As one of the guest speakers during Rotary International’s District Conference for District 3850 in Iloilo City, I had the great honour and privilege to speak among the likes of Mae Paner (better known as Juana Change), former Governor Grace Padaca, national anti-polio advocate Ynday Mijares, and other inspiring changemakers.
I’ve seen these people on TV, on the internet, in the newspapers. They were visionaries, revolutionaries, modern-day heroes, and, as I sat down and listened to their speeches, I swelled with pride for the Filipino race.
Former Isabela Governor Grace Padaca was an angel amongst us. A former schoolmate of mine once described her as the “disabled who enabled the nation”, and that schoolmate really hit the spot. A polio victim herself, Ma’am Padaca drew us in with a sweet conviction. Despite her strong reputation as the honest public official who defeated a dynasty of corruption in Isabela, she was kind, polite, and ever more inspiring. I was practically nobody to her, but she talked to me animatedly when I myself approached her.
When Mae Paner entered the room, the first thing I thought was—despite myself—“She’s beautiful.” It was hard not to notice bulging curves around her body and the meaty swells across her legs, but she carried herself with such an air of elegance and pride. Her speech was a mixture of so many expressions—cusswords, a forceful “utang na loob!”, “chaka”, “chenes”, etc—and this painstakingly represented her strong personality and advocacy as a political critic. She took us for a roller coaster ride through her life—her struggle to be the sole breadwinner, her drug-taking brothers, her confrontations with her body. My favourite line was, “Mahirap ako. Mataba ako. Pangit pa ako. Paano kaya ako makapagsisimula ng bago?” But, through her speech, through her videos, she showed us the Change in Juana Change sure enough.
Dr. Gilbert Vilela was, in my opinion, everything a doctor should be. One of the most well-known doctors in the country, he is currently the Head Cardiologist in the Philippine Heart Center. But upon seeing him, maybe you would never expect that; because I’ve never seen a doctor with long, gray hair tied in a ponytail. That was only the beginning though—he was also knowledgeable, funny, well-mannered, and extremely friendly. In his speech about heart diseases, everyone laughed when he said, “You kill the pig, but the pig kills you. It’s just karma.”
National polio advocate Ynday Mijares was on her wheelchair when she delivered her speech. Struck with polio at 3 years old, she had to struggle with a limp for the rest of her life. Yet, even after that, God had not been so kind. A few years ago, she developed Post Polio Syndrome and was thereafter never able to walk again. Three years ago, she was also diagnosed with cancer. “I locked myself up in my room for four whole months,” she said, “but afterwards I left because I realized there was simply so much to do.” Her nationwide and award-winning campaign to End Polio Now serves as a beacon of hope for so many Filipinos out there who have been born with this disability.
There were truly many more inspiring speakers (and even exchange students of Rotary’s program), but the people above have really touched my heart. Thanks to the invitation from District Governor Melvin de la Serna, I myself was able to speak, and at the end of it, I found myself almost in tears.
I spoke about my advocacy. I spoke about KRIS Library. I spoke about the stories of the people I’ve known from my work, of the people I knew needed the most help. I spoke about their expectations. I spoke about their realities. And, most of all, I spoke about empowering people like them.
Today, I also officially announced something. As an Oblation scholar of the University of the Philippines, I have had the honour of paying almost nothing while many pay so much. But I have realized recently it is more a responsibility than it is an honour. So, in front of Rotary International and these gods of change, I nervously stated my vow to provide at least 100 scholarships for poor students for every year I am a scholar in UP. For my first year, I had already helped establish 101 scholarship grants, and by the time I graduate, I should have fulfilled my 500th promise to a poor Filipino kid who really needs the money for schooling.
Thankfully, by the grace of God and the generosity of many, I have now with me a total donation of P14,100 largely from Rotary-Zamboanga clubs. For this, I'd like to say I am personally grateful to Mr. Rikki Lim (president of the Zamboanga City Rotary Club) and Mrs. Annamarie L. Lim. I would also like to recognize the efforts of Mr. Edmon Dimaano and Mr. Oliver Ong who both hail from Zamboanga as well.
Through the assistance of many others, I will also be grabbing opportunities to provide more books for our beneficiaries in the future. Dr. Gilbert Vilela had even offered to take care of my father (who has had severe heart operations) for free for as long as he lives.
Indeed, it was a full day’s work, and I am now so drained—and yet so energized—from such a great endeavour.
Today, I had found myself among the gods of Olympus—two polio victims, a woman diagnosed with obesity, and a doctor with an odd hair choice. And yet, this is the precise reason why they are gods. Despite disabilities and quirks, these people were agents of change for a country that needs it the most—and they’ve already proved that nothing could stand in their way.