“The doctors kept telling me that I would regain my sight,” he recalls, adding that after many unsuccessful surgeries, he realized his life was forever changed. “When I left the hospital, I did not know what to do. I sunk into depression; it was a maddening situation.”
He tried to rebuild his life from scratch, but came to a stark realization. “In Peru, people with visual impairments often lack job prospects,” he says. This, he adds, is partly due to a lack of preparation on the part of Peruvian society to give opportunities to people with disabilities.
He found a relative who let him stay at his house in Lima in exchange for doing household chores. Zapata learned to find his way around the house so he could clean the floors and cook for his relatives for nearly five years. When he began receiving a disability pension in 2000, Zapata could afford to go to the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Blind, where he learned to walk using a cane and to make crafts that he could sell.
Then he took a test and earned a scholarship to learn shiatsu (finger pressure) techniques at the center. After learning this and other massage techniques—often getting scholarships to afford the costly classes—he realized this could be a way to earn an income and be independent.
He brought a massage table to a street fair and offered his services. His success made him think that this job could help him feed his family, which now includes his wife, who was born blind and met him at the rehabilitation center, their two children and his in-laws.
Doing honest work to support his family made him feel fulfilled and gave him confidence to advocate for people with visual disabilities.
He sought to provide technical education in massage therapy for his “blind brothers and sisters, especially those who lived in poverty” and reached out to Maryknoll Father Kyungsu Son, who was a chaplain at Maria Auxiliadora General Hospital, where one of Zapata’s massage therapist friends worked.
Zapata told the priest that about 160,000 Peruvians are blind and almost 600,000 have some visual disability. Visual impairments, a lack of financial resources and, sometimes, discrimination compromise people’s quality of life.
“I told him I wanted to start a teaching center for blind masseurs,” recalls Zapata. The Korean-born missioner agreed to help, and the center opened its doors in 2013. It was named Casa Bartimeo after the blind Bartimaeus who clamors for Jesus in the Gospel of Mark (10:46–52) and is healed because of his faith and initiative.
Thanks to this Maryknoll Society-supported project, more than 100 people with partial or total blindness have learned five styles of massage at Casa Bartimeo so far. After their yearlong training, students earn a certificate from the Diocese of Lurín. Most alumni have found work as massage therapists and generate income to cover their needs.
“Through massage (lessons), impoverished people with partial or total blindness can fully integrate into society,” Zapata says. “The support of Father Kyungsu is crucial. Without it and without the support of Maryknoll, this project would not be under way.”
Located in a former Maryknoll Sisters convent at Niño Jesús Parish in the south of Lima, Casa Bartimeo holds classes on the building’s first floor. Early on Thursday and Saturday, students come to class, walking with canes, holding each others’ shoulders or being guided by volunteers. The classroom barely fits 10 massage tables and 20 students, but the students are eager to learn.
“As soon as I finish the course, I’m going to work,” says Miguel Hernán Gómez Sandoval, who has a congenital and degenerative condition that gradually decreases his eyesight. He is inspired by Casa Bartimeo alumni like María Inés Aspielcueta Muñoz. She has opened a massage business and has been able to provide an income for her family while improving people’s health through massage therapy.
“Thanks to Casa Bartimeo, I’m excelling as a person in society,” says Aspielcueta, who also volunteers as an assistant teacher at the house. “It is not only the massage therapy training, but you really feel that there are people who bet on you.”
Robert Monterrey Melgarejo, a blind lawyer who volunteers his legal advice and moral support at Casa Bartimeo, calls this center a gift from God because many blind people, he says, “are in a condition of social abandonment.” Before coming to Casa Bartimeo, many students were unemployed after losing their sight due to illness or accidents. Other blind people had worked as phone operators but were displaced by new technologies. To survive, some were selling candy at traffic lights or singing on buses, while others depended on family support.
“They needed a job that meets their needs,” Monterrey says. “Casa Bartimeo plays an important role because it welcomes you with open arms and (in addition to instruction in massage) provides you with psychological, social and spiritual support.”
Students also eat breakfast and lunch at Casa Bartimeo, which is usually provided by Niño Jesús Parish and the Maryknoll Society. Lay volunteers and Maryknoll affiliates serve the meals to the students, among other tasks.
Students learn from licensed blind teachers the application of theoretical and practical concepts of muscle systems, human bone structure, the physiology of organs and joints, as well as body therapies. Unlike classes for people with vision, who can learn by replicating the examples they see, each blind student receives personalized instructions on how to locate and massage the different tissues. When they graduate from the course, Bishop Carlos Garcia of the Diocese of Lurín comes and gives a massage table to each therapist as a tool for work.
Alumni with partial or total blindness who volunteer as auxiliary teachers at Casa Bartimeo show each new class that physical limitations do not diminish who they are as individuals.
Father Son encourages those who recently became blind not to lose hope. He empathizes with their efforts to navigate a new environment and develop new skills. “I was deaf and mute twice,” he says, explaining that he had to learn to communicate in English when he moved from Korea in 1971 and in Spanish when Maryknoll sent him to Peru in 1976. He says a disability like blindness “is not a punishment from God but a gift from God” because through it God uses you to help others.
Bartimeo students have offered month-long free massages to nearly 500 inmates in San Jorge Prison for Men. They currently offer massotherapy treatments twice a year to 300 prisoners in Lima’s Maximum Security Prison for Women. Maryknoll and Korean donors subsidize these and other social works. “The prisoners said, ‘No group had come to take away our stress. We feel they are considering our worth as (fellow) humans,’” says 72-year-old Father Son. “The blind are very happy and proud after working all day.”
Inspired by Casa Bartimeo’s spirit of solidarity, many graduates “give back” by offering discounted or free massages to people who are in physical or mental pain but cannot afford their fees.
Father Son says the students at Casa Bartimeo inspire him every day. “After 40 years in Peru, I am still deepening my faith while serving the blind,” he says. “What can I do? Just lend them my eyes.”
He hopes Casa Bartimeo’s teachers can further their education, so they can be empowered to become community leaders. He wants them to awaken society’s awareness to the needs of the blind. “They guide us and are the protagonists. … We only accompany them,” says the priest.
The teachers and priest hope to expand this project to help other blind people in need. Father Son adds that more visually impaired people in Lima would like to learn massage therapy, but for now Casa Bartimeo can only accept 20 people in each course.
“My dream is that blind people in every corner of Peru can have a way of working in this field,” Zapata says. “With this (training), they can improve their quality of life and they can have honest and dignified jobs to bring food to their homes.”
Featured Image: Casa Bartimeo students go to the garden after a day of learning massage therapy techniques. (N. Sprague/Peru)