When tragedy turns to joy
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
By Sergio Moraes
I never imagined to find so many tragic stories that end with joy, until I discovered the project called “Praia para Todos”, or “Beach for Everyone.” The project, sponsored by the NGO Instituto Novo Ser in Rio, offers recreation and sport to the physically handicapped on Saturdays at Barra da Tijuca beach, and on Sundays at Copacabana. The project is run by physical therapists and students, all of them volunteers. They built ramps on top of the sand so that wheelchairs could easily reach the water’s edge.
In my first contact with the organizers, I asked for help to meet some of the visitors so that I could follow their personal stories. The first one I spoke to was Patricia Alves de Souza, 41, the mother of an incredible boy named Jorge, or Jorginho. Jorginho, 11, was born prematurely with brain paralysis. Jorginho is crazy about soccer, and doesn’t tire of telling stories about his favorite team, Vasco da Gama. He knows everything about Vasco.
Jorginho has always dreamed of going to the beach and swimming in the sea. Since he lives in Iraja, a middle-class neighborhood 35 km (20 miles) from the shore, the first time he was able to go to a beach was in 2009, but he never reached the water. His mother, who was abandoned by her husband after Jorginho was born, couldn’t push the wheelchair on the sandy beach at Copacabana.
Last February, thanks to Beach for Everyone, Jorginho bathed in the sea for the first time. When I entered the water with him, I asked him what he thought of the water. He answered with the question, “Are you going to remember this day, forever?” I told him yes. He couldn’t thank the volunteers enough for helping him in the amphibious chair.
I met another person who was lots of fun, Marcelo Cardoso. Marcelo, 20, is a swimmer who competes in butterfly in spite of having been born with a malformed spine. He can’t walk, but he can swim. When he arrived at the program, he didn’t tell the counselors that he knew how to swim and picked out two young and pretty volunteers to help him into the water. After being held by them for some time, he suddenly took off swimming. When the girls asked him why he didn’t say anything before, he laughed. “I wanted to spend time with you.”
What Marcelo likes to do most on the beach is play volleyball and be pulled through the water by a jet ski.
But nothing was more dramatic than the story of Yan Carlos Pereira, 14. Yan was playing in the yard of his house on February 4, 2011, when he was struck in the head by a rifle bullet. He became one more victim of a stray bullet during a gun battle between gangs in the slum complex called Mare. The accident left him severely handicapped. Doctors said he would never again walk, speak or move any part of his right side.
Yan went to the beach only after undergoing a cranioplasty to correct some of the damage to his skull. His parents Telma and Edvaldo, managed to get him the operation in a state hospital without having to pay the cost of nearly $50,000.
Yan can’t do a lot of things, but when he entered the water on the amphibious chair, he proved his doctors wrong by moving part of his right side. When the counselors asked him if he wanted to be submerged, he nodded yes. They dunked him under a small wave, and watched him react with joy.
On the sand or in a small plastic pool, Yan receives the constant affection of his sister Beatriz and his parents. It’s thrilling to see how just a few hours of recreation can do so much good for a person so handicapped.
When I visited Yan at his home, in a slum dominated by drug gangs, I spent time talking to his father, Edvaldo, who works at a printing company in the overnight shift to earn extra for his family. His wife had to stop working when Yan was shot. I asked Edvaldo if the gangs had contacted him after the shooting. It’s common in the slums for bandits to offer economic aid to the residents. He told me that when Yan was still in the hospital awaiting the first operation, one of the gang leaders called him to ask if he wanted him to kill the one who shot the bullet that injured his son.
Edvaldo answered no, because killing him wouldn’t help Yan at all.
Beach for Everyone gave me a chance to meet a brave and decent family that now has a way to spend joyful days at the beach. It was undoubtedly an example of life for all of us who complain too often of problems that are minute compared to theirs.