Peppermint scented pain-relief balm filled the morning air while runners conversed and stretched one final time in the Plaza de Armas, a busy and vibrant space in the heart of the city.
It was race day in Lima, Peru.
For Alejandra Larrain, CEO of Peru Runners, the largest running entity in the country and coordinator of the event, it was similar to dozens of other races she had organized.
Until, from a distance she heard the chants. Subtle at first, then gradually intensifying.
“¡Vamos, equipo! ¡Vamos!” (Let’s go, team! Let’s go!) For a sport that’s often solitary in nature, Alejandra was captivated as 10 athletes in uniforms and coordinated racing wheelchairs took their place at the starting line.
“I was so happy to see these new faces,” Alejandra said. “I had never seen such a well-organized group, and I wanted to track down who was behind all of this.”
Alejandra soon met Jorge Beltran, founder and president of bent but not broken (bbnb), a nonprofit organization in Lima that aims to provide access to adaptive sport and to promote inclusion across the country. With their shared interest in leveraging sport as a tool for empowerment and inclusion, the stage was set for Alejandra and Jorge to dream big.
Alejandra had recently participated in the U.S. Department of State & espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, a leadership development initiative implemented by the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society since the program’s inception in 2012. In a stroke of good timing, applications for the next installment of the program, which included a specific focus on advancing the rights of persons with disabilities worldwide, were available the following week.
Jorge was intrigued by the opportunity and reached out to another Peruvian alumnus of the program, Francisco “Pancho” Arbulu, a world-champion athlete who uses adaptive surfing and outdoor adventure to promote inclusion.
“I learned a lot from Alejandra and Pancho,” Jorge said. “Their leadership skills, drive, and energy were synchronized with my way of thinking.”
With support from fellow compatriots, Jorge submitted an application to the program, and was accepted into the 2019 cohort, and for five weeks, was immersed in the CSPS “Better World” curriculum. During the program, he also developed leadership and business skills and learned best practices in adaptive sport during a mentorship with Joanne Wallen, director of adult competition, and her team at the U.S. Tennis Association in Orlando, FL. Equipped with the skills and tools needed to spark change, Jorge then developed a strategic plan of action to expand the impact of bent but not broken when he returned home.
Jorge also found something unexpected during his time on the program: a group of like-minded advocates, entrepreneurs, and changemakers who faced similar challenges of social exclusion for persons with disabilities and were determined to make a difference.
“I was able to meet and bond with people who, just like me, are working toward a better world, a more inclusive one,” Jorge said. “Many of them have the same struggles I face in my own country.”
Access to the program’s network of alumni and worldwide support gave Jorge a clearer vision for the future of bbnb, and since returning home, he has developed curriculum to accompany his wheelchair tennis programs and established a partnership with the Peruvian Tennis Federation.
The program also spurred Alejandra and Pancho to make similar advancements in their programs and helped them discover a deeper sense of purpose; upon return home, Alejandra immediately founded an initiative within Peru Runners to celebrate female leaders and support women in the fight for equal opportunities in sport because, as she said, “There was no time to spare.” Similarly, Pancho expanded his adaptive surfing and adventure water sports program to include more youth with disabilities.
Already champions of change in their communities, this newly-founded trio wanted more. And they knew that together, they could spark transformational progress.
Drawing upon their networks in Peru, collective ideas for innovative programming, and partners from the program, Alejandra, Jorge, and Pancho hosted a nine-day, immersive, sports diplomacy and social change experience alongside U.S.-based experts in adaptive sports. In addition to leading 11 events across Lima that benefitted more than 300 people, the group led a panel discussion at the Olympic Committee Library where CSPS Founder and Director, Sarah Hillyer, and three representatives from Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland shared insight into inclusive education and sport programs in American schools.
Under the guidance of Lisa Belcastro, an adaptive physical education teacher, the group also hosted adaptive surf lessons for local youth and athletes in Jorge and Pancho’s programs.
It was a gratifying experience for Dr. Hillyer to witness the impact these three GSMP alumni are making together. “We’ve put a lot of thought and intentionality into our Better World curriculum, with an emphasis on creating a culture that encourages and facilitates partnerships,” she says. “Alejandra, Jorge and Pancho provide another amazing example of the power of collaboration and the creative ways sport can be used to build inclusive communities. To say how proud we are of their collective efforts would be hard to put into words.”
With more work, advocacy, and programming slated for the coming months and years, this group of changemakers is carving a new way forward for Peruvian life, one filled with equality, inclusion, and sport for all.
The Americans with Disabilities Act had a significant impact on international human rights laws, which led to the expansion of adaptive sport opportunities across the world. Peru was heavily influenced by the ADA, and has passed a number of similar laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities. In 2012, Article 41 of Peru’s General Law on Persons With Disabilities, granted equal opportunity to sports participation for people with disabilities, and ensured the availability of the necessary infrastructure, equipment and resources for adaptive sports.
Bent But Not Broken: