Thirty-four-year-old jewelry-maker Joel Aparece suffered from polio when he was barely a year old. His family’s house in Monkayo, Compostela Valley (southeastern Philippines) was too far from hospitals or health centers then. His parents eventually reached medical help, only to find out that their child would never be able to walk.
For most of his life, Joel lived either crawling or walking with wooden crutches. But his impairment did not push him to self-pity. When he began to assist in his father’s carpentry workshop at six years old, Joel discovered abilities he didn’t expect he could do. That discovery gave him hope and developed in him a cheerful disposition.
When he entered elementary school, Joel was lucky to receive leg braces from an NGO. But the help did not last long. As he grew up, the braces became tight until he abandoned them altogether. Getting a wheelchair was also out of the question, because his family could not afford it.
When he attended high school, he would sometimes seek the help of a friend to weld leg braces for him. But, again, that was not sustainable. So he went through vocational school — learning computer technology, carpentry, food processing, and jewelry-making — using wooden crutches. Those were the same type of crutches he used when he got married some years later. The couple now has two lovely daughters aged three and four.
Then typhoon Bopha came on December 4, 2012. It claimed more than 1,900 lives.
But luck seemed to favor the Apareces on that fateful day.
Joel’s wife and kids were away for vacation in Agusan del Norte, a two-hour bus ride from Monkayo; Joel stayed with his elderly parents. When the typhoon was at its worst — it was dawn — Joel helped his parents move to a relative’s house which was on higher ground. But it did not go too easily. While his mother was able to transfer fast, he had difficulty with his father who was suffering from stroke. Mad winds and rain were whipping Joel as he ushered his father out of their house with the help of a rescuer.
When the storm had passed, Joel’s house and jewelry workshop were gone. Death and chaos were everywhere. For the next few days, the Apareces depended on relief goods distributed to them, as well as on those given by relatives from nearby provinces. Hunger prevailed.
On December 20, Joel’s wife and daughters reunited with him in the tent that he soon built for his family. They felt miserable, but never lost hope: Joel used his carpentry skills to earn money for their basic needs in those days.
On December 23, Joel first met Handicap International, which was assessing the storm’s impact on people with disabilities, as well as distributing non-food items. The organization immediately gave Joel crutches and a wheelchair, as well as a shelter kit. Joel was overjoyed. A few months later, Joel finally received the custom-fit leg braces he now wears. Thus, despite all the destruction in his place, Joel found new reasons for greater hope.
“I had something missing before the storm came [i.e. the ability to move easily],” says Joel. “But [after receiving the assistive devices], it seems that I have received more than I ever lacked!”
That’s why Joel also describes the storm a blessing in disguise. Now he can go on his own to his new workshop, about a mile from the resettlement house granted to him by an NGO. He is also able to enjoy family life better. “Now I can put my kids on my lap!” — something he could not do without a well-fitted wheelchair. Joel can fetch water by himself as well, and a hundred other household chores which used to be impossible for him to do.
In an interview with Handicap International, Joel was working comfortably in his jewelry workshop. He was handling pieces of silver to create another bracelet. What shone through, however, was the fact that the impact Handicap International and its sponsors made was nothing less than precious.