StandProud

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"I feel like a dancer."

StandProud | September 2021

Before & After

Imagine that you can’t walk. Perhaps you suffered complications when you were born. Or you contracted a disease like polio that left your legs bent like boomerangs. Or you were given the wrong injection for a sickness that left your legs immobilized. Or you were shot during a military conflict that rampaged through your town.

Then imagine that you need to drag yourself on the ground to move anywhere or do anything for the rest of your life. When it’s dry, you’re covered in dust. When it rains, you’re covered in mud. At all times, your body is calloused, disfigured, and dirty.

Then imagine what this means for your inner life, for the way your community sees you and the possibilities for your future. You are looked down upon and humiliated by everyone around you. Society sees you as a freakish burden or a sign of God’s curse. Under this cultural pressure, your own family sees you as a source of shame. They hide you at home or kick you out into the streets. No one wants to educate you or hire you or include you in their community. More bluntly, no one wants you.

And why? Simply because you can’t stand on your own two feet for reasons entirely beyond your control.

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StandProud helps people stand on their own two feet when they once had to drag themselves on the ground to move anywhere.

Brandon Bray

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In 2015, children and young adults prepare to receive medical assistance devices from StandProud.

Finbarr O'Reilly

Congo is a beautiful and resource-rich country in central Africa. But it is also war-torn and devastated by poverty. According to the World Bank, over seventy percent of Congo’s nearly ninety million people survive on $1.90 per day. In this extremely challenging context, StandProud provides healing community, medical care, and vocational empowerment for young people with lower-limb paralysis and disabilities. StandProud’s name captures the miracle that they have performed for some 7,000 people like you and me for the last twenty years: they enable survivors to stand proud and live lives of dignity, joy, and service.

Jay Nash founded StandProud in 1998 while working for USAID in Congo. The need was massive, and StandProud rapidly multiplied. The organization grew to two major centers in the western capital of Kinshasa and the eastern city of Goma. In the 1500 miles straddling these two cities, they established four smaller centers.

StandProud offers practical help to youth and children with lower limb disabilities.

Finbarr O'Reilly

The services StandProud has provided for the last two decades are as practical as they are miraculous. First, they go out into the community and find people who have severe lower-limb disabilities due to birth complications, disease, mining accidents, or violence. While most people are looking away from or actively excluding these neighbors, StandProud is looking for them.

Then they invite these individuals to their centers, where they receive a medical evaluation and care. If necessary, they also receive surgeries with partner hospitals that enable their limbs to be straightened, so they can wear shoes and leg braces. All of these services are provided for free.

Afterward, beneficiaries return to StandProud’s centers, where they receive residential care and physical therapy so their undeveloped leg muscles can be rehabilitated.

Finally, StandProud’s orthopedic technicians craft customized leg braces for beneficiaries so the miracle is complete: they can stand on their own two feet, play sports, dance, and walk in dignity.

Throughout, StandProud supports hundreds of its beneficiaries’ schooling and job training. With this support, these people not only survive; they discover their gifts, harness their skills, rebuild their confidence, and serve the society that once stigmatized and rejected them.

Finbarr O'Reilly

Dignity, Joy, & Service

In this remarkably practical way, StandProud performs miracles everyday that are beautiful to behold, life-changing to experience, and worthy of the world’s generous support. These miracles point us toward what it means to be truly, fully human -- what Giles, a board member based in London, described as “spiritual emancipation” in the face of life’s distractions.

1. A Miracle of Dignity

StandProud literally enables people to stand on their own two feet, often for the very first time.

Of course, this work is profoundly physical and beautifully technical. But it simultaneously liberates people from psychological stigma and shame. The impossible becomes possible: you’re recognized for the first time, wanted for the first time, embraced and empowered for the first time.

The engineers of StandProud develop and fit devices to the bodies of each individual patient.

Stephen Jeter

Pascal, a beneficiary of StandProud in 2008 who now directs their center in Goma, told me that StandProud taught him how to accept himself. Pascal grew up in rural poverty without any family. Due to his polio, Pascal wasn’t even able to put shoes on his feet because they were so severely deformed.

