Communities Actively Living Independent and Free

The Gift of Disability



We were gathered around the nook before breakfast on a weekend at Claire and Nick’s first home in Northridge in the late 80’s. Nini was about 3 years old or so and Mamang just arrived from the Philippines—she was in her mid or late 80s. We kissed Mamang good morning and told Nini to kiss Mamang’s hand but she had the look of fear on her face and refused to do it. We coaxed her, explaining that Mamang was Mama Lina’s mommy.
But Nini still refused and her eyes were fixated on Mamang’s extremely wrinkled and lose skin. I took Nini’s hand and said that I was going to tell her a story about skin and her eyes grew a tad bigger, her ears perked up, ready to listen.
“Our skin has a story,” I said. “First we are born with baby skin—soft, delicate, very sensitive”. At this point, I reminded her of the babies among our friends and family and described how pink and soft their skin was.
“Then, along with the baby, the skin grows and it becomes like yours,” I said and proceeded to touch her skin and Nini gave her hand a quick look. “See, it is nice and smooth and oh, smelling very good!” I said, as I gave her a kiss. “And the story of skin continues…”
“The baby keeps growing and becomes a teen-ager, so the skin stretches and becomes like that of your older sisters, soon to be teen-agers now.”
“See, how nice their skin is? Sometimes, though, on their face, the skin develops little bumps and playing outside causes bruises and scratches so they have to put medicine and cream. The skin cries a little but because your sisters are still young, those little bumps and hills on their skin quickly heal and disappear and the skin returns to its nice and smooth state like before. And the story continues…”
“The skin keeps growing and works harder and busier—life gets very serious and the skin changes and looks like that of your Mommy. And then it grows some more and begins to look like that of Mama Lina, your grandma. The skin, at this point, because it has stretched so much in many years, begins to loosen up and develops little folds we call wrinkles. See how Mama Lina’s skin is?” Nini nods her head, her eyes impatient for the ending.
“Finally,” I said, “the skin gets really old like that of Great Grandma Mamang—it is no longer as nice looking because it is tired and has folded many, many times from doing good things for people. From Mamang’s skin, we have Mama Lina and Mama Lina gave birth to your Mom and your Mama gave us Nini! See how much work that was? That’s why we kiss Mamang’s hand to thank her even if her skin is now old and a little scary. We love it because it took care of our family, ok Nini?”
And my precious Nini nodded, her face now with a smile and her lips aiming to plant a kiss of respect on the hand of our dear Mamang!

--Lillibeth Navarro, March 8th, 2014


This weekend was my sister’s bridal shower and as we were about to leave after getting settled in the van, there was a sudden deafening blast on our street startling everyone. The next thing I knew was smoke was coming from the hood of the car and we had to vacate the van and wait for its replacement. It was very unsettling to say the least but a friend came by and said, “Thank God, you weren’t on the freeway!” and his comment was a moment to say amen indeed.

When we got to the venue, my youngest sister Tin who was hosting the party had to leave with her boys to the basketball game and Rami, her housekeeper, expressed relief that she had more help. Tito Frank proceeded to the garden and started to do the decorations and set up for the event. Myla started sweeping the porch and Vic and Joy at the kitchen.
“How can I help?” I asked.
‘Please—with the pasta…Tin likes this book, “BAREFOOT CONTESSA” and this particular recipe—Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. But I never cooked this before!’
“OK,” I said, “let me have the book” and I reviewed the recipe. How many are we feeding?” I asked.

So I proceeded to check on her ingredients and saw what was needed. The recipe measurements were for a party of 8. She already finished cooking a pack of noodles and was going to cook three more packs. So I calculated how much else was needed to complete the entire project—4 more cans of sun-dried tomatoes, more tomatoes to quarter, a bottle of red wine vinegar, four cans of black olives, more mozzarella cheese, another bottle of parmesan cheese, 4 more little packs of bazil leaves. I sent them to the store with my credit card and Mom drove them to Ralphs. There was quite a bit of calls back and forth as Rami added to the grocery list but finally, they made it back.

