Filipina-American Jessica Cox—who was born without arms but is certified to fly an airplane—joined Handicap International teams in the Philippines on February 24. Thirty-one-year-old Cox will spend a week visiting the areas most affected by Typhoon Haiyan, meeting with people who are receiving Handicap International’s support, care and aid.
The visit allows Cox, and her husband Patrick Chamberlain, both Goodwill Ambassadors for the charity, an opportunity to offer their help in the emergency relief efforts. The pair also hope to bring more attention to the ongoing crisis, which directly impacts their own family: Jessica’s mother hails from hard-hit Eastern Samar, Philippines.
Typhoon Haiyan is the strongest storm ever recorded, affecting about 15 million people. More than 6,000 people died as a result and 1,761 others are still unaccounted for. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Handicap International set up a logistics platform in and around Tacloban to supply vital humanitarian aid and to help clear debris. Teams have been distributing aid, including tents to provide shelter for thousands of Filipinos.
While in the affected regions, Cox will shadow local teams as they work with beneficiaries, and will have the opportunity to speak at length with these individuals about the storm, the aftermath, and the future.
“People are still recovering from the storm,” Cox says. “They will need support for years to come. We’re excited to see for ourselves how Handicap International’s mobile rehabilitation teams are working: traveling village-to-village, door-to-door, to help people with disabilities, injuries and illness regain their health and strength.”
Cox’s presence and messages are especially important in a country like the Philippines, where one in four Filipinos are affected by a disability. People with disabilities often have difficulty accessing services and education, and can easily be overlooked during a humanitarian disaster.
By the end of February, about 100 people, the vast majority Filipinos, will be working exclusively on the emergency response projects for Handicap International. Mobile teams are delivering rehabilitation and mobility aids to the injured, as well as first aid and psychosocial support.
“This visit will be like no other,” Cox adds. “I last visited my family in Eastern Samar in February 2013. Since then, the storm has claimed the life of my great aunt in Guiuan, and damaged each and every relative’s home in some way.”
Cox has achieved more using just her feet than most other people dare to aspire to. She achieved a black belt in Taekwondo when she was 14, and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona. She always dreamed of becoming a pilot, and in 2008, after years of persistent effort, she achieved this goal by soloing a single engine 1946 415C Ercoupe Airplane. Cox is named in the Guinness World Record for being the first woman to fly an airplane with her feet.
Such achievements have allowed her to fulfill another dream: to become a motivational speaker, mentor, and advocate for the "alternately abled". In the past five years she has traveled the world from Europe to Australia and Africa, sharing her personal story, and inspiring millions. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum and the Pentagon, met Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama, and appeared on The Ellen Show and CNN.
On a trip to Ethiopia in March 2013, Cox and Chamberlain visited one of Handicap International’s development projects that is improving access to education for children with disabilities, and brought national attention to the ideas of inclusion and access. The trip was filmed by Emmy award-winning director Nick Spark for his upcoming film about Jessica called “RIGHTFOOTED”.
“Persons with disabilities and new injuries, children, and the elderly, in particular, face grave risks during and after natural disasters,” says Elizabeth MacNairn, director of Handicap International U.S. “Our teams have been working to ensure that local populations, including these extremely vulnerable groups, have access to basic needs and specific care. Every day, each of our four mobile teams are finding ten to 15 vulnerable Filipinos who need help, care and access to services. We know the crisis is far from over, and we are grateful to Jessica and Patrick for taking time to witness the devastation and offer their support to our beneficiaries and hard-working teams.”
After visiting Tacloban, Cox and Chamberlain will travel to a Handicap International project in Rizal, an area that suffered from two major typhoons in 2009—Ketsana (Ondoy) and Parma (Pepeng). The project, called REBUILD, aims to do just that: rebuild economies affected by Typhoon Ketsana and strengthen Baras Municipality for more inclusive local development.
Present in the Philippines since 1985, Handicap International operates development and risk reduction programs in several areas of the country. The contingency plans and evacuation procedures implemented as part of risk reduction operations help alleviate the impact of natural disasters. Handicap International has deployed emergency teams during previous typhoons in the Philippines and benefits from extensive experience in the field.
Portions of the trip will be filmed as part of the documentary RIGHTFOOTED, which tells the story of Cox’s life and her desire to redefine what it means to be disabled.