Maryknoll lay missioners in Bolivia have come to understand that children and adults with disabilities (visual, hearing, physical, intellectual and multiple) suffer from a double burden. They have to strive mightily to live with their disabilities, and in many different ways they are discriminated against or marginalized by not being considered in their special needs for education, health, economic opportunity and social inclusion.
Witnessing that exclusion and denial of the basic, human rights necessary to reach their full human potential, missioners conducted an extensive study of the causes of poverty of persons with disabilities in Bolivia. They organized community-wide surveys and engaged with focus groups, community leaders and external consultants.
As a result, they designed the “Walking together towards Social Inclusion” project and confirmed its relevance and potential with the communities. Maryknoll Lay Missioners began the project in the two rural municipalities of Tacopaya and Entre Ríos, where programs to give persons with disabilities a hand up are nonexistent.
Missioners teamed up with the local authorities and developed a six-year goal to fully empower persons with disabilities and their communities so that they will be able to carry on the programs and activities without external assistance. The project is designed to build the capacities of persons with disabilities and their respective communities in the essential areas of education, health, employment and social participation.
Among the first steps in that empowering process are the fundamental tasks of helping to develop a positive can-do attitude necessary for meaningful participation among the persons with disabilities and of literally making them visible to their communities.
With those goals in mind, the project on Oct. 14-16 co-sponsored two days of events in Entre Ríos (Oct. 15 is Bolivia’s National Day of Persons with Disabilities). More than 200 people with disabilities and their families participated in a one-kilometer race/walk, basketball, small car races, drawing and painting contests, and dance demonstrations.
The coordinator of the project, Maryknoll lay missioner Filomena Siles, recruited the assistance of fellow missioners Cortney Freshwater and Verónica Arriagada to assist with the innumerable tasks. Although thoroughly tired after two days of early rises, 94- degree temperatures, high humidity and a penetrating sun, the smiles, cheers, joyful tears and newfound pride was more than worth the effort.
“Witnessing a mother carry her 40-pound son who suffers from paralysis in her arms as she competed in the race walk puts things into perspective,” Filo says. “They just need an opportunity to participate and to feel appreciated.”
Lay missioners were happy to be able to provide these opportunities.
Photos by Verónica Arriagada