So I surveyed our supplies and looked at my crew—Joy, Rami’s son had big muscles and Victoria is quite petite.
“Joy—let’s get those muscles pumping,” I said—help me with the pasta. And Vic, please proceed with opening all these cans and draining them.”
So, back to the book and my thinking cap, I proceeded to direct them, using common sense and my imagined conversation with Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa…
‘…don’t throw all the liquid from the sun-dried tomatoes, we might need that later. No, we don’t need the liquid from the olives…careful with that. Ok, the pasta needs to be moist with olive oil and kosher salt—mix it well, layer by layer—make sure the flavors blend, yes, some more…hold it, now add the sun-dried tomatoes…’

“Now we do the dressing…where’s the red wine vinegar?...My crew was excellent and at this point, we needed a food processor to mix all the ingredients for the dressing. Rami dug into the cabinet and there was the 18-year old food blender which belonged to Ray’s late mother. The little machine began to whir ever so slowly as though losing steam until, just as the task was completed, it began to smoke, rendering its last service for a gigantic pot of pasta!

As we mixed everything together—we kept checking on the flavors blending…not an inch of pasta without flavor and color so a little more cheese, I said, more of the pepper….until we got to ‘WOW—yummy’ For a first, I was happy about the taste. Of course, I was a little anxious until I got the definitive nod from Tin.

As we gathered to say grace, Tin introduced the food and when it got to the pasta, she said—and this is Ate Beth’s wheelchair contessa! As we were getting complements for the pasta, I was thinking…it turned out only well because of the careful, step by step application of a formula and attention to detail…the recipe…a couple of words, barely filling one single page of the book. Could it be that life, like cooking, applies the same way? Indeed, it does—we just have to choose the right recipe!

And with that, even a lame contessa can cook!
--Lillibeth Navarro, April 15th, 2013
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------There's No Party without Clean-Up

Ok, saying good-bye is never easy and while I was anxious to get home from the Philippines, I started to miss my brother and the family, my caregivers Pol and Niesel, the drivers, housekeepers and everyone who so tried very hard to make it a grand vacation. As we got to the airport, the rain started to drizzle on us, the boxes and as I was carried for the last time into my manual chair, tears started welling up my eyes as we hugged and said so long to everyone. I really had no time to indulge in my sentimentalism as we had to get busy with the present demands of the moment—getting in line for the check in, preparing the passports, the tickets, the boxes and bags, etc. During flight, Victoria was sick in the stomach and when she wasn’t coming out of the lavatory, I thought we had to fetch for emergency help but luckily my sister Christine, a Kaiser doctor was with us and she sat in vigil until she got better. After we landed at LAX, the abrupt change in the weather and the chaos of having to go through seat transfers by total strangers, the waiting for the chair and the bags and the INS and customs were really grating on my nerves and exhausted body. It took another 2 hours before we could get home.

When we finally did get home, I was finding myself short on temper, followed by the insidious creeping in of negative thoughts or feelings of dissatisfaction. I wanted to just throw my shoes to the floor and just walk barefoot with total abandon and plop myself in bed if only I could walk. But here back in LA, I no longer had the extra personal care support I had during my vacation. Everyone in my household was tired and I was on my own to check on myself and attend to my needs. I had to be the guide once again, making sure that we could bring temporary order out of the chaos of boxes and suitcases into a home still full of Christmas decorations and left-over clutter from 2012. Vacation was truly over! As I finally inched my way into bed, I was seized with guilt that after all the wonderful gift that the vacation was (and I haven’t even really detailed the delights of each day yet), I was grumpy!

