Editor’s Note: As an infant, Zully JF Alvarado contracted polio, but at the time, the villagers in her home country of Ecuador didn’t have the resources or knowledge to properly diagnose her condition. When a priest on a mission trip took interest in her, her parents allowed him to take her to the United States to be treated. The sick and scared eight-year-old was brought to Chicago on a cold, wintery day and taken in by a family there. After learning the language and little by little, adapting to her new world, she went on to study speech and language, rehabilitation administration, child development, and fashion design. When her condition worsened and wheelchair use became her norm, she decided to become more involved in advocacy for the disability community and started the nonprofit Causes for Change International.
When I was going through post-polio and thought I was possibly at death’s door, I decided to fight. I was given another chance to strengthen my faith and with that, I found a new opportunity at life and started Causes for Change International.
I felt I had the opportunity to share and do for my birth country what I’ve gained in my adoptive country.
I want to leave some of the legacies of the families and friends that have done so much for me here. I also want them to know more about where I came from.
Working Toward a Brighter Future in Ecuador
I started taking doctors and nurses on travel missions with me to Ecuador. We wanted to bring the villagers resources and knowledge and ask them what they needed to improve their lives. After 20 years of doing that with Causes for Change, politics and conditions have changed, and we can no longer provide as much medical help as we did then. We’ve shifted our focus and are now working with the university. My thought initially was to start something like the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago or a children’s hospital, but there aren’t enough trained experts there to fulfill those roles. So, we decided to work with the university to get the future ready. We helped start a social work department, and we just got approval from the government to help the university start a physical therapy department as well.
I also do a lot of work in my hometown of Gary, Indiana. I’ve been a wheelchair user now for almost 30 years, and when I moved here six years ago, I discovered that the annual community garden walk in Gary wasn’t accessible. I wanted to do something about it, so over the last year, I’ve been working to create an accessible garden for the community. It’s coming along very well. We’re using universal design principles because we always want to go beyond ADA standards.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the seven universal design principles at universaldesign.ie.
I also got an invitation a few years back to do a ribbon cutting in Michigan City, Indiana, for an accessible kayak launch. They installed a launch where wheelchair users can easily transfer from their chair to a bench and then into a kayak or canoe. It’s wonderful! I thought it would be great to get an accessible kayak launch in Gary, so I immediately took action to find out how much would it cost. The city of Gary doesn’t have a lot of money, so we got the community involved in November of 2015. By June of 2016, we had our own accessible launch in Marquette Park. Every summer since, we hold sunset paddles. We also started including paddling for the blind. In the last few months, I also worked with a neighboring town to raise funds and install a similar accessible launch.
Last year, we held the Outdoor Adaptive Escapade where we invited all abilities to come and experience different types of recreational equipment but also invited the general public to educate them about inclusion.
We wanted to show people that by having the right tools and an accessible environment, we can all participate.
We had a company install a temporary boardwalk to see what it would look like if we made our beach accessible. We had different types of adaptive bikes available to show that everybody can ride on the trails. It was wonderful to experience. Now the Indiana Dunes National Park Service has started a similar regional event called Outdoors Adventure Festival, and we have joined efforts to make it an annual event.
We’re also currently working on the Gary Air Show. It hasn’t taken place for a couple of years due to lack of funding. This year, the mayor invited the community to plan it. I’m now the chair for the Accessibility for All committee. This is an opportunity for us to have a voice in the planning.
Whenever we have a project, we fundraise for that particular project. Everything is 100% volunteer-based. We are a registered nonprofit, so any donations are tax deductible. Donations can be made on our website, CausesforChange.org, or by contacting me. To get involved through volunteering, there are many opportunities. If you like gardening, every Monday morning from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., we work in the community garden. To get involved with planning the Gary Air Show, we have a conference call on Monday evenings to share ideas. I then take the information back to the committee and push for what we want and need. I really encourage people to get involved and be in places where they get heard and seen.
It Starts With One
It always starts with one person. I was so fortunate that because of this one priest, my life changed.
You never know who that one individual you help will become in their lifetime.
The doctors said I wouldn’t make it past my teen years, but this priest had hope without expecting or wanting anything from me. Causes for Change is what I can contribute on behalf of the priest and the families who helped me. They saw hope in me, and I can’t let them down. Ecuador gave me birth, but this country gave me life. This is my country, and I’m really proud of it. It’s given me so many opportunities, and it’s up to me to show others what’s available to them. We have opportunities to give and really make a difference for others. I think that’s what life is all about.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to be writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!