It’s my privilege to share this story my daughter wrote from one of her recent trips to Hope Of Life International, Zacapa, Guatemala. Kaylee’s spent seven months in the last two years in the mountains of Zacapa.
I want to share the story of an everyday unsung hero of mine. My friend’s story has been on my heart for awhile but has taken me time to find the words to do his extraordinary testimony justice.
Our unlikely friendship formed over a bachata song. I recently discovered my love for the Latin-American singer Prince Royce a few months before moving to Guatemala. He sings bachata music and I thought his popular song Quiero Darte un Beso could be the national anthem of Guatemala because I heard it several times a day in Guatemala whether booming loudly from a bus, drifting out a window while walking through Llano Verde, or while being serenaded by Lolo, a 7 year old from the children’s home.
In January 2014, I was spending one of my first days in Kelly’s House, the home for special needs children at Hope of Life Ministries in Zacapa, Guatemala. I found myself in a room with three boys – Juan Diego, Mesiel, and Chalito. I asked Chalito, the oldest of the three, if he liked music because I noticed a CD player on the table beside his bed. He responded enthusiastically. Not knowing what else to do as I stared at the three disabled boys, I picked a Spanish song on my iPod and pressed play. I talked to the other boys but quickly turned around as I heard Chalito singing quietly along to the music . “Do you like bachata?” I asked. “Si,” he replied, “It’s my favorite.” He proceeded to sing every word to all the songs I had in my library of Latino music.
This was the start of an unlikely friendship that has impacted me in more ways then one.
Chalito has severe cerebral palsy. Both legs are permanently twisted to one side entirely inhibiting his ability to walk. His back is so rigid it limits his capacity to bend properly. His arms are permanently bent inward toward his shoulders which allows only for slight movement with his arms. He cannot walk, sit up, or feed himself on his own. Despite his physical shortcomings, he has an infectious, wide smile that only momentarily leaves his face as he is painfully lifted into his wheelchair, and a joy that brightens everyone’s day.
What impacted me the most about my extraordinary friend is that he is 22 years old.
22 years old.
That’s my age. Our lives are vastly different. I just graduated from college and am transitioning into adult life. I have the greater freedoms to go and do what I want. I have the freedom to walk, run, bike, dance, eat when I’m hungry, and sit down when I am tired.
He can’t do any of that. He has to rely on someone else to do everything for him.
I learned so much from Chalito–a young man who society has told him that he has no hope or potential to make a lasting impact on this world.
I learned Humility: I never once heard him complain about his disability or the fact others have to do everything for him. He willingly accepts help from those who offer to care for him. The ability to constantly receive help from others, including strangers, in such a graceful manner is a rare form of humility few possess.
I learned Joy: His presence emanates joy. I visited him and his two roommates several times a week. Everytime I walked into his room or found them on the veranda, he was smiling. There was never a trace of anger or bitterness in his countenance. He always had a smile on his face and laughed at my not-so-funny jokes. It didn’t make a difference when he was taken to the dentist to get several teeth pulled or when he was painfully lifted into his wheelchair. He was and is always full of joy.
I learned Faith: We would talk about our faith. He is a Catholic while I come from an evangelical background. It didn’t matter. He let me read Bible stories to him some mornings. He loves going to church. Always. Rain or Shine. One time I remember, his family came to visit him. They didn’t visit often because it is expensive he told me and he is one of eight or nine siblings. His family came right when my roommate and I showed up to take the boys to church. When asked if he wanted to stay back and visit with them, it was not an option. The boy wanted to go to church. And so we wheeled him in, with his Catholic family trailing behind their son, not looking the most excited to spend their special morning visiting him in an evangelical church service.
I learned Patience: He was patient with me when I didn’t always understand what he, Mesiel or Juan Diego needed. He would repeat their requests while giggling uncontrollably as my friend and I tried to decipher the language barrier. He never complained or protested as Ana Paula, the active 2 year old crawled all over his bed and perched herself atop his stomach while he was helpless to move. He was patient as the nurses hoisted him everyday into a wheelchair and strapped him in with a thick belt that held him up by the armpits because his rigid body didn’t have the flexibility to sit normally. I knew it as uncomfortable by the grimace that momentarily replaced his characteristic smile.
Did I ever hear an ounce of complaining from my friend?
What could I do for this new friend who was teaching me so much? I was spending time with him and bringing my music every visit. But I wanted to do more.
Mid-February some Americans donated a new wheelchair to Kelly’s House that was suitable for Chalito to use. The wheelchair itself was a miracle. Before, Chalito spent nearly all day laying either in bed or in the veranda on a blue stretcher because it was too painful and uncomfortable for him to sit in a normal wheelchair because of the rigidity of his back. Two men carried him every Sunday to church and he laid at the front of the church in his stretcher. This new wheelchair adjusted so that his body could lay down in it, but reclined to fit the flexibility of his back instead of being straight like the back of a normal wheelchair. Chalito was now mobile!
One day we were going on a ¨vuelto¨ or short ride around Kelly’s House. We wheeled over to the elderly home for a change of scenery and more sidewalks. There was one sidewalk that had a small, yet gradual incline. I wheeled him up the incline and then we turned around. There was now a small hill in front of us we had to go down. I started to wheel him down slowly but the weight of him and his wheelchair, coupled with the incline pulled me forward, and before I realized it, we were flying down the hill. I managed to hang on to the handles and steer us safely to a stop at the bottom. ¨That was close¨ I said with a sense of relief. ¨Again!¨ he pleaded as he laughed uncontrollably.
So we did it again. And again. And again.
Did I get some looks from the elderly strolling in the tiny courtyard? Yes. Did I get some looks from villagers peering over the fence to see why the gringa was running down the hill? Yes. Should I have been running down the small hill with a boy strapped to a wheelchair? Probably not.
But his laugh and smile were so bright.
Each time I gripped as tightly as possible to the handles and ran as fast as I could without losing control of steering down the tiny hill.
For the first time, my friend knew the sensation and joy of something that has always brought me great pleasure: running, but to him it was more like flying. It was something small. But it was a small gift I could give to repay him for teaching me so much about life through his testimony of humbly living out the joy of the gospel in everyday life. I wouldn’t trade the joy and freedom I heard in his laugh as we flew down the hill for anything.
I also knew it was okay when Manuel, the old man who always sits at the end of the hill and chops coconuts under a palm tree gave his approval with a nod and crooked smile while watching the very unlikely pair–a young crippled man with a wide grin in a pink wheelchair and the gringa with the braided hair running and laughing, running and laughing, over and over again.