But the gentle Spirit, as I was beginning to doze off, seemed to whisper in my ear, “There is no party without clean-up!” I was puzzled at the thought, “no party without clean-up?” I wondered what that meant for a while. But I thought harder and then I began to understand. The vacation was the party—it was a grand big party of people, sights, thrills, joys and unexpected delights of course, but when it ended, there was the need for responsible clean up. But I had to start with myself—I had to put my mind back in the present, my heart back in the habit of loving and my hands back in the habit of serving. I had to sweep away my dissatisfaction, throw my negative thoughts and keep the atmosphere clear with the sweet smell of harmony! Very corny indeed but useful for my mental health! I thanked the Spirit for the thought and the loving way He handled my grumpiness!
--Lillibeth Navarro, January 8th, 2013
Leukemia and the Christmas Tree at The Grove
Ok, so between the 80s and 90s, I was too busy with life to listen to music. I just knew it was there and celebrities like the Back Street Boys, Michael Bolton, Melanie Fiona were just words being thrown around and well, yes—their music was so omnipresent it found its way to me, like smoke that invades the whole space. Oh I love music and it always reached my ears as balm to my soul. Recently with American Idol, there’s Scottie McCreery, Philip Philips, etc.—I’m a little more familiar with them given my young sisters and nieces coming and going to my home. Oh and these days, Colbie Caillet, Far East Movement and their big hit—“Christmas in Downtown LA!” Wow, last night, despite 4 hours of sleep, I had to take my family to church and the tree lighting ceremony at the Grove! Our bunch was a group of all ages, from the two Titas: Tita Zeny and Tita Vi who I call “the Menorah Widows”, to the two Victorias—Marivic and Vic-Vic to Katrina and me. We were reluctantly clad already in winter wear because we knew it was going to be freezing. Our plan to window shop, stay at the bookstore, get coffee and wait for the event was hard to implement as the shops were closing early and even the theatres were closed. The only alternative were the Farmers’ Market and its surrounding businesses.
But darkness fell on us quickly and so did the cold. The crowds were thick and already people were angling for the best seat in the open theater but the notion of waiting for hours in one spot was boring so we took a chance at roaming some more, get coffee outside the Grove and dash back in at least an hour and a half before curtain call. Despite the bitter coffee, we decided to stay with the coffee shop and decided to make it better by loading up on popcorn and nuts. When the church bells chimed the 6 o’clock hour, we headed back and boy was it almost impossible to get through! The farthest we got was in front of a large screen TV behind Santa’s Workshop. We thought ourselves lucky to still secure a spot but waited another hour and 45 minutes. Feeling trapped, I looked up to see the man-made decorations—the glitter, the lights while around me were crowds of heads bent down on their cell phones texting and surfing it seemed. As the minutes turned to half-hours and on and on, I realized how truly devoted this sea of humanity is to community events like this. On the surface, no matter what faith tradition you were coming from, you really could celebrate Christmas or the Holidays as the secular world defines it, from the momentous lighting of the Giving Tree which happily they still called, “Christmas Tree”! I could not see the real Christmas tree at the center which was waiting to be lighted but above me was a huge silver star which, for some reason, touched me to tremendous feelings of hope! There was a lot of activity around me—couples talking and hugging each other in the cold, girls taking endless pictures, grandmas chatting, little children playing or fidgeting and a majority of people busy with their cell phones. I did my own cell phone app and then the mike testing started.
We saw a lot of behind-the-scenes work captured on camera and Mario Lopez prepping for his work. And then the show started to thunderous applause! My niece Katrina, the youngest in our group was jumping up and down. She knew just about every song rendered by the Back Street Boys! She was dancing and singing, the most expressive of the bunch. In the meantime, I made friends with a Central American couple to my left, a young 10-year old African American boy on my right who was an incredible dancer himself! He held a cell phone too and kept texting his cousin in-between dancing. He liked our spot as we were right in the front row. The security officer made sure we moved closer to the TV screen and said he was giving us the best spots from our corner of the Grove. Even as we heard everything loud and clear, we knew that the TV screen was the best substitute to being personally close to the stage itself. But we were a heartbeat away from these live performers. And if one were to gauge the level of excitement between those in our crowd seeing things from a TV screen and those who were there personally, there did not seem to be much of a difference. I could tell from the Katrina’s glowing joy. I myself was mesmerized by all the performers and then the poignant moment before the lighting of the tree was started by a generous donation to a young girl with leukemia who was given the privilege to push the button to light the tree.
As the tree was lit, the fireworks display began, as if to say to humanity that indeed—the tree lighting needs to happen first in the dark—the experience of pain and human suffering—leukemia. Human need triggers the lighting of human thoughtfulness. The tree adorned by trimmings and decorations of human generosity and goodwill lights up with all forms of beautiful expressions of giving. The fireworks display heralds hope to a dark world that draws attention to all possibilities of a bright tomorrow! Then snow started gently falling on us as though to say that it blankets all of life’s ugly side… and jolly old Santa came out with his sleigh of gifts to represent the celestial Father in Heaven who loves and gives gifts particular to every person in his or her situation! Perhaps the TV monitor capturing the actual show we could not get very close to was another test of faith that proved beyond any doubt that our hearts were already afire with Christmas enthusiasm. We did not need to be very close to the stage to touch the reality—it was already in our midst. Merry Christmas indeed!

