A Wheelchair Changed My Life: Juan Carlos’s Story

By Gertrude Tumusime 

Juan Carlos is a wheelchair sports champion living in Windsor, Ontario. We first met Juan and his mother Vivian in 2005, when they arrived from Ecuador, where they lived as refugees from Colombia. The family was sponsored by the Toronto United Mennonite Church.  

When they arrived in Toronto, Adolfo Puricelli, the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto (MNLCT) founding director, and then settlement worker Mario Bianchi picked up Juan and Vivian from the airport, found them temporary shelter, and permanent housing shortly after, and continued to tend to their day-to-day settlement needs.  

Betty Puricelli, the late Adolfo’s wife and co-founding director of the Centre, recalls – rather sympathetically – the first time she met Juan.  “He was quite small, his legs had not yet developed, and he could only drag himself on the floor with his arms”. Mom Juan Carlos says.

Young MLCT Client Happy with Settlement Services

Juan, who was only six, had never had a wheelchair – which he desperately needed due to his Spina Bifida, a condition he was born with, that affected his spine and limited his mobility. Vivian says Juan’s early years were difficult due to his limited mobility.  

I used to carry him in my arms whenever we had to go somewhere,” says Vivian.

Vivian is grateful to Canada for having opened doors for them and allowed her son to live like any other child. 

Juan receives his first wheelchair 

While at the shelter, MNLCT secured a loan chair for Juan and later, through several Government of Canada programs, obtained for him his first-ever wheelchair. 

“He became so delighted with his wheelchair” Betty recollects.  “It was a thrill for both of us to see that he could move on his own and that I didn’t have to carry him about with me”. Vivian recalls with gratitude.  

Settlement challenges  

The first and perhaps most urgent need had been solved but Juan and Vivian would face more challenges as newcomers. 

“Learning English was very difficult for me,” Juan remembers. “I had to learn everything from scratch,” he adds. Vivian attended Language Instruction for Newcomers in Canada (LINC) at the Centre to improve her English, while the settlement worker helped Juan, who had never been to school, to enroll.  

In my country, there was a lot of discrimination around children with disabilities.” Juan looks back. “Here is where the doors opened for me to go to school and get an education.”  

Juan remembers being nervous on his first day of school, not knowing the language, and how the teachers were going to communicate with him. He was also afraid of meeting new people. 

“It was scary and interesting at the same time,” he reminisces.

Thankfully, his teachers were helpful with everything he needed to learn. 

Juan’s passion for sports 

The wheelchair improved Juan’s life. He became more independent and confident. He had a couple of surgeries and was able to walk for a bit with assistive devices which he later, in his teenage years, abandoned because they were uncomfortable. He eventually returned to his wheelchair permanently.  

Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Although Juan’s memory of his first wheelchair is as hazy as that of his childhood, what the energetic young man vividly remembers is the day his teacher showed their class a video of a wheelchair bound guy doing a lot of things – including playing basketball.  

One day, at a rehab Juan used to attend, he saw an announcement about wheelchair basketball for fun. He never looked back. 

“I was always a kid, from school to home, nothing else” Carlos recalls, “so, that day I came home and told my mom that I wanted to try it out, and so I started doing it for fun, and later got into teams and started playing till this day.”   

Juan started with the ‘Toronto Tornados’ basketball team and they won a tournament – his first win ever.   

“I wasn’t used to being before a crowd, there were a lot of people around, different teams and it felt very special.” he recounts.  


Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star


When the family moved to Windsor, Ontario, Juan’s love for basketball deepened when he joined the Catholic Central High School basketball team. His teacher – seeing Juan’s abilities – encouraged him to explore other sports like cycling.  

Carlos was on the running squad at the Windsor Essex Catholic Schools seasonal games representing his then-high school, Catholic Central. He won a gold medal and made headlines.  

Because I was the first to start it at my school, they publicized it on Twitter and on the local news, and they phoned the school and asked if they could interview me about what we were doing, which was a great surprise because I didn’t even know” Juan says. 

That moment that Juan brought gold home was emotional.  

 “It was really, really shocking.” Carlos says, with a nostalgic smile lighting up his eyes. “I was trying my best and I didn’t know I was gonna make it. When I looked back and saw that I was the first, I was like, oh I made it” he excitedly adds.

It is no wonder that Betty passionately describes Juan Carlos as a joyful little boy, who is now in his 20’s and a champion.


Vivian, the supportive mother 

Vivian is so supportive of her son’s sports career and has celebrated every little milestone with him.  

“For a mother to see her disabled son fulfilled, I think that is more than enough”, she says with a tone of contentment.  

Juan’s dreams for the future 

While still in high school, Juan, and some of his colleagues and teachers–both disabled and able-bodied–started playing games to experience what it feels like to play basketball in a wheelchair.  Every year in Windsor, this unique game takes place, run by LaSalle Lightning Wheelchair Sports – an organization that helps raise disability awareness in schools by giving students and staff the chance to experience wheelchair sports  themselves.

Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

People pay to watch the game to raise money and to support various activities in the schools. Long after completing high school, Juan often returns to the school to play these games.  

Juan is grateful for the support of his mother, MNLCT, his teachers, coaches, friends and family. He owes special thanks to his friend, Jessica Metassa, a Canadian Paralympic who lent him her wheelchair for the competition that won him a gold medal. 

Juan dreams of being a Paralympic like Jessica and is working hard at his skills to achieve just that someday. 

  Ever since I tried to get into basketball, that has been my dream, to get to that level.” he affirms.  

Juan, whose determination is bigger than his disability, advises children with special needs to go out and try new things just like he did – confident that the gates of success will open for them too.  


Watch Juan Carlos' interview

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