Cynthia Cordero ’16 lives without limits. When a sudden medical issue—similar to a stroke—affected her cognitive function, speech, and ability to write, Cordero thought she would never draw again. Instead, the U.S. Navy officer found that her lifelong passion of drawing became therapy for her and others.
“Disability limits you from being able to do one thing, but it doesn’t limit you from everything,” Cordero said. Inspired, she began creating coloring books to share with children who have disabilities.
For more than two years, Cordero has volunteered at children’s hospitals. She always takes paper with her on visits, and she uses drawing and coloring to connect with the young patients, who have disabilities and/or may be terminally ill. Drawing allows them to dream about what they can do despite their disability. “As a kid you can dream up anything that you want, and creativity allows kids to bring those dreams to life,” Cordero said.
In turn, the children inspired Cordero to create a series of coloring books. The featured characters are based on children and people she meets. The message of the Don’t Let a Disability Disable You coloring book series is that a disability may limit a person, but it can’t stop them from contributing to their community and world.
“I’m hoping that through seeing themselves in a creative way, it can inspire them to know they can do anything,” Cordero said.
The series follows the children as they grow. The first coloring book, created for 2- to 8-year-olds, depicts children with disabilities dreaming about themselves as adults in various careers. The characters include a teacher with autism, a motivational speaker who is an amputee, and a doctor who must use an oxygen tank.
The characters are depicted with Cordero’s positive and playful style: diverse children in fun, colorful outfits with large, emotion-filled eyes. Book two, for children ages 8 to 11, features the characters as superheroes who use their disability to cure and help others.
Cordero, 33, is working on a third book, which is aimed at teens. The characters, also now teens, will be volunteers, who give back to their community.
Growing up in Long Island, NY, and Puerto Rico, Cordero dreamed of seeing the world. She joined the Navy in 2005 in order to travel and was deployed to Bahrain, Portugal, Italy, Michigan, and Florida. Now, she is based in Virginia Beach, VA, where she serves as a personnel specialist. She lives with her wife, Lauren McNulty, a mental health rehabilitation therapist.
Her love of children drew her to pursuing a degree in criminal justice. “It is a field that allows us as professionals to help those in need,” Cordero said. An internship in juvenile detention made her realize she wanted to assist children.
A friend recommended she enroll in Saint Leo University’s Center for Online Learning because of the program’s flexibility. Online education worked for her schedule and for her frequent deployments. The university’s core values also attracted her to Saint Leo. “You don’t find a lot of schools that take pride in and emphasize their values,” she said.
Cordero recommends Saint Leo’s online program to her fellow sailors because it offers individual attention and flexibility. Saint Leo “opened doors for me,” she said, both in the Navy and in her work with children. “This school is a great part of my story.”
Her service to the Navy and to children was recognized by her peers and community, and she was named the 2019 Samuel T. Northern Military Citizen of the Year by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. For Cordero, the honor meant her work is recognized and valued, and the recognition will bring more awareness about empowering those with disabilities and will allow her to help more people.
Cordero also wants adults to hear her message and to recognize their own superpowers, much like the characters in her second coloring book. The fourth offering in the Don’t Let Disability Disable You series will feature adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues. When her own medical issue occurred more than two years ago, she knew that a disability would not “stop me from wanting to serve my country anymore.” Cordero wants her fellow sailors with disabilities to recognize that, “everyone has something to contribute to the team.”
The coloring books are self-produced at this time, and Cordero founded a nonprofit organization, Cyn’s Vision, to help with production and other efforts. Money raised from purchases go back to the project so that the books may be donated to children’s hospitals and individuals, she said.
Cordero continues to dream. She plans on retiring from the Navy in five years and building Cyn’s Vision. She envisions creating an art therapy center to expand her outreach.
Her advice: “Take time to do what you have to do to achieve the goal. You may have to find variations from the normal ways, but don’t let a disability disable you.”
Follow Cyn’s Vision at Cyn’s Vision Art on Facebook and Instagram @cynsvision. To request a coloring book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (616) 773-9596.
Photos provided by Cynthia Cordero