--written by: Lillibeth Navarro, November 12th, 2012
When Love is Rare But Real

I was given 2 free tickets to a fundraising concert of a partner organization in serving the disabled—the Shalom Ministry for People with Disabilities, a Korean majority organization, working with CALIF, so I went with my sister on Sunday, the 8th of July. We intentionally decided to come early thinking that there would be some Korean restaurants around but there was none. So we mingled about and everyone was busy, putting on the finishing touches to the decorations, or practicing their songs or just running here and there. We proceeded to go near the entrance and found Mrs. Park, the wife of the Pastor Moses Park who was going to be the main performer of the night. Mrs. Park was dressed in a beautiful traditional Korean dress, beaming and welcoming everyone as they were arriving.
In no time, Mr. Moses Park came swiftly to welcome us and said, “Did you see how beautiful my wife is?”

‘Of course!’ I agreed. The Parks are one amazing couple with an incredibly tragic turned triumphant story of enduring faith and fidelity.
Moses was 40 years old, married with two children and training to be a pastor more than 20 years ago. He was also a successful businessman. His wife and kids went on a car trip one day and had a horrible car accident killing both their kids and disabling his wife with total paralysis. What would have totally crushed a man with hopelessness challenged him toward a deeper conversion to God’s holy will. Moses understood, as he and his wife began to pick up the pieces of their shattered life, that God was calling them both to a different plan. Moses rededicated his life to the total care of his wife and in doing so, heard the call to start a ministry for people with disabilities. Thus was born Shalom Ministry for People with Disabilities and they’ve been here in Koreatown helping and blessing the Korean community for over 20 years.

I met Moses Park at their old building last year after I hired Justice Pak as Korean Outreach Advocate and had a friendly visit. We shared life stories and met his wife. She had a room of her own and because he himself took care of her, she was where he worked and she held her own as coach and inspiration to her husband and also as program director for some parts of their projects. She was napping in bed when we arrived so Moses had to tap on the door to see if she was awake and turned on the light so we could meet her. I was touched by their bond, so rare and real. He was a man of utter caring and joy and full of enthusiasm, he spoke like a proud Dad as he showed me his different programs. Some of the disabled workers there got curious as we toured and came to stop and greet us. Obviously, he had a fatherly bond with them, too. I was amazed at what they had in terms of free services for the disabled—practical stuff like wheelchairs, benefits counseling, peer counseling, advocacy, spirituality, business enterprise, etc.. For a non-profit organization with no major government grants, they were doing very well on private donations. They are a testament to how closely knit the Korean community is and how they support and patronize their own groups and projects.

But Sunday night, Moses was singing baritone for the first time in 63 years he said. And he was nervous! They were passing out the souvenir program in glossy paper, complete with the English translations of some of the love songs, so those of us who did not speak Korean could follow the messages. Seventy-five percent of the book was filled with business ads. They had a very friendly, animated emcee, an indefatigable deaf interpreter who worked non-stop for two and a half hours, camera people and many stage hands. The concert started with a prayer led by a man with cerebral palsy and one could almost touch the powerful spiritual fervor of the crowd. And then the angelic voices of the professional singers, donned in solid different colors. All performances were accompanied by the piano. And as the Shalom Choir was going up the stage, the group—disabled and their attendants moved as one and sweet music also began to rise up like smoke to permeate the entire church with vibrant music.

