in Colorado.
Nichole and Jose Mesa met at St. Mark’s Catholic Church, where they were and still are active members, participating in many events at the church. They married in 2003. Both have coached soccer for the Newberry YMCA for over 5 years. They’re very much a “soccer family,” and work with the Special Olympics movement in South Carolina and Georgia. Through them, Newberry has learned much about special needs children and Special Olympics. Nichole worked with others in the community to bring accessible playground equipment to Marion Davis Park and the Gully Washer Splash Park in Newberry. Nichole also translates documents for members of the Hispanic community.
Jose came to Newberry in 1997. He soon started his own company, JR Auto Glass, which repairs and replaces windshields and other glass in automobiles. He recently obtained a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) and bought a semi-trailer truck with which to haul trailers as an independent trucker, IXI Transportation. He gained his US citizenship in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2020.
There are 3 children in the family. Itzelt is the oldest. Nichole and Jose had to become educated on Itzelt’s disabilities, which are not well defined by the medical community: doctors have no clear explanation for her condition. Her unique case is being studied by a doctor in Germany and will be written up in a medical journal. When she was born, doctors gave her a month to live; she’s now 19 and has graduated from high school.
Isaias Ariel is the youngest child in the family at 8 years old. He’s called “Little Messi” by family and friends because of his fascination with soccer and Argentine pro soccer player Lionel Messi. He’s very helpful with and protective of Itzelt, and won’t hesitate to scold other kids who tease Itzelt.
Xitlalic Guadalupe is 13. She’s a member of Beta Club at Newberry Middle School and plays volleyball and soccer for the school. She wants to be a veterinarian, and has made a good start on that career. She nursed a female dog through a difficult pregnancy and birthing. One of the pups was born with “swimmer puppy syndrome” (also known as “turtle pup syndrome”), in which the pup’s limbs are splayed out flat and the dog is unable to stand, let alone run. Xitlalic scoured the Internet for information, found therapies for the pup, worked with it, and in a month got the dog up and walking. It now runs with the other children in the family and neighborhood. The family takes it as a sign: “God brought us a dog who couldn’t walk and now does. We know Itzelt will walk.”
Like all kids, the three children bicker and disagree. Itzelt will often tease and aggravate her sister and brother, pulling at their hair and clothing, and has learned that it’s particularly annoying when they’re trying to do their homework.
“We don’t know just how much Itzelt understands,” Liz says. “She responds to us and laughs with us and often laughs on her own when watching TV.”
Linda and I were invited to Itzelt’s quinceañera, a major celebration in the life of any young Hispanic female. It’s her 15th birthday, after which she is recognized not as a girl anymore but as a grown woman. It’s time for a big party in the Hispanic community, and all the boys in her age group dance with her–as they did that evening with Itzelt in her wheelchair. Four years later, the boys in her quinceañera court still come up to her, greet her, and hug her.
They’re very much a normal family, active in the community and in their church. The community is their extended family; they celebrate together and, when necessary, mourn together. They just happen to have a special needs child.