During her junior year of high school, America Ordonez stepped into Oak Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for the first time, armed with a camera, a sketch pad and a box full of paints.

Almost a year later, she delivered carefully shaded portraits to four residents, all of whom she’d disarmed with her artist’s focus while capturing their personal details with watercolors and acrylics.

The process was therapeutic for the skilled nursing residents, and for Ordonez.

Three years ago, the teenager made a solitary 1,300-mile trip from Guatemala to join her mother in the United States. She tells a story of abuse at her father’s hands. When she fled to protect herself, she had to leave behind several younger siblings.

Ordonez spent her 16th birthday at an immigration center while officials with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service launched her effort to gain citizenship.

But once reunited with her mother for the first time since she age 2, Ordonez became a straight-A student at Pawtucket, RI’s Blackstone Academy Charter.

Her school connected her with Oak Hill, which matched her with residents whom staff there thought would enjoy sitting for the young artist.

“It took a little longer for her to finish them because of some of things happening in her life, and because she is a perfectionist,” Oak Hill Recreation Director DeLaina Richard told McKnight’s. “But when she presented them to the residents, oh, your heart just swelled.”

Resident Ann Trinko with her portrait.
Resident Ann Trinko shows her likeness.

Richard started her job at Oak Hill in the midst of Ordonez’s project, and when she learned the young woman’s backstory, she reached out to local media to help share it with the community.

“I enjoy thinking about their lives while I paint,” Ordonez told TV station WPRI in June. “Maybe it helps them, too, as they miss their family … It’s nice here [at Oak Hill] and they might think, ‘Oh, wow! This is me. This is me on paper with colors.’ ”

Richard is in the process of having the residents’ portraits framed for their rooms, though at least one has asked to keep her picture off the wall so that she can hold it.