There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as Jeison Aristizábal accepted CNN’s Hero of the Year award on Sunday.
The activist, who has cerebral palsy, battled prejudice at a young age because of the disorder. Aristizábal, 33, has used his struggles and experiences to pay it forward to hundreds of kids in his native Cali, Colombia that have disabilities but lack resources to live a full life.
The 2016 CNN Hero of the Year was selected from this year’s top 10 CNN Heroes after a six-week online vote. Hosts Kelly Ripa and Anderson Cooper announced the winner at “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” where all 10 of this year’s heroes are honored. When Aristizábal was handed the award he gave a brief speech that moved many in the audience.
“Incredible,” he said. “Hello to Colombia. Hello to all the families that have a child with a disability, I just want to tell them that yes you can. You can dream. And that you can achieve your dreams.”
His words are touching within the context of his own story. The activist, who lives in one Cali’s poorest districts, Aguablanca, has spent decades fighting to accomplish his dreams despite prejudices.
“When Jeison was 3 or 4 years old, they told me that I should buy him a box so that I could sit him down in front of the house and have him shine shoes,” the activist’s mother, María Emilia, told BBC Mundo.
But both Aristizábal and his mother refused to accept what even doctors told them: that he’d never amount to anything because of his cerebral palsy and a hip malformation that made walking difficult.
“All these difficult circumstances pushed me to be independent,” Aristizábal says in his video profile for CNN Heroes. “I learned that I would be able to accomplish everything I put my mind to.”
Now that Aristizábal accomplished his own dreams, he’s helping other low-income youth with disabilities to the same. At age 17, he began helping other low-income kids with disabilities acquire wheelchairs to improve their quality of life. Soon he opened a physical therapy center in his garage and founded ASODISVALLE (an acronym that translates to Association of Disabled People of the Valley).
Today his foundation helps over 480 kids in 5 different locations, which offer classes, music, physical therapy and other services that help local disabled youth gain independence.
“Many children with disabilities in Aguablanca grow up with no type of opportunity because families don’t know how to take care of them,” Aristizábal says in his CNN profile video below. “They think that [their child’s disability] is God’s punishment. It’s very important to change that way of thinking.”
Aristizábal was not only named CNN’s Hero of the Year but will receive $100,000 to continue helping disabled youth in Colombia.
Learn more about his inspiring story in the video below.