As Moses took center stage, he moved with grace, confidence and a smile and then I thought I was hearing Pavarotti, at times, he sounded like Bocelli but no—he was uniquely Moses Park, singing the songs with utter emotion and integrity and his spiritual singing just touched the heart even if one did not know Korean. He sang not only love songs but songs of men in battle, longing for home. A majority of the songs were love songs to God--thanksgiving, praise and worship. After each performance, I found myself cheering the loudest among a very tame and proper Korean crowd. I wish I could stand to give him a standing ovation but as I looked around, I saw instead, a lot of people, wiping their tears, obviously moved by this man’s performance.

What an incredible leader! I thought. He just moved his entire organization to a new accessible building. He’s getting older but his beaming wife is a testament to his love. His dynamic organization is proof of his foresight and masterful management. I was seeing all that in the diligence of his singing, in the romance of his rendition and in the authenticity of his joy! The most moving part of his performance was a love song he sang with his wife. It was a song about following the Lord, step by step until they reached real love and Moses and Mrs. Park ended the song with both their arms framing their faces next to each other in a heart-shaped gesture. This was met with thunderous applause and therefore, an encore.
As we headed for the door after the concert, a scripture passage came to me: “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me!” That’s Moses’ testament. His incredible example speaks volumes about life and leadership. I’ve met many disability rights leaders, people who have awed me and moved me but Pastor Moses Park is one unique, incredible leader all his own.

--written by: Lillibeth Navarro, July 10th, 2012
The Cliff's Edge

We were at the checkout stand at the World Market paying for our purchases when someone from behind the counter informed us that the police were just called after someone jumped from the tallest floor of the shopping center’s parking lot. Needless to say we were shaken because someone tried to commit suicide again. My sisters and I were heading for the bus but I paused to tell them what just happened and as we walked, we were all quiet, sadly contemplating on what just went on. We were far removed from the scene because the parking lot was on the Eastern side of the Grove while we were on the West and did not see any of the pandemonium—the police cars, the sirens nor the commotion. But for me, it was the 2nd news of suicide of the week, a very disturbing, sad trend. My sisters and I made a pact to pray for that person, whoever it was. But what made him or her so desperate, feeling so closed in that the only viable escape was to end it all?

The week for me was not so rosy either—in fact, it was laden with heavy disappointment and fatigue. Work, societal and family responsibilities seem just so perennial that they have a rude way of encroaching even in the little spaces of private time and sanctuary I so try to create for myself. My cell phone has been a blessing and a curse. Feelings of utter desperation indeed encroach when I want things to be just perfect—for example, Love life-- with such fairy-like quality? NOT, people (us included) are flawed in loving, utterly self-centered and scheming; family life – a haven? Instead, its an endless to do list calling me to be Parent, Banker, Homemaker, Activity Director, Guidance Counselor, Secretary…Work, why can’t it proceed like clockwork? It’s a to do list proceeding from each item on the original to do list growing even bigger by the minute because it involves people with all their issues, etc., etc., etc Then, there is Brother Ass (St. Francis calls his body, Brother Ass) and all its demands for health and vitality when everything seems to be needing treatment, medicine or attention. Our reality is just so far from the Ideal! What are we to do with it? Jump off the cliff?

A well-meaning friend once told me many years ago: “If I had your disability…If I had your boyfriend…If I had your transportation…If I had your work…I’d jump in the river!”

Since her comment, I have discovered that my escape from all of life’s burdens are those very burdens themselves. Hidden in their infuriating hell lie the very solutions. It’s a weird but universal discovery that the very problems we encounter are the very hints of their own solutions if given time to manifest. Bitter reality is the very thing that compels us to live it one moment at a time:
…allowing for thought, a review of resources, of strategies
…allowing for problem solving,
…allowing you to just release the emotion and ride it out
…release the tension, allowing for the profusion of tears and humanity,
…allowing for mistakes and for relearning from those mistakes,
…and then for retakes, for practice until perfect,
…allowing for laughter and savoring the moment
…Finally for the touch of grace.

For that comrade who did not have time to ride out his or her bitter reality, may God take you in His arms and look on us down here to coach us away from that cliff’s edge.
--written by: Lillibeth Navarro, July 2nd, 2012