Hands-On Hero


Spring 2017

Jeison Aristizábal and his nonprofit, Asodisvalle, provide vital resources for the disabled in Cali, Colombia.

The usual path to freedom progresses from crawling to walking, bicycle to car.

For Jeison Aristizábal, each stage was a battle. At 13, he mastered two-wheeling − while wearing “sacks and double pants” to cushion the falls, as he once told a reporter. The makeshift padding was at his mother’s insistence, to safeguard results of the surgery their family scrimped and improvised to afford.

It’s no surprise that now, at age 33, Aristizábal welcomes being photographed driving a car − a hands-on standard transmission. That mobility was hard-fought. Oxygen deprivation at birth left him with cerebral palsy, which affects the part of the brain that controls muscle movement, coordination and balance. 

CNN Hero of the Year Jeison Aristizábal with a beneficiary of his nonprofit, Asodisvalle.
CNN Hero of the Year Jeison Aristizábal with a beneficiary of his nonprofit, Asodisvalle. Photo: Juan Arredondo / Reportage for CNN

A doctor in his native Cali, Colombia, told Aristizábal’s mother her toddler son would “amount to nothing.” But with their combined grit, Aristizábal defied that diagnosis. Along the way, he gained a great deal of empathy that he has channeled into helping others.

In December, Aristizábal was selected from the 2016 Top 10 CNN Heroes as the CNN Hero of the Year, an honor spotlighting his nonprofit foundation, Asodisvalle (Association of Disabled People of the Valley). Asodisvalle provides schooling and medical services for children in his hardscrabble region. The goal, he says, is to make them happy. “They sing, they play, they dance,” he told CNN.

CNN’s Heroes highlights people who make a difference in their communities. Subaru of America is a 9-year sponsor of the awards and is matching donations for each of the 2016 Top 10 CNN Heroes up to $50,000 per hero, for a possible total of $500,000.

Jeison Aristizábal, CNN Hero of the Year.
Jeison Aristizábal, CNN Hero of the Year. Photo: Juan Arredondo / Reportage for CNN

Aristizábal’s teenage conversations with disabled friends led to the creation of Asodisvalle, which was founded in a garage. Their first goal was to buy wheelchairs. Since then, Aristizábal estimates the organization has distributed 500, allowing disabled children to engage the wider world. Today, Asodisvalle has its own building, and the $100,000 award from CNN Heroes will significantly bolster services.

Aristizábal has also nearly completed law studies at Universidad Santiago de Cali with the goal of enhancing rights for disabled Colombian children.

It’s a progression stemming from his earliest efforts at freedom, paying it forward − a “chain of dreams.” 

Honor Roll

Meet the 2016 CNN Heroes finalists.

Along with 2016 CNN Hero of the Year Jeison Aristizábal and his organization Asodisvalle, these nine people, named among the 2016 CNN Heroes finalists, found different avenues to fill voids and answer needs. By employing a variety of tools – from bicycles, kayaks and soccer balls, to house keys and horses – these five women and four men are making a difference in the world, helping people and animals lead brighter lives. Subaru, a nine-year sponsor of the awards, is proud to play a role in the recognition of those who pay it forward.

Training Wheels 

Craig Dodson uses bikes to help break the cycle of generational public housing. Since 2010, Dodson has enlisted the bicycle as a vehicle for steering at-risk young people toward success in Richmond, Virginia. Dodson, a former semiprofessional cyclist, was inspired to create the Richmond Cycling Corps (RCC) after he spoke to students from a tough neighborhood.

RCC is managed by a small team with backgrounds in sociology, outdoor adventure, biomechanics, movement science and high-level bicycling. They oversee the country’s only inner-city mountain-biking park and only inner-city high-school cycling team. RCC youngsters have ridden in more than 30 events, traveled to five states, tackled mountains and camped. RCC also offers tutoring, mentoring and instruction in bicycle mechanics. And they’ve set down roots in a building near the neighborhood of the young people they serve. The new RCC hub, where Dodson now lives, makes him accessible whenever young people need him.

“Bikes serve as an instrument to hammer out much-needed character development,” says Dodson. “Unlike team sports, cycling forces its participants to fulfill their own workload while still being a part of a team.” 

Dog Years 

Volunteer work has a way of blooming into more than a few donated hours. And dogs have a way of winning hearts. So it was with Sherri Franklin’s volunteer time at San Francisco dog shelters, where she observed that senior dogs couldn’t compete with puppy love. She couldn’t bear to see old dogs’ hopes fade as they were passed over for adoption. In 2007, she founded Muttville, an organization dedicated to changing how we think about and treat older dogs. 

Muttville is a comfortable living space for elderly canines seeking human affection. It has the added benefit of helping people. “Many senior humans seem to be forgotten or invisible with no voice and suffer from loneliness and isolation,” says Franklin. Senior dogs in shelters are similarly left behind. In addition to minding senior dogs’ health and providing hospice care when needed, Muttville pairs its dogs with senior citizens. Programs include Seniors for Seniors and the Cuddle Club, which meets for dog walking and socializing. 

Franklin is now trying to give the old dogs new digs, a place of their own in which they can expand Muttville’s people-pooch programs. 

Out Living

It might seem that the last thing a cancer patient needs is another challenge. But sometimes, a physically demanding adventure can be a tonic. First Descents bolsters spirits and teaches skills through free weeklong camps for young adults who have experienced cancer. It turns patients into participants. Since 2001, expert kayaker Brad Ludden has offered excursions around the country. The idea is for cancer patients and survivors (ages 18 to 39) to bond through kayaking, surfing and rock climbing.

Participants say the achievement makes them feel more alive. As one woman said, kayaking released her cancer ordeal “into white-capped waves and rapids.” In the process of gaining a new skill, attendees are assigned a sporting nickname that lends a sort of new identity – a new focus.

