The photo below is not the beginning or the end of this story. It’s one moment in many years of strangers becoming family, of kindnesses repaid upon kindnesses, of how opportunity — whether a tragic event, a life-changing surgery, or four years at a university — can be transformative.
Meet Dr. Ron David ’60, his wife Dr. Susan Lewis Pillsbury David, and Alejandra Rivera Tejada ’18. Here they are three years ago on the occasion of Alejandra’s graduation from Eastern Mennonite University. A native of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, she graduated with honors and a degree in nursing.
Here’s more about how this moment came to be:
Dr. Ronald David ’60 was 12 years old when his life took a catastrophic turn: his mother died. David said his father wasn’t equipped to raise him after losing his wife, so he arranged for David to spend the summer on a family friend’s farm in Denbigh, Virginia.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if not for the Weavers’ willingness to take someone as ornery as me,” he said. “That’s how, basically, I got connected with Mennonites and the Mennonite church.”
Once being taken in by the Weaver family that summer, David never left. He became the youngest sibling in a vibrant, bantering family that encouraged him to follow in the other children’s footsteps – Sara Jane Weaver Wenger ’42, Kenneth Weaver ’52, Samuel Weaver ’66, and future Royals parent Lloyd Weaver Jr. – and attend Eastern Mennonite College. Others at the Mennonite Church the Weavers attended also saw potential in the young David, and pitched in for his tuition.
“So not only did they give me love and discipline, but they also took on a financial burden,” David said.
He went on to graduate with honors from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, became a child neurologist, and founded the Virginia Center for Autism and Related Developmental Disorders. He had four children of his own – and it was through one of his son-in-laws that David got involved with a Presbyterian medical missions program in Honduras. He and his wife, Dr. Susan Lewis Pillsbury David, started traveling there every Christmas season to provide healthcare to people who lived out in remote, mountainous corners of the country.
While on these trips, David noticed a high prevalence of cataracts, to the point where people were going blind at a young age. He co-founded the nonprofit KHISH Project Vision to provide free cataract surgeries and other eye care to people in southern Honduras. View a photo album of the organization’s work.
In doing this work, he was introduced to Melvin Tejada, the administrator of an eye hospital in the eastern part of the country – and the two became fast friends. Tejada’s daughter, Alejandra Tejada Rivera ’18, said that David quickly became “like family” to them.
Alejandra Tejada Rivera was also interested in a career in healthcare. In her late teens, she started volunteering with the medical brigades as an interpreter.
“We were in the mountains – very poor areas,” she explained. “A lot of those people don’t go to the hospital because they don’t have the transportation or money to pay for healthcare. So they come for women’s health problems, pediatrics is a big one, and just family medicine.”
As she started to envision her future career, David suggested she apply to Eastern Mennonite University. He wanted to sponsor her studies – to pay forward the help he had received from the Weavers and others who had provided for his education.
As David puts it, “I said, ‘well, maybe we can do for Alejandra what the church did for me.'”
Tejada Rivera entered the nursing program at EMU. She excelled in her studies, met her fiance Drew Diaz ’18, and graduated with honors. She’s now a registered nurse certified in orthopedics and pediatrics at Sentara RMH in Harrisonburg – and she and Diaz now participate in the same medical missions through which she first met David.
“I feel like that’s my calling,” Tejada Rivera said. “I would like to give back to my country, because there are many in need over there.”
Seeing his young protegé excell in her own career and help others, David “can’t help but be proud of her accomplishments,” he said.
Most of all, he hopes his story will inspire others to support educational opportunities for youth who can’t afford them.
“There are a lot of gifted people, particularly in Central America, that could use a little helping hand,” said David.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all, which is why these stories of paying-it-forward generosity are so meaningful,” said Vice President for Advancement Kirk Shisler.
Those interested in contributing to student access, affordability, and belongingness at EMU can learn more about the Forward Together Campaign at emu.edu/campaign.
“Donors to the Forward Together Campaign could be the bridge students need to experience EMU’s transformative programs during a particularly challenging season,” Shisler said.