We asked Jeison Aristiz-bal to share what's happened since he was recognized as the 2016 CNN Hero of the Year. Here is his open letter:
I used to look at life with difficulty.
Through every path I walked, I encountered barriers and discrimination. I was a boy with dreams and tireless perseverance, on a mission to find opportunities for disabled children and young people. I never wanted to spark pity, only love and solidarity toward disabled children like me.
I was passionate about helping the disabled community, but this was not easy to achieve: The system in my country, Colombia, does not promote public policy to provide opportunities and a better life for people like us. It hurt terribly to hear the stories of those families with disabled children; especially because, as a child, I lived through adversity in thousands of ways, due to a society (and a school) that excluded me for being different.
Despite having cerebral palsy, I came up with different ways to conquer the world, to change the perception of disability and, before all else, to get society to realize that we should always give, regardless of how little we have.
At all times, I carried my message of the value of solidarity, of recognizing that it's the most effective way through which we can understand that helping others is extraordinary.
A dream come true
Being nominated to be a 2016 CNN Hero was a wonderful dream come true for me. It moved my desire to help forward. I was filled with a roller coaster of emotion; it was days and months of new-found feelings. I would always keep the need to create opportunities for all these children with disabilities in mind; these children that, despite the challenges they face, always provide a hug, a smile or a look filled with hope. All of this motivated me to keep dreaming.
How can I not trust Divine Providence when a great moment like this arrives? Being at last year's "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" was like a fantasy. In a room full of lights, color and inspirational messages and images, I was being recognized by thousands of people around the world like a hero without a cape. The mottoes "YES YOU CAN" and "DREAMING IS WORTH IT" swirled in my mind and my heart was filled with love and hope. I thought about all those who suffer, and who eagerly wait for a chance in life.
People put their faith in me, and in the hope to turn the world into a place where values such as respect, love and tolerance will lead us to peace; a world where we are all equal and where social equity prevails. They believed in me and shared my dream of supporting others, and let me speak and fight for them.
An engine for change
There are so many life stories of people who have not been limited by adversity. These stories have been the engine in creating a generational change in moral values. Every place I have visited, I have encountered incredibly kind people; from students of prestigious colleges, to businessmen in big cities, and even in the most modest of places, where hope and faith create a lifestyle change where love, respect and solidarity become more valuable than material wealth.
Through the labor of our foundation, ASODISVALLE, every day we are surprised by the capacity people have to teach us the importance of unity. How can we not recognize its greatness? Through this recognition by CNN, people have been moved by my message and have been spurred to act.
Today, because of the recognition as the 2016 CNN Hero of the Year, I have traveled the world with my motivational speech, "Three secrets to being happy." I am moved by the fact that families want their children to be like Jeison. Children meet me and say that they want to be like me, and even those who know my story through other platforms are motivated to follow the model of a "CNN HERO." It's so gratifying to be the motivation for so many human beings.
My life story is an example for thousands of people; today it transforms lives on a personal, social and professional level. Being a CNN Hero, more so than something to brag about, is a responsibility and a commitment to social justice.
This acknowledgment has opened doors and brought opportunities. Today people from all over the world show up and donate so that children and young adults with disabilities can be provided with opportunities. Everyone wants to help and be a part of this important social task.
The ASODISVALLE foundation is a symbol of solidarity and perseverance on a global level. We educate, feed, and rehabilitate 650 children and young adults with disabilities, as well as supporting their families in various other ways. They have become an integral support system for this community and their quality of life has significantly improved.
Through CNN's recognition, my responsibility has only grown. I want to ensure that my life lessons will motivate people to fight for their dreams, to learn to not complain despite the difficulties they may face, to fight for their goals until they achieve them.
Lastly, it fills me with pride and happiness to announce that on October 21 we opened the first bakery that provides employment opportunities for mildly disabled young adults from ASODISVALLE, "HEROES' LITTLE BAKERS."
Thank you CNN,