Bringing Martín home: How adopting her deaf son led Katie Rivera to a career of giving back
Rivera personally connected with global nonprofit Deaf Child Hope and began working for them as a way to serve deaf children in poverty
On Oct. 15, it will have been two years since Katie Rivera and her family brought home their third and youngest child, Martín, from Colombia. For Rivera, adopting a child was always something she wanted. And since adopting Martín, her life has changed for the better — both personally and professionally.
Rivera grew up in Eagle County, graduated from Eagle Valley High School and then went on to study therapeutic recreation at the University of Northern Colorado. After spending some time working with individuals who needed adaptive recreation opportunities, Rivera went back to school to get a special education degree and began working in a classroom for students with emotional disabilities.
Soon, she decided she wanted to learn sign language, as it was a “bucket-list goal” to become trilingual. And after one year of studying American Sign Language, she returned to school one last time to get her master’s in deaf education.
After getting this degree, Rivera began working with the Eagle County School district as a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. She worked with the district up until 2020, a year after adopting Martín.
“I had wanted to adopt for a very long time, since I was 15 years old,” Rivera said. “When the time came, I had been working as a teacher of the deaf for a number of years, so it just made sense and felt right.”
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With her background in deaf education, the Riveras told the adoption agency that they wanted to adopt a child under 4 who was deaf or hard of hearing. However, according to Rivera, after some back and forth with the agency, they learned that in Colombia there wasn’t a way to identify hearing loss for children that young. Then, fate intervened.
“We got matched with Martín for other reasons (he has a rare blood disorder),” Rivera said. “We traveled down four months later after being matched with him to Colombia and met him and it was obvious to us right away that there was hearing loss because he wasn’t speaking at all. At 25 months old, his hearing loss had not only been completely unnoticed, just the lack of language had been noticed.”
After bringing Martín home, he saw a pediatric audiologist at the Children’s Hospital in Denver where he was diagnosed with severe sensorineural hearing loss, a permanent type of hearing loss.
“We got him fitted for hearing aids and right away started using sign language with him,” Rivera said. “He’s doing really well.”
Already, between the hearing aids and the sign language, Rivera has seen Martín come a long way in the communications department, something that can often be difficult for children whose hearing loss goes unnoticed for a long time.
According to Rivera, missing out on exposure to language at a young age can have long-term effects on children.
“For every year that there’s language deprivation, it takes double that amount of time for language skills to recoup after intensive language starts,” she said. For Martín, who was about 2.5 when he started learning sign language and got fitted for hearing aids, “the hope is that at age 7.5 he has those language skills kind of recouped.”
However, one of the challenges, she said, is that children begin learning literacy at age 5 or 6 in kindergarten.
“You can’t have a foundation in literacy if you don’t have a strong foundation in language,” Rivera said. “The fear with kids who are deaf or hard of hearing is if the language isn’t there, then the literacy isn’t there and then you’re just behind. What we want to see in school is that (Martín is) closing that gap — greater than a month of learning in a month of time.”
Now, the Riveras are settling into life together as a family of five with Martín about to have his fourth birthday.
“For me personally, adopting Martin has been a whirlwind of excitement, laughter, feeling blessed and fighting hard,” Rivera said. “He’s just like any other youngest; spoiled and loved, learns to keep up fast and we all love using and learning sign language together. He loves balls, trucks, gymnastics, cars, blankets, Blaze the monster truck, chocolate milk, chicken nuggets and most things that a 4-year-old boy loves.”
Working with Deaf Child Hope
After adopting Martín, things began to change professionally for Rivera as well.
“After we adopted Martín, and his hearing loss was diagnosed, I was blown away at how it had been so overlooked for so long,” she said. “I did some research and learned there are 25 million deaf children living in poverty globally, most of whom don’t have any language, verbal or signed.”
This research ultimately led Rivera to a global Christian nonprofit, Deaf Child Hope, which helps provide language, safety, food, shelter and education to kids in 11 different developing countries.
