News feature on Filipino Paralympic swimmer, Ernie Gawilan.
Ernie Gawilan was born with no legs and with only one fully formed hand. But his courage and tenacity may very well put to shame many of us who have complete use of all our faculties. The young swimmer, who is shy and reserved, is in his element every time he streaks through the pool with extraordinary skill and endurance to everyone’s amazement. In fact, he is headed later this year to Brazil having qualified in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, after meeting the qualifying time at the 8th ASEAN Para Games in Singapore last December where he also won three medals for the Philippines.
The message of his story is clear: people with disabilities are really just differently abled.
They too can contribute to the welfare of the human person and society as a whole, and in Ernie’s case, even give honor to our country. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, and particularly to the families of children with disabilities to give them the proper care and attention that they need, so they may discover and fulfill the purpose for which God has created them.
Don Bosco Center of Studies’ Ongoing Formation for 2016 is devoted to the family, thanks to the inspiration of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia. The first session held on July 11 featured the testimonies of families of children with disabilities.
Fr. Francis Gustilo, SDB, who organizes the annual event, said: “The Church through Christian families has assisted youth with mental and physical challenges, so they can find the giftedness that God has given them…. We find in these families a community of love, which is greater than any wealth. It is the experience of the deep love of God for us and for others.”
Everything That It Takes
The speakers included Oland and Mimi David, who first met in a high school soiree and got married seven years later. After 12 years of marriage, however, they still did not have children. As members of the Couples for Christ (CFCFFL) and Ligaya ng Panginoon, they discerned God’s will for them and eventually decided to adopt their “first angel,” Nicole Angela, who is now a young professional working in the field of Media Relations, Public Relations, and Events.
Nicole was six when Joshua became part of the family. At first the arrangement was only temporary. Mimi and her fellow board members of an institution for orphans were each asked to bring one child home as improvements were being made to the building where the infants were housed. Thus Joshua, a frail child who was deaf, was entrusted to her care. But when the time came for the children to be returned to the institution, Nicole did not want to lose her baby brother.
Oland was at first against the decision. He was happy with one child, and he felt that they were not equipped to care for a child with special needs. But he was overruled by the women of the family. Providentially, the adoption process went well, and so it happened that they welcomed their second angel.
There were of course many concerns that the family had to deal with. Joshua needed speech and occupational therapy, a hearing aid… plus the whole family had to learn sign language. “It was emotionally and financially draining,” the couple admitted. At the time, the cost of a hearing aid for a person with profound deafness (i.e., unable to hear anything at all) was PhP80,000.00. “We told ourselves, he’s our son, we should give him the best. And God provided.”
The family also had to be educated on the psychology of the deaf and to learn their culture — how they perceived things, their sentiments are of course different from those who can hear.
“It pains us to see him alone in a corner during family gatherings [since relatives do not know how to communicate with him since they do not know sign language] but he lip reads and is able to join us in various activities like retreats. He can even go to confession. But he needs to write down his sins and give the list to the priest,” Mimi explained.
Joshua is now a young man, and soon he will need to prepare for college. The family also shared the difficulties of finding a good school for the deaf, though they are considering the College of St. Benilde as a possibility when the time comes.
“Joshua is so sensitive to the needs of others. He is a fine young man. His heart is so pure… and he has such a gentle soul,” Mimi shared. The once thin, scrawny, deaf baby has certainly come a long way. “He has grown up to be a fine self-confident and self-assured young man.”
Among the lessons they learned in raising Joshua are the following:
First, unconditional and selfless love makes all the difference. Their family is unique because none of them are related. “We all have different blood types” said Mimi, but love, unconditional love, binds them together.
Second, special treatment is not given to anyone, including Joshua. He is also reprimanded when necessary, he also has his own chores, needs to study well, and is encouraged to make friends with those who can hear.
In fact, as his sister Nicole shared, she teaches Joshua to be independent, to commute by himself, to order food, and to buy things for himself. “I tell him there is no need to ashamed to sign in public.”
The family has a third angel, John Christian, who is now two years and six months old. He is the son of their former helper. The David family helped to save the child from being aborted. But looking now at Xian, as they call him fondly, no one would suspect that he was ever unwanted. He is a bubbly and dynamic little boy who went around greeting people as his family spoke. He exuded with the joy and confidence of one who is much loved.
