(This article penned by Gary Olivar appeared on the print and on-line versions of Philippine Star's Sunday magazine, Starweek on 23 February 2014.)
Waking up at 6am on a Sunday is one of the most difficult things to do. I'm not a morning person, and if not for my regular morning chores, I would gladly sleep until noon. But that morning was different. I just couldn't turn down the friend who'd invited me to an event to raise awareness of autism, a condition almost unheard of in my youth.
With head still longing for my pillow, I barely made it to the 8 o'clock opening of the gates at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. To say the atmosphere was cheerful is an understatement. I saw scores and scores of people, mostly in green (the theme color of the event), patiently lining up to enter the arena (entrance was free). It was a gathering not only of individuals with autism, but also of families who have pledged unending love and support for their differently-abled kin.
It was a show of love for individuals who have often been misunderstood. Thanks to the wonders of science and research and the initiative of people touched by this condition, we are now starting to understand how special these individuals are.
Autism, according to medical journals, is a neurological disorder which impairs or delays the development of communication and social skills of a person. People with this disorder have an unnatural focus on or attraction to certain objects or activities, which is why they often excel in those fields. But they are unable to empathize with the feelings of other people.
Seated at the ground level of the huge arena, I felt the pride and excitement radiating from parents seeing their children enjoy the show prepared by the Autism Society Philippines (ASP).
The Angels Walk is the annual culmination of ASP's activities for individuals with autism. It also marks their founding anniversary. That Sunday's event was a milestone as they celebrated their 25th year.
Erlinda Koe, ASP's chairman emeritus who opened the show, noted how ASP started in the backyard of one the original advocates with only a handful of members. Touched by autism with the birth of her special son, now a teenager, Koe has made autism advocacy her life mission.
ASP director Carmel Almendrala , mother of Michael, 45, said an individual with autism needs solid family support. "Support is vital. Because of their special needs, the whole family needs to adjust. It is the only way,” she said.
“A child with autism has special needs. He is different, and there is nothing to be done except to accept the condition and find ways to tickle his interest. Once he is interested, he will become very good at it, and parents must be willing to explore all possibilities,” Almendrala added.
Her patience paid off when she was able to kindle her son’s interest in sports. “He’s an athlete, a sprinter, swimmer, power-lifter and now a bowler. He also went into shotput and he did very well in those sports,” she said.
Michael is indeed an exceptional athlete. He is an Olympian in power-lifting ever since he participated in the International Paralympics (the Olympics for persons with disabilities). Recently, he became interested in bowling, where he has likewise received several awards.
Despite their condition, all those who participated in the Angels Walk program had a good time as they laughed, danced and sang with the performers. It was as if they knew the event was for them.
The participants who attended the event and spoke on stage during the program were either advocates or have been touched by autism. Commission of Elections Commissioner Grace Padaca has been an advocate for persons with disabilities (PWDs) since her youth. She contracted polio at an early age, which caused one leg to be shorter than the other. But this obviously did not deter her from pursuing her dreams.
Buhay party-list Congressman Irwin Tieng, who has been an advocate of autism awareness, was also present. Often described as the “Autism Angel “ in Congress, Tieng has promoted and fought for autism and PWD rights. He is one of the principal authors of Republic Act 9504, which increases the personal exemptions of taxpayers with PWD dependents. Also in attendance was Senator Koko Pimentel, who vowed to continue fighting for the rights of PWDs in the Senate.
For his part, Bien Mateo, vice president for operations and program director for SM Cares Disability Affairs, spoke about SM’s commitment to advance the cause of PWDs. “The SM Cares Program on Disability Affairs continues its mission of creating a barrier-free environment for our friends with special needs. We are thankful to our partners – the Autism Society of the Philippines, the National Council on Disability Affairs, the MOA Arena management, and all our friends from the PWD sector – for giving us the inspiration to find better ways and means of serving the community. It would be impossible for us to do this by ourselves, but together with others, we can all make a difference,” he said.
Koe profusely thanked SM and its president, Hans Sy, for its continued support to ASP over the past seven years. SM, through its corporate social responsibility arm SM Cares, has been partnering with ASP for the yearly Angels Walk, now on its seventh year. The latest walk was done in partnership with Mall of Asia Arena.
The Angels Walk is just one of the many advocacies of SM. Its SM Cares foundation has fully integrated six flagship CSR programs in the overall mall experience, which makes SM truly a mall for all. Aside from the program on PWDs, SM Cares also has projects that advance the rights and welfare of senior citizens, overseas Filipinos, women, children as well as the environment.
SM holds the distinction of being the most PWD-friendly mall in the country, according to Mateo. He said all SM malls provide a second home to families with special needs and offer sufficient accessibility to PWDs. There are dedicated areas for parking and disembarking, special restrooms, ramps, braille signages, designated areas for PWDs in theaters and dining rooms, as well as utilities within accessible height like pay phones and wash room sinks. Mall security guards and personnel are also trained to respond to the unique needs of PWDs.
“SM is a mall for all and we intend to continue with that commitment,” Mateo said.
Twenty-five autism advocates, led by Sy, were called to the stage to blow out the candles on 25 cakes carried by 25 children with autism to mark ASP’s 25th founding anniversary.
After the candle-blowing ceremony, participants went out of the arena for a walk around the MOA grounds. Sy himself led the walk.
Just finishing the walk was quite a feat for some of the participants, but everyone seemed to have been psyched up to have themselves a good time. Participants cheered, danced and sang as the walk progressed – something one normally does not see in today’s cause-driven world.
But going beyond the fun experience, Angels Walk is also a testimony to the indefatigable human spirit, truly a walk with angels. These are angels who show how love overcomes the most difficult of obstacles, who give acceptance and support no matter what the cost. Angels who sustain for these special individuals the nurturing environment they deserve.
It was a real honor for me to have walked with those angels. It definitely made the early call time that Sunday worth it.