“Without language, deaf children can’t share those wants and needs with others. They live in a frustrating and depressing isolation,” Rivera said, adding that Deaf Child Hope helps children “feel love for the very first time, they feel connected to someone because there’s the language piece. It’s more about really just giving them a community.”
While Rivera started out just volunteering for the organization between her time as a mom and a teacher, she quickly decided she wanted to give all her professional time to the nonprofit’s mission — “giving hope to deaf children in poverty.”
But giving up her paying job to work unpaid for the organization was not an easy decision, she said.
“I did a lot of praying, thinking and talking with the owner about raising my own support to do it, to make up my teaching salary. I wish I could say that that doesn’t matter for my family, but it did — this is an expensive place to live and it does matter and we do need my income,” Rivera said.
Ultimately, she decided that this was what she was called to do, telling friends and family, “I’m going to raise support to do it and if you want to be a part of this team and make a difference in the lives of deaf kids, then please support me so I can do this job so I can support hundreds of people with our work.”
Now, Rivera works in promotions for the nonprofit, creating videos and promotional materials to share more about what the nonprofit does. This will soon include trips to the organization’s 18 global schools, where she will meet children face to face and gather their stories and photos to share back in the U.S. Her first trip will be to Jamaica in September, followed by Honduras in February and more trips next summer.
Locally, she started a sign language story time at the Eagle Public Library, where she teaches and reads sign language. She described this story time as “one way of many that I can raise awareness for the need.”
Another way she’s raising awareness is with a benefit dinner in Eagle on Friday, Sept. 10, at the Brush Creek Pavilion. The dinner is not only celebrating the organization’s 10th anniversary — which happened in 2020 — but also to raise awareness about the organization and ways to help.
“We are going to be encouraging child sponsorships and for people to join my support team. Since I am raising my own funds, it’s important I can become fully funded to stay in the job long term,” Rivera said. “Sponsoring kids and teachers is our primary goal as an organization. But to do that we have to also raise funds to pay salaries and just meet basic needs as an organization.”
Sponsoring a child is one of the “most tangible” ways someone can help, Rivera said. It costs $38 a month and is a correspondence program in which families can communicate with the children Deaf Child Hope is serving.
It was actually through this type of sponsorship that the dinner’s keynote speaker became involved.
“I first began to get involved with the Deaf Child Hope ministry when my husband John surprised me with a Christmas gift — a sponsorship for a teacher and a child in Africa two years ago,” said Heather Whitestone McCallum. Whitestone McCallum was crowned as the first, and is the only, deaf Miss America in 1995.
Quickly, Whitestone McCallum became more and more involved with the organization.
“The value that the Deaf Child Hope brings to children around the world is priceless because usually and sadly the deaf children in the third world are treated like they are outcast,” Whitestone McCallum said. “This ministry brings opportunities and hopes to the poorest of the poor children by providing them a shelter, food, clothes, education and most important of all, love when no one else would care to take care of them.”
Whitestone McCallum will be flying in from North Carolina for the Friday night benefit dinner. She will speak on what it meant, as a deaf woman, to compete and become the first woman with a disability to become Miss America. She said this was her dream come true and it resonates with Deaf Child Hope’s mission of helping deaf children’s dreams come true.
“(Deaf Child Hope) also has a big dream on helping the deaf children around the world and that’s a huge challenge. Still they never give up and keep having a faith in God for making this big dream to come true,” she said, adding that it was through a positive attitude, a goal, a willingness to work hard, a realistic look at our limitations and a faithful support team that she was able to win the Miss America crown.
“The crown also gives me an easier opportunity to inspire children with disabilities and without disabilities. They’re fascinated to listen to my story carefully, when I hold a crown in my hand. This crown never fail to help to encourage children and adults to focus more on their abilities and not disabilities,” she said.
Deaf Child Hope Celebration Benefit Dinner
When: Friday, Sept. 10 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Where: Brush Creek Pavilion in Eagle
Tickets: Available at deafchildhope.org ($35 for an individual ticket, $280 for a table of 8)
Dinner: Catered by Colorful Cooking
Other information: Child care will be provided at the event in the studio next to the pavilion for $10 a child. Interpretation will be provided for deaf and hard of hearing.