After battling with social stigma and self-rejection, Pascal told me that StandProud’s medical interventions and loving community have given him “a new image of living with other people like me.” With this new self-image nourished with others, he declared, “I am able to accept myself as I am.”

Of course, this transformation wasn’t fast or easy. But StandProud treated Pascal like family -- something he had never experienced before in his life. They took him in, accepted him, and empowered him as a precious person.

The services that StandProud has provided for the last two decades are as practical as they are miraculous.

Stephen Jeter

And Pascal discovered something that shocked even himself after being told that he was worthless: “I have talents and assets.” His ultimate dream is to become a doctor, because he loves providing post-surgery therapy to the beneficiaries in his center. As Pascal was treated as a person, this dignity unburied gifts and dreams in his life that are now transforming his community.

This gentle and joyful man became impassioned as he spoke to me about dignity: “We must continue to defend and promote the rights of everyone living with a disability! We need culture change. We need to raise awareness in the community, at the national level, and globally so people will embrace the notion of inclusion in every aspect of life.”

This is precisely the dignifying work of StandProud.

2. A Miracle of Joy

Landry in 2015 and Landry in 2021.

Stephen Jeter & StandProud

StandProud not only enables people to stand and walk with dignity. It also enables people to dance in a community of acceptance and celebration that pulses with joy. This joy is generated not only by seemingly impossible things like being enabled to walk again but also in utterly ordinary things like being able to put your shoes on and being seen as an equal among others.

Several years ago, Landry dragged himself into StandProud’s center in Goma like so many others. But when I met him, he walked on his own two feet and sat down on a chair in front of me with his face beaming. (Bittersweet’s first story on StandProud in 2015 shows Landry taking his first steps.) After each question I asked him, Landry’s smile radiated like a rising sun increasing in beauty. The word that he used over and over again -- a reality so elusive for so many of us with so much -- is happy.

When I asked Landry what it felt like to go from dragging himself through the dirt to dancing on his own two feet, he smiled and said, “I can be with other people without being ashamed of myself. I feel very happy to dance like anyone else. I’m truly happy.”

Un Architecte traces the will of one boy, Landry, to play football and the master craftsman who gives him the means to attempt that goal.

Brandon Bray

When I asked him about how his life has changed, he didn’t hesitate: “Going back to my family was like a miracle. People couldn’t imagine Landry -- me! -- standing. It was really a miracle: it was difficult for them to understand or imagine that Landry would walk one day. I would call it extraordinary.” Stepping foot into his family’s home, defying their vision of possibility for his life, and feeling shameless to be with them produced the healing happiness I witnessed in Landry’s face and heard in his voice.

I noticed the same vocabulary pulsing in Dr. Augustin, who partners with StandProud at the Heal Africa Hospital. He told me, “When someone walks on their two feet after crawling on the floor, there’s joy!” The joy of being able to sit at a table and eat food with others, the joy of being accepted back into your family, the joy of being seen and treated as a human -- things that most of us take for granted every day.

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Patients of StandProud play soccer.

Stephen Jeter

Without a hint of arrogance, Dr. Augustin continued, “When someone comes to our center and they return home walking on their own two feet, it’s like Jesus Christ resurrecting in the family! We give glory to God who has given us grace to serve. We almost feel like small gods who assist people.” Dr. Augustin struck me as a very devout man. When he said they felt like “small gods,” I think he was grasping for words to capture the enormity of enabling someone’s life to so radically change. Walking and being reconciled to your community feels to people like being resurrected from the dead.

This is so simple that its profundity can easily be missed: true joy is found in giving thanks for the most basic gifts -- the capacity to wear shoes, to walk, to carry a plate of food, to sit at a table with family -- and sharing these gifts with others. I’ve started putting my shoes on in the morning as a daily practice of giving thanks for the miracle of mobility and surrendering my temptation to want to stand over others. What joy might return to our lives as we relearn how to walk with others as equals and celebrate the gift of serving one another?

True joy is found in giving thanks for the most basic gifts.

