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Alumni Award Recipient The Knight Family

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The Knight Family
2013 West-Whitelow Humanitarian Award Recipient

For a group of abandoned, abused, poverty-stricken children in Latin America, the work of a dedicated family of Bridgewater College alumni have made all the difference between health and illness, comfort and loneliness, satisfaction and hunger. Many would have been condemned to survive as children of the street had it not been for the humanitarian efforts of Aubrey L. and Esther E. Knight, and their children, Emily Knight Wilson and Justin Knight.

Family patriarch and 1978 Bridgewater alumnus Aubrey Knight is a doctor in Salem, Va., who began medical missions to Bolivia in the early 1990s. When a powerful earthquake hit El Salvador in 2001, Dr. Knight's medical team was invited to provide care for a group of children living in a start-up orphanage in San Salvador. He agreed, thinking it would be a one-time trip and that he would resume trips to Bolivia when the mission was over.

"But we were touched by these kids and by the needs they had and the opportunity to be a part of their lives," he said. "So we've continued to go each year."

He and his wife, Esther Elswick Knight – also a member of the Bridgewater class of 1978 – established a non-profit ministry, My Father's House International, to support the orphanage La Casa de mi Padre. Many of the children living at the orphanage have parents or other family members who simply abandoned them, typically because of poverty and lack of education. An important piece of that ministry is trying to reconcile the families and break the generational cycles of shattered relationships.

Esther, who graduated from Bridgewater with a degree in English and a concentration in history, has worked side by side with her husband in Bolivia and El Salvador since 1996. A lifelong educator who now teaches in Roanoke at Faith Christian School, she also serves on the board of directors for My Father's House International and continues to bring her knowledge, skill and compassion to the unfortunate children of Latin America.

Helping make this truly a family affair are their children, Emily Knight Wilson '05 and Justin Knight '08.

Emily, who majored at Bridgewater in English and minored in Spanish, was an elementary educator until 2009 when she decided to stay home to raise her children. Now living in Simpsonville, S.C., she participated in many of her family's mission trips to El Salvador between 2002 and 2011, and even took her son, Benjamin, on a mission trip when he was two years old. Emily said her one-year-old daughter, Elise, will have to wait another year to go, but Emily plans to introduce Elise to Latin America, as well.

She also noted that she will pursue her master's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages while her children are small, and plans to return to teaching when they are of school age.

Justin, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., majored in international studies and Spanish at Bridgewater, two fields that – like his sister's academic pursuits – stood him in good stead on his trips with the family to El Salvador. He, too, began making trips to the orphanage in 2002, and today still serves as an orphanage volunteer and translator, using his teaching and Spanish-language skills – he is a graduate student and associate instructor of Spanish at Indiana University – to further the humanitarian work of his family.

Dr. Knight arranges for three trips to El Salvador each year, including one with medical, dental and pharmacy students from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School. The experience is eye-opening for young medical students, revealing a stark disparity between health-care services in the U.S. and Latin American countries. Dr. Knight said he enjoys the unique opportunity to "get back to the roots" of practicing the art of medicine.

"We are spoiled by the technology we have in the U.S., but we also rely on that technology too much," said Dr. Knight. "On a mission like this, we rely on our minds and hands and ears to help us come to an understanding of what's going on with the patient. You don't have a CT scan or an X-ray or an ultrasound. You can't fall back on those diagnostic tests. It's all about your knowledge of medicine and the human conditions."

Dr. Knight graduated from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1982 and is currently the associate dean for student affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. He remains clinically active, specializing in geriatric and palliative medicine.

In presenting the Knight family members with the 2013 West-Whitelow Award for Humanitarian Service, the Bridgewater College Alumni Association acknowledges their tireless dedication and commitment to humanity, continuing the example set by Naomi West and Carlyle Whitelow.