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Master of Occupational Therapy Student Called to Serve

Ellen Bermudez, who serves as chair for The Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center, chose occupational therapy from her desire to serve underserved populations including the immigrant and refugee population in Memphis. (Photo by Allen Gillespie)

Ellen Bermudez, a second-year Master of Occupational Therapy student, always knew she wanted to work with people. Fresh out of college with a degree in religion, her desire to serve and travel led her to AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in Nashville, and eventually to Nicaragua.

“Through connections, I ended up in Nicaragua,” Bermudez said. “My desire to do work there came down to a desire for justice and equality, especially in populations I thought were particularly disenfranchised or at a disadvantage for having a good quality of life.”

With an intermediate-level proficiency in Spanish, Bermudez originally planned to complete a five-month internship. Ultimately, she spent almost five years in Nicaragua, where she worked with women transitioning out of prostitution, early-years development programming and health initiatives, and as a house parent for a child protection center, a role she married into when she met her husband, who was serving as the house parent there for 11 teenage boys.

A mural painting was among her favorite projects while working abroad. The mural allowed her to work with women who were the primary caregivers for their households. Often, these women were in jobs with really long hours and low wages. Bermudez encouraged the women to focus on something that was important to them, which led to a mural depicting gender equality in the community.

“What really stuck out to me was the resiliency of the human spirit,” Bermudez said. “I met people who were in really desperate circumstances, but still retained a sense of humor, a sense of hope, and a desire to live their lives fully. Despite less-than-ideal living conditions, limited access to health care, education, and sometimes food, the way people lived their lives and carried on and fostered a sense of community was really inspiring.”

Through those experiences, whether it was improving their quality of life or doing the things they wanted to do, Bermudez noticed the effect and the healing power that engagement and participation had on the communities she served. “I saw a particular light go off and a sense of happiness, a spark of hope and believing in themselves in doing the things they wanted to do, and I feel like OT hones in on that,” Bermudez said.

It wasn’t until she was planning for a group of volunteer OT’s from Canada to visit, that she learned a career in occupational therapy fit all the areas she was looking for in order to better serve disadvantaged populations.

“As I was researching occupational therapy, my husband walked in and said, ‘What are you looking at? You should see your face right now,’ ” she said. “And I told him, I found what I want to do with my life.”

The volunteers didn’t end up coming, but Bermudez had found her calling.

When she moved back to the United States, Bermudez enrolled at UTHSC, and continues to work with underserved populations, including the immigrant and refugee population in Memphis. She hopes to tap into OT’s potential to enhance the capacity of nonprofit organizations to provide services to underserved populations.

“The heart of OT is giving people a renewed sense of hope and belief that they can participate in their life,” Bermudez said. “In the end, it comes down to people being able to participate in their lives the way they need and want to, and it is really healing and meaningful when you are able to do all those things.”


The Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center Art Show & Auction

Ellen Bermudez serves as chair for the UTHSC Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center, which provides pro bono, pediatric OT services to underinsured and uninsured children in the Mid-South.

On May 8, The Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center will host its second annual Art Show and Auction. The event is scheduled from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at 711 Jefferson Avenue and will feature artwork created by children who receive OT services. The artwork will be auctioned off to raise funding for the center.