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Claim Your Crown | Rupa Valdez

Claim Your Crown | Rupa Valdez

26 June 2018

Ranavat Botanics is dedicated to going beyond skincare to create a community around empowerment. Just as we want to help instill confidence and promote self-care, we want to celebrate beauty that goes more than skin deep. One way we’re doing this is by sharing stories from incredible individuals who have faced adversity and turned their experiences into empowerment—what we call a “Claim Your Crown” moment.

Since childhood, Rupa Valdez has had a passion for travel—her trips taking her everywhere from Helsinki’s happening Design District to the penguin-bespeckled Boulders Beach near Cape Town. Now, a professor at the University of Virginia and a mother of two, Valdez continues to satiate her wanderlust with adventures to the far reaches of the world—not letting the fact that she’s in and out of a wheelchair stop her from exploring. Instead, she’s helping others with disabilities tap into their own passion for travel through the Blue Trunk Foundation, a nonprofit providing resources and information to make travel more accessible for everyone. Here, she shares with us her Claim Your Crown moment—how she didn’t let her disability become a barrier to the life she desires to lead and how she’s using her personal experience to proactively blaze a trail for others.

When she was in her early twenties, Rupa Valdez began developing health-related problems, which, six years ago, significantly impacted her mobility. She was just six months away from defending her dissertation and her daughter was only a year old. “I remember many days when the idea of walking from my bedroom to my bathroom was so painful, honestly, that I didn’t want to even do that,” she recalls. Even then, through the pain and uncertainty—paired with the pressure of earning her PhD in industrial engineering and navigating being a new mom—the outlook she subscribed to was one of steadfast resilience. “It was kind of like picking myself up one day at a time,” she reflects. Her thought process was, “I’m going to have to figure out how to move forward from here.”

Valdez showed up to job interviews in a wheelchair for the first time and completed her dissertation with the assistance of a tandem worker since she could no longer type. “It’s been a lot of exploring different ways to work, exploring different ways of being in the world,” she describes of the transition. Today, Valdez is a professor at the University of Virginia in the department of public health sciences, a mother of two children, and continues to feed her love for travel.

Valdez caught the travel bug as a young child, when she and her sister would spend hours reading National Geographic’s Our World. Growing up, the two of them traveled as much as time and finances would allow. Even as her disability made traveling more challenging, Valdez didn’t relent, but instead proactively sought ways to improve the experience—not just for herself, but for others. It was when the sisters were on a trip to Finland and Estonia a few years ago that Valdez realized how difficult it was to find information regarding accessibility for those with disabilities or chronic health conditions at many destinations. She thought, “If this is happening to me, I wonder if it’s happening to other people.” Through her travels and research, Valdez was surprised to find there wasn’t a single source to collect the sparse information scattered across different websites or provide it at the level of granularity that one would need to improve their experience traveling. It sparked a series of conversations that eventually led to the idea of Blue Trunk Foundation.

“Our mission is to provide information about accessible and inclusive travel so that people can enjoy traveling regardless of their disability, chronic health conditions, or age-related concerns,” explains Valdez of Blue Trunk Foundation, the nonprofit she launched this past spring. “We have a vision that this will become the premier source of information about accessible travel worldwide.” For Valdez, the project goes beyond simply providing much-needed information. “Really what we’re trying to do with Blue Trunk is to build a community—both of people who are traveling but also a community of businesses who are interested in promoting accessibility and the idea to create positive conversations around it.” The organization is starting small, launching within two communities, then growing systematically and learning as they go.

Between managing two full-time jobs and raising two kids, Valdez has her work cut out for her. “Sometimes I like to say it’s a lot, but it’s all really good stuff,” she admits. “I just feel incredibly lucky to have that.” Through it all, Valdez is committed to cultivating a sense of gratitude.  “I love going to my work as a professor, I love working on Blue Trunk, I love my time with my family—focusing on that makes my life feel very full.” She confesses this doesn’t mean there aren’t times she’s stressed, “but it’s trying to remember and recenter in that way.”

Reflecting now on her disability, Valdez recounts that “certainly there were several years that were incredibly challenging in a lot of ways.” But early on, she tried to see opportunities within the difficulties. For Valdez, that’s meant launching Blue Trunk Foundation to help empower others who share her love for travel, spark a conversation, and build a community. “In five years’ time, I would see Blue Trunk as the premier space for advocacy and awareness promotion related to travel and accessibility and disability.”

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