joanne brooks creating crafts with her feet

Against all odds Read how polio survivor JoAnne shared in local African traditions and used her story to uplift others…
by 22nd December 2016

In the face of adversity, you have three choices: you can let it define you; you can let it destroy you; or you can let it strengthen you. The latter is most definitely the case for American artist, motivational speaker and talented jeweller JoAnne Brooks. An inspiration to so many around the world, JoAnne has truly overcome adversity and continues to boldly prove that nothing can or will stand in her way.

A polio survivor, JoAnne lost the use of her hands and arms in her childhood. Fiercely determined, she went on to teach herself to do everything that we can do with our hands … with her feet! And we mean everything. JoAnne can cook, clean, swim and even drive a car using her feet. Not only that, but she raised her two children without any professional help, all the while holding down a full-time job as a probation officer for three decades.

Nowadays JoAnne finds creative inspiration working as an artist in her home studio, where she conceptualises and creates the most beautiful pieces of jewellery. Neither the intricate beading nor the delicate wiring are an obstacle for JoAnne and she continues to prove that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything. When she’s not whiling away the hours in her studio, JoAnne pays it forward by giving motivational talks about polio and post-polio syndrome to educate and inspire others.

Connecting with the Maasai

JoAnne and her husband Bob recently travelled all the way to Africa, not only for a bucket list safari of a lifetime, but also so that JoAnne could spend some quality time in local African communities, beading, drawing, dancing and painting with local artisans in rural areas.

JoAnne has broken the norm and defied the odds and now she wanted to share in local African traditions, not only to inspire her own creative work, but more importantly to connect with people on a human level and use her story of determination to uplift others.

Their first stop was &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara. JoAnne and Bob very much wanted to visit the nearby Enkereri community so that JoAnne could do some beading with the Maasai women. All Simon Saitoti from Africa Foundation told the women beforehand was that they’d be receiving a visitor and they responded that were delighted to have the opportunity to teach someone their craft.

Much to their surprise, when they saw JoAnne emerge from the safari vehicle, some of the women were overhead making the assumption that it was Bob who had come to do the beading. When JoAnne joined the ladies on their Maasai shukas and started making a necklace with her feet, the Maasai women stared in wonder and disbelief. They had lots of questions for JoAnne, which she was only too happy to answer. Did she have children? And who took care of them when they were young? JoAnne surprised the crowd when she confessed that she’d done it all on her own.

At the end of their friendly beading session, the Maasai women presented JoAnne with some of the jewellery they had made together. As it turned out, it was a day that neither JoAnne nor the Maasai women will forget and the resounding message that the Maasai took from their meeting was that disability is not inability.

Inspiring the next generation

JoAnne and Bob then continued their journey to &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where plenty more was in store for them. The couple visited the nearby Zulu community, where, not only were they invited into a homestead to learn about Zulu culture, but they were also ‘re-married’ in an entertaining makeshift ceremony.

Perhaps a highlight in JoAnne’s journey was their visit to Khulani Special School, an Africa Foundation project. This facility that provides education and basic medical care to almost 300 young learners with special needs. JoAnne and Bob were greeted by the nearly 300 students and JoAnne was invited on stage to give a talk to the students. She made a real connection with the children and inspired this next generation to believe in themselves and not to let their ‘disabilities’ hold them back. Together, they painted, beaded and danced together and JoAnne was visibly moved and enriched by the experience.

When asked about her time in Africa, JoAnne said, “I am touched. The women were amazing. I was amazed at their creativity, resourcefulness and only wished I could have communicated my appreciation for the honour of them sitting down for a visit with me.”

JoAnne, you remain a powerful inspiration and we sincerely thank you for bringing joy, hope and encouragement to our local communities.

Click here to read more about how Africa Foundation is making a difference to education in rural Africa.