“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
This quote resonates with Rachel Engel, as she has fought to support herself and others her entire life.
Engel was raised in a broken home in Buffalo, New York, and was alone most of her childhood. Both of her parents were mentally ill and incapable of raising a family, and she was put in foster care at the age of 10 alongside of her older sister.
“I had to grow up super young, and because of this I morphed into a caregiver very early on in my life,” Engel said.
Her upbringing also impacted her ability to socialize and make friends.
“My parents’ inability to guide me left me with a few inabilities when it came to socializing and building friendships. I was bullied a lot, and I always felt like I didn’t belong,” Engel said. “Being put into foster care was one of the biggest blessings. I was able to get help from people who were able to help guide and nurture me.”
Engel’s new foster family relocated her to Indiana where she grew up and started a family.
“My experiences have taught me never to judge anyone. Growing up I didn’t want others to judge me or my situation, and now, I am sure to never judge anyone else whether it’s mental illness, disabilities, or anything else,” she said.
Although she was reluctant to start a family due to her own experiences growing up, Engel said her two daughters have been the biggest blessings, and she works hard to instill in them the values and lessons she has carried with her throughout her life.
“I teach them to unconditionally value and love. My girls are the ones advocating for the kids at school that others have deemed out of the circle. They’re the ones saying, ‘You can sit at my lunch table,’ if they have nowhere to sit,” she said. “I strive to be the kind of parent I always wanted.”
Now, Engel fights for others as the Lead Direct Support Professional at Opportunity Enterprises in Valparaiso, an organization that works to maximize self-sufficiency and enrich the quality of life for individuals with disabilities.
“I go to work every day and feel so much love all around me. It’s the least judgmental field there is. You can be yourself, and I work hard to let my clients know that they are unconditionally valued no matter what,” Engel said.
Engel also works to provide her clients with opportunities and experiences she wasn’t able to have while growing up.
“Some of these individuals haven’t had a sleepover before or other typical experiences, and to be able to give them these simple things brings me such joy,” Engel said. “In the big scheme of things, we’re not all that different. We’ve all felt left out, we’ve all felt like we don’t belong. If I can help change these feelings even once, that matters to me.”
In her free time, Engel enjoys bike riding, walking, and exploring downtown Valpo with her family.
“Whenever we have the chance, we always love to go downtown and enjoy all that Valpo has to offer,” she said. “I also love to go to Blackbird Café and have coffee with my friends.”
During the COVID – 19 pandemic, Engel has found a new hobby.
“I started to see this new trend of people taking family portraits on their front porches to document this time in history,” she said. “I thought this was the coolest idea and began putting it out there that I would be willing to go take a few photos for whoever was interested.”
Engel ended up taking about 20 families’ photos in just two weeks and began titling the project “Love Wins.”
“I just wanted to document this crazy time. I’m also so used to being around all these different people everyday and interacting with them. I miss it so much. I was seriously craving human interaction, and this motivated me to go take families’ photos, from a safe distance of course.”
The families photographed also sent Engel inspirational messages, coping mechanisms, and more uplifting messages to be posted on social media and shared with their photo.
Engel wanted to share a piece of advice for anyone facing challenges or feeling down during these times or during any other time throughout life:
“Never lose hope. The biggest thing for me when I was growing up was to try and find one good thing about the day and seek out the positive – something to look forward to, something to be proud of – and to always be gentle with yourself,” Engel said. “A lot of times, we internalize negative or hurtful things that happen, and we find a way to blame ourselves. Never blame yourself. Know that it will get better with hope and a positive outlook.”