Recipe for Inspiration

With her physical disability, this pastry chef has defied the odds and is truly inspirational
 

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Maricel Apatan, 22, stands in the kitchen of the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel in Manila, preparing to decorate a cheesecake. It would seem to be a routine task for a pastry chef, but Maricel is no ordinary chef – she has no hands.

Her disability, however, barely slows her down. Using her wrists, Maricel coats the sides of the cake with crushed nuts. Next, she grips a chef’s knife tightly between her hip and left inner elbow and uses her left wrist to delicately slice grapes, kiwi and strawberries in half. In short order, she arranges the fruit on the cake, adds blueberry filling, and sets an elegant chocolate curl on top.

“When I first saw Maricel, I was worried she might hurt herself when using a chef’s knife but that has never been a problem,” says Sous Chef Ariel Reyes, Maricel’s manager. “She does not get special treatment and works just as hard as the rest of the chefs.”

Maricel has come a long way since the day in September 2000 when she and her uncle were attacked near their farm in a remote area of Zamboanga City, Mindanao. Five machete-wielding men, who were trying to force Maricel’s family off their land, brutally hacked into her uncle, then turned on 11-year-old Maricel. She passed out as she tried to protect herself from the savage blows.

After she came to, Maricel pretended to be dead until she was sure the attackers were gone. As she staggered home, she looked down to see her hands dangling loosely on threads of bloodied flesh. Miraculously, she survived a long, arduous trip to the hospital, but doctors could not save her hands. Her uncle also survived the attack and eventually they testified against two of their attackers, who are serving life sentences.

Despite financial help from Catholic Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, a distant relative, Maricel struggled to cope with her disability. “I was totally dependent on my mother,” she recalls. She returned to school, but teasing by classmates often left her in tears.

In 2004, Archbishop Ledesma arranged for Maricel to live in the House with No Steps, a Manila rehabilitation and training centre for people with disabilities. She learned how to write and do chores and, more importantly, came to terms with her disability. “Trusting in God, I became more determined to strive to have a normal life. I believed I had an important mission in life because I survived the attack.”

Maricel eventually graduated from high school and enrolled in a two-year Hotel and Restaurant Management course in Cagayan de Oro City. “I have really enjoyed cooking since I was seven years old.”

Thanks in large part to her parents’ unwavering support, Maricel flourished even though she was the only disabled student in the course. “I wasn’t shy or intimidated to sign up for class competitions like cake decorating.”

After Maricel moved back to Manila to continue her studies, the media started reporting on this indomitable young woman. She didn’t shy away from the attention. “I wanted others living with disabilities to believe it’s possible to live a normal life,” Maricel says.

When managers at the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel saw Maricel on television, they hired her as part of the hotel’s Care for People project. Fellow chef Aljamil Borja marvels at Maricel’s skills. “She asks for assistance only if she needs to move a hot kettle or large saucepan from the stove, or open slippery bottle caps,” says Aljamil.

Maricel has also accomplished her goal of inspiring others. One of them is Ronelyn Calumpiano, a 21-year-old with cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair, she rarely left her Manila home and had never attended school. Then she saw Maricel on television. “I watched her demonstrate how to prepare vegetables for a salad with so much confidence,” she recalls. Ronelyn, who now lives at the House with No Steps and will soon start classes, is already planning a career in IT.

Maricel’s three younger siblings have moved to Manila. She pays for the rent of their small apartment, while their parents look after the family farm in Mindanao. “It is difficult to make ends meet but I don’t lose hope. I believe anything is possible if you dream, work hard and pray.”

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