Stephen Jeter

3. A Miracle of Service

Finally, StandProud empowers people to join a movement of service that is changing themselves and their society. The beneficiaries of StandProud are already actively at work.

As I mentioned above, Pascal, who received his medical intervention in 2008, now directs StandProud’s center in Goma. This center serves around 600 beneficiaries in the wider region. StandProud empowered Pascal to graduate from university with a degree in accounting, and then they hired him back to become the director of the center that originally served him. Today Pascal manages welcoming new beneficiaries, following-up on their surgeries, overseeing the production and distribution of braces, and managing StandProud’s finances.

I was captured by the beauty of Pascal’s story: someone who was once a stigmatized, familyless outcast who couldn’t even put shoes on his feet now leads a life-changing center for survivors of extraordinary suffering. This is the miracle of service, which enables people to walk together into a future of hope. With brilliant clarity and understated simplicity, Pascal told me, “StandProud showed me I am important and have a role to play in my society.”

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Staff and students of a school: Complexe Scolaire Mama Sophie Himbi.

Stephen Jeter

Then there is Heri, who manages StandProud’s Internet cafe that provides access to education and creates jobs, along with caring for children in the community. StandProud found Heri in the streets of his village. Now he’s connecting his community to global networks and local employment. “I can help other people now. I can bring food to them.” The joy of something seemingly impossible -- being able to stand, walk, and freely use his hands -- unlocked the joy of something utterly ordinary: helping others by bringing them food.

I loved Heri's description of how his life has changed: “I thought I was alone. But I met other disabled people, and we came together. And we found out that we are so many in society and we can be useful.” That “but” is the miracle-making pivot point of StandProud’s service, a dignifying disruption that changes the direction of human life: “I thought... But... we found out.”

Henriette, a beautiful 23-year-old woman whom StandProud helped to walk, is now studying to become a psychologist. She wants to provide therapy in her war-devastated society urgently in need of inner healing. When Henriette told me her story of being a fatherless orphan, her vocational vision made perfect sense. She said, “I used to feel depressed. People didn’t consider me as a human being or someone capable of serving society. But they can see the difference between how I used to be and how I look now. I can help anyone in society, and I feel like anyone else.”

That pivot is indeed spiritual emancipation: to move from the depression of feeling less-than-human to declaring, “I can help anyone in society, and I feel like anyone else.” Henriette's words haunt and nourish me. So many of us are depressed because we are desperately chasing a kind of happiness rooted in superiority to the others around us. We need to feel better in order to feel enough in our competitive, celebrity-saturated society. But Henriette has overcome her depression in the opposite way: through feeling “like anyone else” and learning that “I can help anyone in society.” This equality energizing service has set her free from depression, and she wants to share this freedom with her society.

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With the help of StandProud, people who formerly could not walk are now able to dance.

Finbarr O'Reilly

Louis is the technician behind the scenes in Goma who produces the braces for StandProud that enable people to walk. Like the others I’ve just mentioned, Louis was a beneficiary of StandProud’s service. His leg braces so radically changed his life, that he decided to devote himself to becoming an orthopedic technician who would brace others. Louis is now happily married to a non-disabled woman whom he met at StandProud’s center -- a rare and wonderful crossing of boundaries in Congolese society. Louis and Mary have two children of their own.

Louis smiled as he told me that he walks with the braces that he designed and manufactured for himself. People once discriminated against him because they saw him and thought he “wasn’t capable of doing anything.” But now Louis estimates that he has made 5,000 sets of leg braces since 2008.

Once again, I was arrested by the beauty of what I heard: a man who was previously seen as “useless” has gone on to perform five thousand life-changing miracles for people who can now stand with dignity, dance with joy, and find their movement in serving others.

When I asked Louis about how he feels about his life and career, his answer was predictably profound and centered on joyful service: “I feel extremely happy because I feel like a dancer who works so another person can dance. When I see that person in my brace, walking and dancing, it feels like they have gone from death to life, and I feel success.”

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"I feel like a dancer."

Stephen Jeter

I feel like a dancer -- says the man who wears metal leg braces and devotes his life to bracing other previously paralyzed people. For Louis, giving life to others through service is the true measure of success.