“The merciful God has a plan for us before we are born,” reflected Oland. “Family is a special gift of God. Whether we are adopted or born into it, we need to take care of the family, to fight for it at all cost. It is a piece of heaven on earth. It makes us whole and complete.”
Joshua himself addressed the audience, saying, “I love my family. My Ate [i.e., older sister] always buys me things. Papa and Mama love me very much. I am very happy to belong to my family.”
Alex Juni, a freelance photographer, and his wife Janice are both graduates of the University of San Carlos in Cebu. The couple have four wonderful children. But in 2011, their eldest, Axel, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, which involves progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. It is an illness that only affects boys. There is no cure.
Axel underwent many tests to delay the development of the disease but he only became worse, and the family had to stop availing of further procedures due to financial constraints.
“This changed our lives,” the couple admitted. But Alex, who once studied in the seminary, convinced his family not to question God and encouraged them to serve in the Parish, attend Holy Mass, and deepen their spiritual life so they can understand God and His will.
The couple shared that the obstacles tested them but also strengthened their relationship and love for one another. In fact, Axel’s younger siblings, Anesa, Andre, and Angie, all do their part to help their eldest brother and support their parents. No one is too young to help, even Angie, who is just four, makes Axel happy through her thoughtfulness.
“As a mother, I find it very hard to accept the condition of my child…. But I remind him to be cheerful and always to put God at the center,” said Janice.
The family continues to pray and hope that God would heal Axel through a miracle.
In spite of his illness, Axel, now a teenager, is mature enough and consistently excels in his studies. He tries his best to make his parents proud and to trust in God. And he is convinced that all this makes him a better person. “Thank you, Lord, for the gift of life and family,” he said. Then, he told the audience, “Please pray for me and my family.”
The sharing of the Juni family ended with a song offering thanks to God.
Hope in the Face of Adversity
Ernie’s success as a champion swimmer is even more compelling since his story is fraught with difficulties, even before he was born. His disability is the result of an unsuccessful abortion. And as a young child he was raised by his grandparents who were too old to give him the complete care that he needed.
Fortunately, this young Manobo received timely help. The Maryknoll Sisters have taken him under their care so he can be properly educated. He was brought to Samal Island where he began his schooling, and his training as a swimmer.
For Ernie, faith in God is important. With Him all things are possible. “We must be humble, and not lose hope. We can show others that we are also capable, even through small things. Hindi pabigat (We’re not a burden).”
He remains grateful to his parents even if they did not raise him because without them he would not be here.
Like Ernie, Roland Sabido realized that, even if he lost his leg because of a motorcycle accident, he still has much to offer.
Roland hails from Eastern Samar. When he had the accident in 2011, it took two days before he could be taken to the hospital because the nearest one was in Tacloban City, Leyte. The doctors were unable to save his leg.
The trauma and shock of losing his leg affected Roland deeply. He credits his family for their support. They gave him strength and helped him to adjust to his condition. After about three months, he began to research on the internet about persons with disabilities (PWD) and came upon some athletes who went to the 2012 London Paralympics. The idea of training as an athlete captured his interest and gave him a purpose. He communicated with them and eventually began his training in ULTRA.
Roland admits that it was not easy. “I stayed in Novaliches. And I would leave at 1:00 in the afternoon for ULTRA. I would arrive at 3:00 or 4:00. And my training would be from 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening. And I would get home at 10:00.”
It was exhausting, but he was determined. And his efforts paid off since he was qualified for the national team. Like Ernie, Roland also received medals in the 8th ASEAN Para Games in Singapore, including a silver medal in the 100m freestyle event.
These persons and families have different stories, different challenges to overcome. But it is evident in their lives that love and courage make all the difference. The family is irreplaceable in every human person’s life. But even if our own parents should fail us, God will send others who will bring us into their hearts and into their homes, wipe away our tears, and help us to discover our uniqueness and value, whatever our abilities and capacities may be.
Maria Divina Solano, MRS, MATh is a graduate of DBCS. She is a guest professor teaching Theology and Spirituality of the Laity, and Christology and Mariology.