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Remarkable Feat

Zully Alvarado stepped up from a dirt-poor childhood into running her own business.



Zully Alvarado, her head held high, is walking with the help of a cane through her Ravenswood shoe and clothing shop. She's told me she wears a size-one and a size-six shoe, but I can't tell which is which.

Later she shows me how the heel on the left shoe is two inches higher than the one on the right and how cork and cushions line the inside. Unless you look closely the shoes seem the same on the outside.

Alvarado used to have only one pair of shoes, a clunky orthopedic pair. But now she can open her closet and choose from 15 pairs, everything from sneakers to red high heels. She makes them herself.

Several years ago the 41-year-old Alvarado, who'd had polio as a child, began to have symptoms of the disease again--muscle pain and weakness. She resigned her city job when it became too physically demanding, went to fashion-design school, and hired someone to teach her the shoe-making craft. Now she makes shoes for people with special orthopedic needs in her shop, Chicago Originals, at 1918 W. Montrose.

"I like to say I'm making a living," says Alvarado. Then she adds, "I look at my shoes not as a business but meeting the needs of society." That's the way she's come to look at most things.

Alvarado, who was born in Ecuador, contracted polio at age two and was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors didn't expect her to live beyond her teens and said that if she did she'd probably be bedridden.

The paralysis disappeared, though she has no idea how. Her parents had given her hot baths, herbal treatments, and massages, but no sophisticated medical treatment. Yet she still couldn't walk well. "My curvature of the spine was so severe that I was walking on the side. I would fall easily, there was no strength. I was totally weak." Her friends and family had to carry her.

When Alvarado was eight years old Father Joseph Lauro, a Catholic priest from Chicago, visited her grammar school. "He saw me at the school, and he asked my teachers what was wrong and why didn't I play with the other children?"

Father Lauro wanted to fly her to Chicago for surgery and physical therapy that would help her walk on her own, and her parents agreed to let her go. The little girl, now nine, was terrified. "I didn't quite understand why I was leaving. All I can remember saying to my parents was that I would promise to learn not to fall, that I would be more careful. I was just promising all this stuff to them, that I would be good, to please not let me go to this strange planet."

The day Alvarado and Father Lauro arrived in Chicago they discovered that the hospital didn't have enough beds, so he left her with his brother's family. It was her first time in a big city, her first time in a home with electricity and running water. She had lived in a dirt-floor shack in a town so small it was known only as "kilometer 31," where "even to buy a candle was a luxury." What impressed her most in the Lauro house was the mirror in the living room, because she'd never seen herself before. She remembers spending hours smiling, making faces, and staring at herself.

A physical therapist started working with Alvarado, and in time she began bicycling, learning to run, even to skateboard. As it turned out, she didn't need surgery.

Her surrogate mom, Jean Lauro, taught her English from a picture-book dictionary. "She would go from room to room and give me the different vocabulary words for the different items," says Alvarado. She also picked up words from television, something she'd never seen in Ecuador. "I could never understand how all those people got into that box. I liked Bewitched because I wished I could be like Samantha or Tabitha--to be able to be in Ecuador and the U.S. in a snap, be with my family and be here."

Two years after she arrived she could walk well enough that Father Lauro and her parents decided she should go back to Ecuador. Her parents put her in an orphanage in Guayaquil, where they believed she would get a good education and eat better than at home. But she didn't eat well, and she didn't get any physical therapy. "I didn't like to say it--I didn't even want to think it. But I would have these thoughts in my head that I would be happy to leave. I was very desperate to get away, to get back to the States, to be back in my own bedroom."

When Alvarado was 13 her parents and Father Lauro agreed that she should return to Chicago to stay with the Lauro family, go to school, and get more physical therapy. Friends of Father Lauro, the O'Briens, agreed to pay for high school.

At Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont, Alvarado dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. She made clothes for a few friends to pick up extra money and for herself "to hide my legs, my feet." Her high school years weren't easy. "You question why your friends get to go out and have dates all the time, and why was I not chosen? That's what society teaches you--if you don't have breasts or legs you're nothing."

