Finding hope, joy for special needs people through zumba

Hispanic Heritage Month
By Pablo J. Sáinz

Lisbeth and Juan Carlos, just a few months before he passed away in 1999.
Lisbeth and Juan Carlos, just a few months before he passed away in 1999.

When Lisbeth Garces moved to San Diego from her native Venezuela she never imagined she was going to start a non-profit organization here. Back then, in 1988, all she wanted was one thing: To find proper medical care for her 5-year-old son, Juan Carlos, who had muscular dystrophy.

She barely had raised the money to pay for plane tickets, she was a single mother, and she didn’t know English or anyone in San Diego.

But she had something very special: Juan Carlos, who had become her inspiration in life.

After years of therapies and treatments, Juan Carlos passed away in 1999, at the age of 15.

“Juan Carlos was the most special person I ever knew,” Garces said. “He was a smiling, good-natured boy who made friends easily. He and I went through so much together as I tried to find ways to support us, to help him have an active life, and to enable both of us to become fluent in English. I learned a lot from him.”

Something Garces learned from her son was to never give up.

“Even as his muscular dystrophy got worse, he never lost his kind and caring spirit,” Garces remembered. “I knew I would lose him before he became an adult, but it was devastating to me when he passed away. I fell into deep grief, but in the back of my mind I sometimes thought about finding a way to honor his memory for all that he gave me and others, making our lives richer.”

The best way Garces found to honor her son’s legacy was through the Juan Carlos Organization, a non-profit organization that offers a joyful, adaptive, group exercise program, especially through zumba, for the special needs community in San Diego County. It was actually through zumba, that Garces was able to overcome depression after Juan Carlos’ death.

“After the period of deepest grief following the death of my son from muscular dystrophy, returning to dance again helped me find some joy and the will to keep going,” Garces said. “In the past half-dozen years, through Zumba and Latin dance, I have built bridges to a very large community of San Diegans.”

Through the adaptive forms of zumba that Garces developed for the special needs community as part of her Juan Carlos Organization, hundreds of diverse people have found joy through dance, movement, and music.

“This strengthens the body, mind, and spirit, and it promotes socialization among participants,” she said. “My students come from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, ranging in age from 3 years to 101 years, and including people who are completely healthy and energetic as well as those who have a variety of health challenges—whether physical, developmental, or both.”

It was two years ago when Garces recruited a board of directors to form Juan Carlos Organization. Many people in San Diego have contributed to making the organization a lasting legacy of Juan Carlos’ joyful character.

“As a polio survivor who was stricken with the virus at the age of 8 months, I was left with some residual weakness in one leg,” said Roxanne Ewalt, secretary of the Board of Directors for Juan Carlos Organization. “Throughout my life, however, I have loved to dance and be active. Hearing about Lisbeth’s late son Juan Carlos and his affliction with muscular dystrophy struck a chord with me. I realized that Lisbeth’s core message and my own life’s needs and perspective had converged.”

For Garces, being able to offer these special zumba classes is a great pride, something that, she said, benefits all of those who participate.

“Most people with a disability love an opportunity to be active in some way,” she said.

Although she has helped many families overcome disabilities through her zumba classes, Garces is far from considering herself a hero.

“Living with a mom who passed away from Parkinson’s and a son who passed away from muscular dystrophy, plus growing up with an older sister who still lives with cerebral palsy, has given me unusual insights into how to reach and motivate people with disabilities, and how to design and adapt exercise programs that they enjoy so much! I think of the Juan Carlos Organization program as a legacy from my son, inspired by his wish to live his life as actively as possible.”

To learn more about Juan Carlos Organization, to see a list of class calendar, and to contribute to the organization, please visit

The organization is planning a Día de los Muertos event in late October to remember the lives of those who have passed away.

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