Pan-American Healer



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On August 17, 2011, a container carrying 550 wheelchairs arrived in Ecuador. Over the next 37 days, volunteers delivered the chairs to needy recipients in remote villages and towns. Coordinating this effort, which also involved a New England Lions Club, a California charity, and a Chinese manufacturer, was a 56-year-old Chicago woman: Zully Alvarado. The founder and president of Causes for Change International, Alvarado dedicates her days to improving the lives of women, children, and the disabled in Central and South America.

Born near the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, Alvarado contracted polio when she was two. Fortunately, a Catholic missionary brought her to the United States for treatment. Chicago became her permanent home, where she was raised in an orphanage and by foster parents. “As a child, I said I had no family here,” Alvarado recalls. “But as an adult, I realized I had many families who helped make me who I am today.”

After earning degrees at DePaul and Loyola, Alvarado worked in the Head Start program with the Chicago Public Schools and as an assistant to Mayor Harold Washington until a diagnosis of post-polio syndrome forced her to retire in 1987. Rather than surrender to despair, she successfully reinvented herself as a designer of fashionable shoes for the disabled. When her hands became too weak for that career, another reinvention followed—this time as a financial adviser—but Alvarado was looking for a more meaningful calling.

She found it in October 1996, when she returned to her village in Ecuador. The medical conditions, she remembers, were appalling. “Nothing had changed,” she says. “I did not want another child to have to go through what I had.” So began Causes for Change.

For most of the last 15 years, Alvarado, accompanied by doctors, dentists, nurses, and a cadre of volunteers—some from as far away as Australia, Chile, and Sweden—has made two or three annual visits to Central and South America, taking medical supplies, treatments, and education. Back home in Chicago, she works tirelessly on efforts such as last summer’s wheelchair delivery, a shipment of dental chairs, and a 2011 conference in Ecuador’s Guayas Province, which brought together for the first time there politicians, educators, and the disabled. She also serves on the board of Access, the Chicago-based advocacy group for people with disabilities. “It’s my life,” Alvarado says. “There’s no Monday through Friday, no nine to five. I have to bring my Americas together.”


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp