A Close-up Look at People Who Matter : She's Different but Surely Not Handicapped

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Every now and again, someone will stare at Maria Lices Ramirez and a question will pop into their head and then pop right out of their mouth. Usually, the question hasn't lingered long enough in the head.

But they'll look at Ramirez, who answers to Lices, and look at the nub where her right hand used to be, at the place where the fingers of her left hand once were attached and at thescars on her pretty face. And they wonder how she manages without hands.

She manages just fine, she tells them.

"In the past, people asked me, 'Who combs your hair? Who puts makeup on you?' " Ramirez said, clearly amused at the notion. "I do it myself. Nobody is going to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning to dress me up."

Ramirez, Achiever of the Year for Goodwill Industries of Southern California, works full time as a secretary for Goodwill's rehabilitation department in its Downtown offices.

"I'm disabled, right?" said the Burbank resident. "But this is me. This is no big deal for me."

Ramirez was born to a farm family in Cheran, a village in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Her home had no electricity, so candles lit the rooms.

When Ramirez was 17 days old, one of those candles fell and started a fire in her room. Her right hand was burned so severely it had to be amputated. The fingers on her left hand burned. So did portions of her face.

"I don't remember if there was pain," she says now, 25 years later.

For her mother, there was worry--worry that the child wouldn't get along in life, that she would be handicapped by her injuries.

But when she was 9 months old, Ramirez began to balance a drinking cup between her arms and bring it to her lips.

Later, she would grasp a piece of chalk the same way so she could imitate her brothers and sisters, who were learning to write in school.

"I used to write on every single wall of the house," she said.

Ramirez's mother, afraid that her child would be teased for her differences, would not let her start school. Eager to learn, Ramirez would sometimes sneak to class with her brother.

The girl's mother relented and let the child start school when she was 7 years old. And the teasing never came.

At 13, Ramirez came to the United States for plastic surgery. She spent seven months at Shriners Hospital, a time she remembers fondly.

"It was fun. It's not like normal hospitals," she said. "You get up every morning, you go to school, you have people who are playing with you. You play basketball. I love basketball."

After visiting Mexico again she returned to Shriners, living with hospital sponsor families until about three years ago, when she rented a home of her own in Burbank.

Now Ramirez has the same concerns as many Southern Californians. She wants to save money, spend more time with her 17-month-old son and eventually go back to school to earn a degree in counseling.

"I want to help other people. There are people who are frustrated with their life. They have a little problem and they make it into a major problem," she said.

"I need to talk to them and tell them to be glad. They should be glad they have a life."

Ramirez believes maybe she had an easier time with her differences because she learned from the beginning to work with what she had. She can file, she can type, she can change diapers--just like anybody else.

"Just because she doesn't have fingers, she makes up for it in every other way. She's excellent," said Denise Sherman, project manager for Goodwill's rehabilitation program, one of the people for whom Ramirez works.

"Maybe I'm like this because my family treated me like everyone else. I wasn't different. I don't feel different at all. I'm super-great," Ramirez said, smiling at her boldness. "You have to say, 'This is me and I like myself.'

"If this is my arm, I accept my arm the way it is," she said, holding up a limb. "You have to accept yourself."

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.

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