PARIS — Maybe the stars aligned or there was some higher power at work, but either way the Rev. Sarah Shepley believes her recent mission trip to bring art to orphans in Ecuador was the convergence of her passions.
Shepley of Paris is a full-time artist and was ordained as an interfaith minister in 2011. She spent a little more than a month in Ecuador, bringing her arts ministry to not only orphans but children in an after-school program in another city. She returned stateside on Feb. 4 and brought back with her a rekindled passion to help others through art therapy in developing parts of the world.
“It felt like this confluence … of a sort of searching, to not just travel to these countries, but to really make an effort to learn the language and to really offer service,” Shepley said, noting her interfaith training was a big part of that. “I feel like I am really honoring that philosophy … which honors the tradition of all faiths, including none. So it’s being present to people irregardless of any religious background or not. … For me it is this incredible coming together for this arts ministry and my love of travel and learning the language.”
She spent two weeks at the Miguel Leon orphanage in Cuenca, Ecuador, working with mostly girls, but also a few boys, ranging in age from 3 to 16.
Shepley sold her own art so she could fill a medium-sized suitcase with paper, printmaking and bookmaking supplies, along with art basics of scissors, glue and the like. Before heading to the orphanage, she stayed with a host family and learned this was the arts ministry that almost wasn’t.
She discovered the orphanage was outside of Cuenca and for infants, not Miguel Leon as she had originally planned. Come to find out, the woman at the foundation she was working with had left and some how the orphanages got mixed up. She tried not to panic and a new woman at the foundation was able to make special arrangements for Shepley to volunteer at Miguel Leon.
But even after the snafu, it wasn’t smooth sailing at Miguel Leon. Shepley was sick with a stomach bug the first week she was in Ecuador and the orphans were not exactly welcoming to a foreign woman.
“They were wary of me because it’s a vulnerable population. … They would barely look at me. … They didn’t know who I was. They didn’t trust the situation. It was really challenging. At first I wasn’t getting a lot of support or affirmation,” she said. “It started off a little complicated but that can also be very typical of how things operate in that part of the world. … It really requires a different kind of orientation and different kind of expectation. That is something I think you can only learn through experience.”
But as Shepley continued to be with the orphans every day, they warmed up to her. After they finished their homework, she would pull together tables, set up the art supplies she brought and begin her lesson plans in Spanish.
“The second week I feel better, they are finally getting what I’m doing because they’re making these incredible little books and projects. So they really start to be loving and they’re friendly and toward the end it was like well, ‘I hope you come back,’” Shepley recalled.
The nuns and priests also ran a Hospice house for women there. Shepley herself had done Hospice and bereavement work in the past, but this was her first time working with orphans. And the nuns and priests rely on volunteers to provide services to the children.
“The thing is the girls have to leave when they’re 18 so they’re really trying to not only do really well in school but also develop skills they can use when they have to leave,” Shepley said. “Otherwise they turn to prostitution or become pregnant.”
This solidified Shepley’s belief that her art ministry is important. She donated the remainder of her art supplies the orphanage before she left.
“It just fueled my desire to return and offer art,” she said. “The kids are so hungry for it. They don’t really get much. In general there isn’t much offered in the schools, but particularly where these kids are it’s very minimal. It’s very hard to get art supplies.”
Then she was headed roughly five hours south to the town of Vilcabamba, where Shepley thought she would simply relax and unwind for the rest of her time in Ecuador. But there was a different plan for her. The night before she left, she found an article in the Vilcabamba News about an after-school program at the town’s community center.
“I … ended up doing some interpreting because the person who was teaching didn’t speak Spanish,” Shepley said. “I found that I made some really nice connections down there, too.”
This ministry trip wasn’t something Shepley decided to do overnight. It took a year to plan and was roughly five years in the making. Last year, she continued to learn Spanish through tutor she connected with on Skype and spent a year writing lesson plans in Spanish. And the catalyst for her to work with orphans happened in 2016 when she traveled to Columbia with her daughter, Beryl. They visited an orphanage in Medellin on their last day in the country.
“I looked around and realized there were no art supplies,” Shepley said. “It kind of lit a fire for me.”
But the seeds for her future art ministry were planted even earlier.
She wanted to go back to school for expressive arts therapy, but couldn’t find a program close enough to fit her needs. Shepley somehow found herself attending seminary in Bangor. But when that didn’t quite align with her goals, she went to the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine in Portland.
“At first it was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ It ended up being the perfect fit for me,” she said. “They really stress ‘ministry without walls.’ So it’s not so much about being a minister in a church, though some do. But it is sort of like the world is really hungry for spiritual care and that has so many different applications.”
Then in 2012 after her youngest daughter graduated high school and she was able to travel more, Shepley took a trip to Cuba. It was there she realized she didn’t just want to simply travel, but she desired to travel with a purpose and offer her art-making services. The next year, she was called to serve as a chaplain for a medical trip to the Dominican Republic, where she realized she needed to speak Spanish better. In 2014, she went to Guatemala to do so.
While in Cuba in 2012, she visited visited a middle school in the town of Trinidad.
“My heart just opened up because they had lack of resources but their art was so deep,” Shepley said. “It was incredible.”
She found the same was true for the orphans in Ecuador.
“It is pure joy. I just feel the therapy is in the act of creating and … when they witness what they’ve created, it brings a sense of a lot of things [including] accomplishment,” Shepley said.
She plans to return to the Miguel Leon orphanage next year and possibly other spots in Ecuador, including Vilcabamba. Shepley still has to work out the logistics, but she’s already gathering up her art supplies she’s accumulated over the years for the next trip.
“I have so many art supplies because I have been an artist so long,” she said. “I am cleaning out my studio and I am boxing up things to bring. … It feels really good to kind of clean it all out.”
Shepley will probably sell some more of her artwork to help pay for the trip, but she hasn’t set up a sale yet.
In the meantime, she will continue to work on her Spanish and volunteering locally by bringing bookmaking to the alternate middle school, The Eddy School in Newry, and the Center for Wisdom’s Women, a drop-in center in Lewiston.
For more information about Shepley, visit http://shepleydesigns.com/index.html.