Seeing What’s Special: A montage of moments, a bigger picture of advocacy and purpose

By: Celine Guillermo

“Ate, bakit iba pagtrato samin dito?”

(Ma’am, why do they treat us differently here?)

I spun around and found myself face to face with a 10-year-old child as we were waiting in line for an amusement park ride. Staring at him blankly, I refocused and I recounted everything that they told us in the orientation earlier. And all I remember is, as a SPED volunteer, since we are accompanying children with intellectual disabilities, we should guide our students towards the exit lane to wait their turn so they can avoid the long lines. But, unfortunately, they didn’t tell us what to say if one of the students asked why they get such different treatment. And as a 14-year-old, without much experience in general, it really took me some time to reply.

“Oh because this is a magical amusement park. And they made us extra special guests here! So we don’t have to line up!” I happily told him amidst my initial hesitation. His eyes then twinkled and shifted blissfully to the ride ahead. ‘Phew,’ I thought. I watched him smile even more, as if he became a most prestigious guest, even a prince of his own magical kingdom.

Since then, I vowed to carry on and develop the child-like imagination that 14-year-old me had in order to provide hope and faith into the practice of healing and service.

As former president of our advocacy organization in medical school, I recall having exciting ideas such as having “The Little Prince” by Antoine de-Saint Exupery as our theme, and distributing dozens of paper crowns so that people could showcase their own advocacies. It was really amazing to see a hallway filled with serious medical students smiling from ear to ear, some with yellow paper crowns on, as they continued on with their busy schedule.

As a co-head of one of our school’s 10-year anniversary projects, we were assigned to conduct a team-building program for hospital employees on an isolated southern island in our country. And while we were building the participant kits, I remembered adding a small pin with the hospital logo inside their individual kits. I didn’t think it would matter much, but the doctor-administrator who headed the program stated how the pins made such a difference in the way they saw themselves as a vital part of the hospital. Imagine the joy we felt when we saw them proudly wearing the pins on their uniforms the next day.

As a medical clerk, I remember one well-spent afternoon with a patient who dreamed of becoming a superhero as we crafted his own comic book. He showed me panels of cartoon versions of himself protecting his mother, and he even drew a cartoon version of me helping him solve crime and diseases! I remembered him clutching his notebook as he went away, as if it was his greatest treasure.

As a medical doctor getting her license at the start of the pandemic, it may be about growing up and even forgetting that child-like imagination I vowed to live by. As a medical reliever of barangay health centers with almost two years of practice, I sometimes find myself only asking the medical questions, and in one particular instance, even becoming a bit annoyed when one barangay health worker would excitedly give me last minute patients just as I was about to leave. And it was until she shared her story and her problems with her son, a 20-year old with an intellectual disability, that I got to understand why she is so passionate about giving accessible care to every patient, especially as a mother who had no choice but to fight on her own to give her child the care he deserves.

Maybe true magic lies both in the forgetting, and the ability to have faith that the universe will conspire to help you remember.

And as a Samya Stumo Fellow, I have the opportunity to experience more moments of hope and faith as I go deep into community research. I learned the value of having a listening ear, as parents of students from our local SPED center poured out their innermost thoughts, anxieties, blessings, and challenges they regularly experience. And as I talk to various stakeholders, I continually find kind-hearted individuals who are willing to advocate for their rights in multiple sectors in the community. There are preschool teachers who are now working on sensory-rich materials for the students, municipal employees who are planning to do projects for parent livelihood training, and even engineers who are willing to work on installing solar panels for their institutions. We just need a way to work together for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to not just be accepted, but to be able to grow in an enabling environment.

Looking back and as I continue to move forward, these are some of the things that really stuck in my head and heart because I was reminded again and again of the magic of small moments, the power of even a little faith, and the hope found in beaming smiles. And like the case of the 10-year-old child I accompanied, I would want to treat each patient differently, with the utmost care and love that they need and deserve. And true, our society and the world are really far from a child’s perspective of a magical kingdom or a fairytale; however, even the greatest change can start in the smallest ways whether it be a paper crown, a pin, a random sketch, a story, a listening ear, a kind heart, or even just a simple dreamer who yearns to heal and serve.