Pascal, Heri, Henriette, Louis, and thousands of others -- these courageous people are no longer forced to crawl across the ground and endure the humiliation of their society. They are standing proud, exercising their skills, and actively rehumanizing their society that once dehumanized them.

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Finbarr O'Reilly

Making Miracles Now

We live in a time marked by intimidating competition, distracting entertainment, and struggles for power. And these cultural forces fuel so much of the loneliness, unhappiness, and suffering we witness within and between ourselves. With a strange and refreshing simplicity, StandProud invites each one of us into its miracles of dignity, joy, and service. Perhaps we too can feel like dancers and reframe our vision of success.

This miraculous work is not like the flashing mirages of spectacle and self-importance that appear on our screens and stages. As Nancy, StandProud’s board member in the US, told me StandProud’s work is something more basic and profound: “something we can all be part of.”

To continue this work, StandProud needs our help. Nancy told me bluntly, “It’s been a terrible year for Congo and for us” with Covid and conflict. StandProud’s founder Jay had to be urgently medevacked to South Africa after contracting Covid. Some of their centers have been closed due to funding shortages. With a sense of urgency and anticipation, Pascal told me from Goma that he has profiles for fifty new beneficiaries who are waiting on the funding to receive their medical care and leg braces.

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The work of Stand Proud, "Debout et Fier" in French, needs support.

Stephen Jeter

When I asked Nancy what she loves about StandProud and why she doesn’t give up, her answer moved me: “There are a lot of problems in life, and some of them are very complex, and there’s not much we can do to change them. But we can change the lives of these children with our services. I’ve seen people walk for the first time, and it’s an incredible moment -- and then dance and play sports and go to school and become professionals. We can make a difference in their lives with a relatively simple intervention and a relatively discrete amount of money.”

Nancy is right. Wherever we are in the world, we can walk with StandProud and work a miracle of our own through our generosity. For example, about $450 can cover the cost for a surgical operation at StandProud’s partner hospital Heal Africa. Around $100 can buy a child braces that enables her to walk and experience dignity, joy, and service for perhaps the first time in her life.

As I immersed myself in StandProud’s community, this insight struck me like a bolt of life-giving lightning: when love, imagination, and action embrace, we don’t need to wait for superhuman powers to perform miracles. Love is its own miracle. And it changes lives and redefines our horizons of hope -- even long after we’ve given up on ourselves and believed the lie that we are useless.

This is the miraculous step from death to life: moving toward others with love and walking together toward dignity, joy, and service.

StandProud invites us into this miracle.

Learn more about StandProud and how you can support their work at www.standproud.org.

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Editor's Note

We tend to use the word 'miracle' to describe a breaking of the laws of nature. But our English word comes from the Latin mirare which means, more simply, 'to be amazed' or 'to look at' or you might even say 'to focus on.' In other words, a miracle is maybe not so much a glitch in the matrix as it is something truly worth noticing, worth admiring, worth being amazed by.

In this precise sense, StandProud performs miracles. It is not as though their work baffles the mechanical mind. No, they put a great deal of effort into the nuts-and-bolts of engineering medical assistance devices. It is rather that their work just makes you stop and wonder at the remarkable things that happen when you give someone the gift of standing on their own two feet. This story is about our willingness to be amazed and, thereby, to see people differently.

I would like to thank Andrew DeCort for being the witness of miracles in writing this story; your clarity and richness of thought are themselves miraculous. Thanks also to the geniuses behind the lens: Finbarr O'Reilly, Brandon Bray, and Stephen Jeter. Much to your credit, this film and photography are just as striking in 2021 as they were in 2015. Thank you to Nancy Bolan, not only for your own words, but also for your profoundly collaborative spirit in the production of this re-feature. And, of course, I would like to thank all the folks at StandProud for letting us tell your story and for continuing your miraculous work in some of the darkest of times. We look at you and we are amazed.

**Please note, all photography is from our 2015 trip to the DRC

Peter Hartwig SQ
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Peter Hartwig

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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