When Jeison Aristizábal became CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2016 – the first from Latin America – he shared a powerful message for young people with disabilities and their families.
“I want to tell you that it is possible. You can dream and you can achieve your dreams,” she stated.
Growing up with cerebral palsy in one of the poorest areas of Cali, Colombia, Aristizábal strove to challenge society’s expectations. She has dedicated her life to providing therapy, education and support to other young people with disabilities in her community so that they can realize their potential.
Since 2016, your organization, Asodisvallehas expanded in a big way, opening even more doors of opportunity for those it helps.
With the prize money and donations, Aristizábal and his organization purchased the land where they built a much larger rehabilitation center, equipped with new technology and more medical tools for all the children’s needs. They have gone from helping about 400 youth to more than 1,000 today, she said.
In addition to specialized therapies, her center offers students free education and a variety of programs, including dance, sports and music. Older students can also learn job skills.
Aristizábal not only expanded his nonprofit, he was also inspired to become a lawyer and graduated from law school three years ago.
“I realized that the world needs more people to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities,” he said. “My goal is to help change the laws of this country so that people with disabilities have more opportunities.”
This CNN Hero of the Year is Helping Kids with Disabilities Defy Expectations
This year, he and his foundation made another big dream come true: building a university. Inspired by a group of older students in the program, the organization began construction two years ago.
“Today we have the first university for young people with disabilities in Latin America,” he stated.
Now in its first year, with 300 students enrolled, the university offers a variety of classes, including computer programming, 3D technology, graphic design and languages. Students can also learn skills in culinary arts, carpentry, music and tailoring.
“It has all the equipment so that people with disabilities can study in an accessible way,” said Aristizábal. “We have eye technology, for example. “Those who cannot move their hands or feet operate computers with their eyes.”
Aristizábal says the goal is not only to help students obtain their college education, but also to prepare them for employment so they can join the workforce, become providers for their families and contribute in a variety of fields.
“The foundation is changing the concept of the word ‘disability’, understanding that they can, that they are capable,” he stated.
The young people who inspired the idea of the university, says Aristizábal, began by learning to be bakers at the foundation. They now work at a local food production plant.
“Before, their families saw them as if they weren’t going to be able to do much,” he said. “Today they have a job, they have a salary. “They are the ones who put food on the table.”
Ultimately, Aristizábal wants to show the world what anyone can achieve if given the opportunity.
“Jeison is a role model for us,” said Ayleen, who started at the foundation when she was 4 and plans to enroll in college next year to become a teacher. “She has shown us that there is no limitation, no disability, or anything that prevents us from achieving our dreams.”