By John Balson @JJBalson
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Videographer / Director: Carlos Angel
Producer: John Balson, Chloe Browne
Editor: Sonia Estal
Zuly endured horrific bullying at school over her disability and was later raped - leading her to the brink of suicide.
But incredibly the pretty 25-year-old has overcome all her obstacles and not only lives a normal life with minimal nursing care, but earns a living as an inspirational speaker, helping thousands of other disadvantaged people.
Zuly, who lives in Bogota, Colombia, says: “I don’t have any arms or legs, but I won’t let that hold me back.
Growing up was hard and I was bullied at school. I was called an alien and it really hurt me. I went through some dark times and even contemplated suicide.
But my friends and family pulled me through and now I give motivational talks at businesses, prisons and schools.
I speak to children who are bullied, or have disabilities, to show them having physical or mental limitations doesn’t have to hold you back.
I want to show people you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
Zuly was born with Tetra-amelia syndrome, an extremely rare genetic condition that results in the limbs not developing properly in the womb.
Her three brothers and two sisters are unaffected by the condition.
Although shocked by her daughter's disability, her mother, Guillermina, 57, who now works as her assistant, was determined to help her be independent.
Zuly – whose dad sadly committed suicide when she was two - says: “At first people would carry me everywhere or I’d roll, but eventually I managed to stand up on my own and tried to walk by propping myself up with my stumps.
“Mum taught me to do basic things like making the bed, brushing my teeth using and changing clothes, using my mouth and stumps to grip things. She wanted me to do everything an able-bodied person can.”
But although her home life was happy, school was a different story.
Zuly recalls: “I started to realise I was different to other children aged six. Suddenly I noticed they could run and I couldn’t. I asked Mum why I was different.
She told me I was no more different than anybody else and my disability didn’t have to hold me back.”
But Zuly soon became a target for bullying. She recalls: “Children called me alien and hit me, sometimes they’d take my snacks. It was horrible.
“I left school when I was six and joined another school.
But Zuly struggled with her disability and at 15 she hit rock bottom.
She says: “I’d go to sleep at night wishing I could just wake up and be like everyone else. I felt ostracized at school and didn't have any friends. I thought there was no hope for me. Mum tried to keep my spirits up but I felt so low.”
Shockingly, Zuly felt so distressed she even contemplated suicide at 15.
She recalls: “I climbed up to the fourth of our building and was going to jump, thankfully Mum came and found me just before I did.
She was so upset things had got so bad. She hugged me and told me everything would be alright.
She told me I would go on to shine and show other people you can live a normal, happy life with a disability.”
It was the turning point for Zuly, who left school at 18 and studied art at college.
She recalls: “I realized I’d spent too long letting my disability get me down and I had so much to live for. Gradually, with Mum's support, I began to feel more positive and got involved with a local church, where the pastor asked me if I would like to join him on community visits as an inspirational speaker.
Zuly recalls: “My first talk was speaking to 400 college students and parents about bullying in schools.
“I was really nervous so Mum came with me for support. But half-way through I began to cry because it was so painful reliving what I’ve been through.
“But everyone started clapping and it gave me the strength to keep going.
“Afterwards I felt great. Knowing I’d turned my bad experiences into something good and was helping people was so rewarding.”
Since then, Zuly has given talks in prisons, businesses and schools.
Her inspirational story was soon picked up by the media and broadcast across Colombia. She now makes regular TV and radio appearances.
Zuly says: “It gives me so much happiness to know I’m helping people.
One boy was about to take his own life with a gun WHY? when he saw a TV show I was on. He realized he had to be brave and decided not to take his life.
He wrote to me and we’re now really good friends. I get letters from lots of people who say I’ve helped them through difficult situations.”
As her confidence grew, Zuly met her first boyfriend at 19.
She says: “He was able-bodied but very accepting of my disability and we were together for a year. We were able to have a sexual relationship. (doesn’t want to say much more as abused as a child) But I ended the relationship because he lacked ambition.
“I dated another boy when I was 23 but it didn’t work out. I hope to get married and have children one day. I’ve been told by doctors my condition won’t stop me being a mum.
But for now I’m enjoying life and focusing on motivational speaking.”
Zuly – who lives with her mother in a ground-floor apartment – leads an active life and is like any other 25-year-old girl. She says: “I can put make-up on using adjustable straps that hold my blusher and mascara in place. I need a wheelchair for longer distances but I enjoy going out and socializing with my friends.”
Unfortunately, Zuly doesn’t get any financial help from the government and has to pay for everything herself.
She explains: “It’s difficult and money is tight. We make some money from the inspirational talks but not much. I also sell some of my paintings."
As for the future, Zuly hopes to take her motivational speaking abroad and open an orphanage.
She says: “I’m proof you don’t have to let a disability hold you back. I went through such a dark time but now I’m in a good place and it’s given me a sense of purpose helping other people."