“I feel that our society often considers the singular goal of medicine to extend life or cure disease, overlooking the importance of living healthier, happier days regardless of how many we have left,” says Ludden. “I truly believe programs like First Descents are needed to complement more traditional medicine, to help people not only experience more days, but also help them enjoy better days.”

Universal Language

Sometimes a wrong turn can take us just where we need to go. Such was the case with Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian-born, Smith College graduate who was searching for her life’s direction.

One day, an unintended detour led her to a group of young refugees playing soccer – in bare feet with rocks set up as goals – in a Clarkston, Georgia, parking lot. She watched and, a few days later, returned with a soccer ball. Mufleh asked to play and gradually won the boys over. “I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time,” she says.

That chance pickup game was the start of a refugee team in 2006 – and much more. One game grew into several. In the children she coached, Mufleh recognized unmet needs, and she expanded her efforts to include tutoring. Today her organization, Fugees Family, Inc., operates an accredited privately founded school exclusively for low-income boy and girl refugees. Mufleh also founded two businesses that benefit the children and their families. Fugees Family, Inc. has helped more than 850 refugee children from 28 war-torn countries.

Remote Rx 

Typically, moving back home isn’t considered a bold move. But when Umra Omar decided to leave a good job in Washington, D.C., to help deliver medical aid on the east coast of her native Kenya, a beautiful region now bullied by terrorists, it was something else that frightened her. “I was scared of getting trapped in a rat race and not being driven to make a difference in my world,” says Omar, who came to the United States at 19 to attend college. 

In 2014, Omar established Safari Doctors, who deliver free health care to villagers in Lamu Archipelago, an island group just off the coast near the Kenya-Somali border. Safari Doctors’ work is performed by volunteers who have specialties in a variety of areas, from dental care and optometry to immunizations, maternal health and communicable diseases. 

Indigenous people who receive the aid can sometimes be so isolated that the ages of family members are not known. Their needs are clear, however. As one recipient said, “My boys used to go to school, and we had access to medical facilities and services, not anymore.” Safari Doctors is playing a role in changing that for the better.


Typically, first apartments are furnished with castoff family china, childhood bedroom sets and maybe the sofa that fostered Saturday-morning cartoon watching. 

For young adults who’ve spent their first 18 to 21 years in foster care, however, there is no family hodgepodge. Georgie Smith, a filmmaker, designer and chef, learned of that disparity in 2014, when a young man contacted her. He had “aged out” of the foster system in Los Angeles and his barebones plight prompted Smith to marshal volunteers to collect goods and furnish his home. So began A Sense of Home, which has since outfitted the homes of 130 former foster children. 

Recipients benefit as much from “the fact that strangers show up and say ‘you matter’ as they do from the donated décor,” says Smith. After homes are furnished, there’s a housewarming party. “We break bread and sit in a circle and hear [their] stories. Their voices matter for the first time. Their stories educate the volunteers.” Barry Bartlett, the first young man Smith helped, says it started a “roller coaster of goodness. It changed my life.”

Building Fathers 

In carpentry, a dovetail is an interlocking joint binding two pieces of wood together. It’s fitting, then, that Sheldon Smith’s Chicago organization devoted to helping men become strong fathers is named The Dovetail Project. The 12-week program for African-American fathers (ages 17 to 24) teaches parenting skills and provides tools for getting and keeping a job, obtaining a high school degree (GED), managing a household budget and understanding one’s rights.

Smith’s own experience was his inspiration. His father was in and out of his life, he says, and he remembers sitting on the porch all day, waiting for his dad to arrive. He says he started “hanging with the wrong people” and served time for robbery. It was the birth of his daughter, however, that put him on a new path. “Wanting to be the best example for her, that is my No. 1 concern,” he says.

About 90 percent of the men The Dovetail Project serves grew up with no role model. As one participant explains: “The program taught me how to be a man by being a father to my baby.”


At Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee, the first step toward healing is a front step to a house and a key to unlock the door. In 1997, Becca Stevens gave five women the chance to live two years, rent-free, in a home where they were in charge. All had experienced prostitution, human trafficking or addiction.

“Having a long-term, free, safe home is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone coming out of the violence of poverty and life on the streets or in prison,” says Stevens. “Finding some peace while working on trauma is critical for survivors.” Today, there are five residential communities and a business run by 50 survivors. The nonprofit includes Thistle Farms Home & Body. The body-care products and other goods they make are sold online and by retailers around the country. Sales topped $1 million in 2014. 

The words of the women tell the human success story. “I was in a dark place. I came from molestation, running away at 15, using drugs, became homeless, arrested 87 times,” one employee says. “[Thistle Farms] let me run the cash register, go to the bank.” Building such trust is essential to Thistle Farms’ healing mission.

Horse Power 

Living on a farm with horses for 48 years made Harry Swimmer serious about riding. Now, he’s serious about sharing that pleasure with special-needs children. When Swimmer was preparing to retire, he and his wife, who bred and trained champion show horses, decided to explore equine-assisted therapy.

Since 1994, more than 800 children have benefited from the couple’s Mitey Riders program at their Misty Meadows Farm in North Carolina. There, young people ages 5 to 18, many of whom use wheelchairs or walk with assistance, come to ride for free. “The horse-child connection works physically and cognitively, because the movement of the horse is forward, backward, up and down and side to side,” says Swimmer. “All of this combined with the warmth of the horse does amazing things for these children.”

The experience has prompted some riders to take their first steps, even speak their first words. Children with muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, autism and other conditions often respond immediately. As one mother described, “I watched my little boy’s world open up in a matter of moments. Once he’s on a horse, he is a different boy.”

Jeison Aristizábal