Her feelings of inadequacy had another source. "As a child who had been helped so much--when do you stop being the charity case? If you always continue to receive, your self-esteem is constantly low. I didn't share myself with people, and I did not allow people to share themselves with me."

When Alvarado was 17 Father Lauro, who was in his 50s, died of a heart attack. She was devastated by his death. She returned to Ecuador, but only for a visit. She told her family she was going back to Chicago to pursue her education, and with money she'd earned from summer jobs she caught a flight back. "I decided that when I would return to the States again I would be on my own, that I would be responsible for myself."

With scholarships and loans, she started college at Saint Teresa in Winona, Minnesota, where she earned a degree in speech pathology. She went on to the Erikson Institute and got a master's degree in early-childhood education.

For six years she worked for the archdiocese and the Chicago Public Schools testing children for speech, language, and mental-health problems. Later she worked as an assistant to Mayor Harold Washington, then as assistant commissioner for the city's Department of Aviation.

It was in the late 1980s that the pain and weakness returned and she had to quit her job. She began taking night classes at the International Academy of Merchandising and Design. "Just to play with fabrics, the feel, it brought life back to me. It helped me forget my physical pain."

In 1989 she and her partner, Tammy Deck, set up their clothing and shoe business in a shop at Wells and North Avenue. Five years later they moved to their Montrose location.

A pair of Zully shoes averages $800. Most of her customers have foot problems, but she also makes shoes for normal feet. Her customers have included Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, a man listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's largest feet, and a man who just wanted to be as tall as his wife.

For a long time Alvarado made all the shoes herself, but she recently hired a helper to give her time for other pursuits. She owns Producers Alley, which makes videos on subjects such as domestic violence, Hispanic issues, and self-sufficiency for the disabled. She was a member of this year's Democratic National Convention Outreach Committee, which pushed for convention contracts for minorities. Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital on the west side brought her in as vice chairman of its multimillion-dollar campaign to build an extension. She has won many awards for her work; in 1994 she received a Women of Enterprise award from Avon, and last year Hispanic Business magazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in America.

Last year Alvarado attended the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, which had many events and facilities that were inaccessible to the disabled. She says she and other disabled women complained, but nothing was done. By the second day of the conference she was forced to use a wheelchair to cover the long distances between events. She had gone to the conference to learn about economic issues involving women, but she came away wanting to start an organization that would advance the rights of the disabled and give the tools of economic self-sufficiency to people in poor countries.

Soon she had set up Causes for Change International, and last month she and three volunteers went to Ecuador to visit the orphanage where she'd stayed as a child. There they found 150 girls and young women who'd been abandoned or whose parents couldn't provide for them. She asked the people running the orphanage how they kept it going. "They said they depended on the Lady of Providence. I thought it was an independent organization, but what I discovered was that it was God. They have no plan of any kind to be able to raise funds and provide for the needs. One of the major needs I found was for a roof for the various barracks. They also need floors. They need special medical care. They need clothing. Just everything--even food." Alvarado has since persuaded friends in the pharmaceutical business in Saint Louis to send them free medicine.

Much of what she's doing, Alvarado says, is because of what her parents had to go through and because of Father Lauro. On the trip to Ecuador she visited her family as well as some of the places where Father Lauro had worked as a missionary. "He really believed in what he was doing. At the orphanage I saw what he did. People still remember him and talk about him. The church that he built, the schools that he built are still standing. One of the things that they've asked me to do is to create a park where he met me and build a statue in his honor. That kind of thing, it says people saw something in him more than maybe I was giving him credit for.

"He believed in me more than I believed in myself. And now I feel that he was right. The potential is inside me to really make a difference in people's lives, not only here but wherever I go. People saw my disability or a sick child, a child that would never have any future. But he turned it around. So I don't want to let him down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by J.B. Spector.

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