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Colombian ‘Hero’ Helps Others With Disabilities Lead Fulfilling Lives

Persistir. Persistence. It is a word we all know, but one few truly understand.

Jeison Aristizábal was born in an impoverished neighborhood in the city of Cali in southwestern Colombia. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after his birth, doctors told his mother that the odds were stacked against him, and at best he could aspire to becoming a shoe shiner. Jeison, though, proved his doctors and all his naysayers wrong.

I met Jeison at an upscale hotel across the street of New York City's iconic Central Park, near Columbus Circle, a world away from Aguablanca in Cali, the poorest district in Colombia's third-largest city. It's in Aguablanca where Aristizábal grew up and where he was worked tirelessly to help children with disabilities. During our sit-down interview, Aristizábal, never stopped smiling.

He walks with difficulty, but it that doesn't stop him. He was trying to pick up things in his hotel room and apologized for the mess; most importantly he was on the phone with his foundation in Cali, making sure that everything was running smoothly for the children he cares so much about.

He started Asodisvalle, or Asociación de Discapacitados del Valle, his foundation, 16 years ago to help children with disabilities.

Beating the odds

Jeison says his biological father was killed when he was just a little boy. His mother, María Emilia Aristizábal, 55, was left a young widow with four young children; one with a disability.

"We survived in part thanks to the charity of people that helped my mom and because she would sell drinks during local festivities in December," Jeison said.

Despite the difficult circumstances, María Emilia always told her son that he was worth every sacrifice.

Jeison Aristizabal walking with his mother Maria Emilia Aristiz?bal.
Jeison Aristizabal walking with his mother Maria Emilia Aristiz?bal. El Nuevo Dia

"My son has to succeed and I always told him that 'you have to make yourself valued for your abilities, you are so worthy,'" María Emilia said.

A psychologist advised María Emilia that she send her son to a school for children without disabilities, and so she did. His classmates, however, bullied Jeison mercilessly calling him "torcido" or "twisted " for his manner of walking and other hurtful nicknames mocking his cerebral palsy. Jeison, however, didn't let the taunts get in his way.

RELATED: En Español: Jeison Aristizábal wins prestigious honor for his activism

Jeison graduated high school and decided he no longer wanted to depend on anyone to move around and go places. He even set a goal for himself to learn how to ride a bicycle.

"My mom made me wear two pairs of jeans and two sweaters to act as a cushion when I fell," Jeison said. He did indeed fall multiple times during the two months where he practiced daily until he learned how to ride his bicycle. It was seminal moment for him; the moment he credits for realizing that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

Helping others

Jeison soon realized he was not alone, and that there were countless children with disabilities left in bed, staring at the ceiling all day without any hope of ever truly living their lives.

He decided to help one child who needed a wheelchair, but realized one would be very expensive. He convinced a friend, a journalist, to let him publish a short ad in the local newspaper.

"Child needs a wheelchair if you have one, donate it, info here."

The newspaper went out at 5 a.m. and by 4 p.m. that very day, the child already had a new wheelchair. Soon after word got around that "Jeison consigue sillas de ruedas" (Jeison can help you get wheelchairs.)

Jeison convinced another friend who was studying physical therapy to practice what she had learned on children with disabilities. She agreed to it and children started showing up to Jeison's house.

Left to right: Maria Emilia, Aristizabal, Jeison Aristizabal, Colombian Consul Mar?a Isabel Nieto Jaramillo and
Left to right: Maria Emilia, Aristizabal, Jeison Aristizabal, Colombian Consul Mar?a Isabel Nieto Jaramillo and Jeison Aristizabal

"I asked my parents to let me use their garage," he said. "We started with 25 kids, then the following week we had 50. We moved to the living room, then the dining room and then we took over the whole house."

Through his foundation, Jeison now helps 530 children with disabilities, all whom receive physical therapy, meals and an education. For these children and their parents, Jeison is living proof that there is hope that these children too can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

His three secrets to a happy life

Jeison's shared with us what he considers the three secrets to a happy, optimistic life.

"The first secret to living a happy life is to be grateful, value everything you have. Be grateful for your life, for your family, for the opportunities you have. Be thankful you can walk and see. I always tell people to just stop complaining so much," Jeison said.

He goes on to tell me the second secret: "Help with whatever you may have. Many people often say 'if I win the lottery I'll help, if I make a lot of money I'll help others.' Many just keep waiting and never help anyone."

Jeison's third secret is to hang on to your ability to dream. "Oftentimes your daily routine; work and life rob us of our ability to dream and when we stop dreaming we lose a sense of purpose to our life," Jeison said.

RELATED: Telemundo's Interview with Colombian Disability Rights Activist Jeison Aristizábal

Jeison was received in his hometown of Cali, Colombia like a true hero. His wish now is to use the 100-thousand dollars presented to him with the award to expand his foundation in order to help even more children. Jeison Aristizábal is a true hero who inspires us all to find our own passion and happiness in what truly matters in life this holiday season and throughout our lives.

Diego Arias is a correspondent for Telemundo's highly-rated daily news magazine "Al Rojo Vivo" and Edgar Zúñiga Jr. is a producer for the network's national-evening newscast, "Noticiero Telemundo," both based in Noticias Telemundos' New York bureau. Telemundo is a division of NBCUniversal.

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