“I feel like I got here accidentally, but I’m so glad that I’m here,” says Rafferty Laredo, executive director of the nonprofit United Spinal Houston. It’s a job that has allowed him to build bridges between the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and disability communities. “I think there’s a lot of wisdom that comes out of understanding how we are all so beautifully interconnected, despite how we might seem different. And to live and experience that every day through this nonprofit feels like a real gift.”
The openly gay Filipino American worked with patients who had spinal-cord injuries as an occupational therapist for 12 years prior to founding United Spinal Houston. Laredo also worked in the United Arab Emirates as a private therapist in a rehab center serving Abu Dhabi’s royalty, which is where he got the idea to start a nonprofit.
“I don’t have a business background. I’ve never worked for a nonprofit or run a nonprofit, but I did know that there needed to be [a better way to serve the disability community],” he says. “Our insurances don’t cover a lifetime’s worth of therapy. So, I sort of naively went into it.”
Laredo picked up a copy of Nonprofits for Dummies, reading the book page by page to learn how to make his idea a reality. “So much of building a nonprofit is connecting to people who are smarter than you—people who know things,” Laredo explains. He turned to former patients and influential people he knew within the disability community, and invited them to join his board and his think tank. “I think we’re past the 10-year mark now, and I can’t believe we’re still alive. There have been many times when I thought, ‘What in the world am I doing?’ I struggle with what many might call ‘imposter syndrome.’”
Having traveled the world doing physical-therapy work, Laredo was primed for thinking creatively about American healthcare issues. But he also found himself questioning whether he truly had the capacity to be a leader in the disability community. “Working in Abu Dhabi gave me some freedom to be even more creative, and just think outside of the box on what it means to help the disability community in a way that isn’t direct medical care,” he says. “It was through empowerment and advocacy work that we started using art as a vehicle [to give our disabled clients a means of] self-expression. We created these connectional opportunities for folks who might have thought they should just stay in their homes because their disability [made them feel like] it was the end of their life.”
United Spinal Houston has brought added visibility to the disability community by highlighting all of the ways that life can be enjoyed after a severe injury or illness. And Laredo’s high-profile position as United Spinal’s executive director has brought added visibility to the AAPI community, as well.
“It’s funny for me to hear the words ‘visibility’ and ‘Asian Americans’ in the same sentence,” Laredo admits, echoing a sentiment that may ring true for many Asian Americans. “I grew up in a really quiet Filipino family where we weren’t really encouraged to be out there in the spotlight. We sort of stayed to ourselves. As I reflect on my parents, they just were really hard-working individuals who didn’t pursue visibility.
“What I love about
the Asian community is that we love to take care of each other, especially our elders and the people within our families that
are disabled.” —Rafferty Laredo
“What I love about
“United Spinal Houston [works with] the largest minority group in the United States of America—the disability community. Within that, of course, are people within the AAPI community,” Laredo notes. “What I love about the Asian community is that we love to take care of each other, especially our elders and the people within our families that are disabled. And—maybe even to a fault—there is so much love and care, and maybe even fear, that visibility is not the first priority.”
As a first-generation Filipino American, Laredo points to his heritage and upbringing as the basis for his desire to help others. His parents immigrated from the Philippines in the early 1970s, pursuing an opportunity to make a better life for themselves, and especially for their children. “I think all of that has really informed my work. I heard my parents’ stories about how people helped them when they first got here. They helped them with money, put a roof over their heads, and even gave them calling cards to call back to the Philippines in order to maintain some type of connection with friends and family,” Laredo recalls. “The local Filipino community became their family, and became my American-based aunts, uncles, and cousins that are still really close to me today, even though we don’t have a blood relationship.”
There is an undeniable power in community that allows individuals to truly flourish. “[Our local Filipino community that my parents helped build] has informed me to say, ‘I can do it, even though I’m in a foreign land and I don’t understand what this is going to be in the end. But I’m going to stick with it anyway, because I have this idea of something better,’” Laredo reflects. “And I think that building a sense of community is the way to do it. I don’t think my parents intended to teach me that lesson so I would become a nonprofit leader for the disability community, but when I think about what they did, and how our Filipino heritage spoke to them and how it still speaks to me and influences what I do, that’s awesome.”
For more information, visit unitedspinalhouston.org/