This past May, I was invited by Best Buddies International to attend their annual celebrity fundraiser that was organized by mother daughter tandem, Cindy Crawford and Kaia Gerber.
Funny thing is, when my International Director, Jennifer Allen, invited me, I thought I was merely attending the event as a Best Buddies International Delegate. I did not realize that they were giving me an award!
I was super excited to be traveling with Gelli, as this would be her first trip to the United States since she was born. What made this event even more exciting was the fact that I would be able to spend some quality time with my sister Nicole during our stay in California.
Nino and I decided that our eldest daughter Gia should be the one to accompany Gelli and I to Malibu. It was a difficult decision, but Diego had basketball activities that would limit his travel. We both figured that the girls would have some bonding time abroad, while the boys had some bonding time alone at home. It actually turned out to be a wonderful idea because some really great conversations and bonding came out of the time we spent apart in our same sex teams.
I really was wondering how I would share this experience with all of you without it seeming like it was bragging. In fact, I have posted very little about the event, except for a photo album on the Best Buddies Philippines Facebook Page. I’m not so sure how to navigate this part of the self promotion by posting about this. I did not expect to be awarded anything during this event, rather, I thought I was going to be given an opportunity to share the challenges of furthering inclusion here in the Philippines so that the guests at the fundraiser could gain a greater understanding of what life is like outside of the United States for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
But when I met Mona and Sharon, I quickly realized why we were all brought together.
Best Buddies has positively affected the lives of our loved ones in ways we could not have imagined.
And for that I know, we are all grateful.
Rather than going on and on in a way that kinda makes me uncomfortable to talk about myself in that light, I thought I would share the short speech that I prepared (the night before when both Mona and Sharon said that they prepared something) so that when I was recognized on stage for my commitment to furthering inclusion a Gelli’s momma, I had something intelligent to say.
I share it with you here, as I wrote it on my phone the night before in my hotel room with Gelli and Gia sleeping by my side.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share a little bit about myself, my motherhood, and how the birth of my fourth child has given me the gift of Best Buddies.
But before I begin to share, I feel like I can’t stand up here without recognizing my own mother first.
My mother is amazing. She encouraged me to do what I love.
Well, when I was a young girl, and she offered me that encouragement, I wished I could grow up and be two things:
I met my husband, Nino more than 20 years ago in the Philippines. As our love story unfolded, I knew our journey as husband and wife, and hopefully parents, would eventually bring us back to the place where we first met.
That all came to fruition when we moved to Manila, 11 years ago, with three kids in tow, hoping to make it our home.
How hard could it be, I thought to myself?
After all I am proudly Filipina American.
For those of you who are not familiar, the Philippines is a beautiful country. It’s made up of 7107 islands. The people are warm and generous. The culture is rich with tradition and deeply rooted in Christianity.
We have the most beautiful beaches. And we are a hop skip and a jump away from other beautiful countries that are rich with Asian culture, food, and history as well.
But inclusion is in its infancy.
It was only 4 years ago that it became unlawful to deny my daughter the right to an equal education. And it was only 2 years ago the department of education began implementing these new laws of inclusive education in select public schools.
This is why when I was surprised with my daughter’s diagnosis of Down Syndrome at the time of her birth, my first instinct was to go back home to New York, where I knew I would have the support that I needed in raising a child with special needs.
Of course, I realized after the initial shock wore off, that God had given Gelli to me for a reason.
Just like He brought me to the Philippines to meet my love, I firmly believe that she chose me to be her momma because she knew we had a lot of work to do.
I started volunteering with Best Buddies Philippines when my friend, then Country Director Anj Onrubia, held the first training in Manila.
My first inclination was to simply bring Best Buddies to my children’s school. I would work together with the kids and the faculty advisor to create awareness, foster friendships, and further inclusion in our little community. I would do this for a little more than a year as program manager.
What I didn’t know is that when Anj would eventually migrate to Canada, she would ask me to take the helm of Best Buddies Philippines as Country Director.
I knew that this was the opportunity for me to start walking the walk.
I knew that I needed to lead this grassroots group of volunteers, in the good fight that we are all here, in support of, today.
I was asked by Mona yesterday how different he programs are in the Philippines because my daughter is only 5.
Our programs are not different. Our programs also begin at 13.
But I do the work that I do because I have high hopes that when Gelli turns 18 and graduates from an inclusive main stream high school, that she will have a choice of colleges to attend, just like Sharon’s son Greg.
And then even more than that, I have hopes that when Gelli graduates from that college, and decides to contribute to society in a way that is both meaningful and responsible, that someone will want to hire her.
I do the work I’m doing now, because I really do believe that the small awareness campaigns and community events make a difference in the lives of all of my Buddies.
They say to teach is to touch a life. And I believed that, that’s why when I was a bright eyed bushy tailed new teaching graduate, I chose to teach in the inner city. I accepted my first teaching position in the Bronx thinking that I would change the world…
ONE STUDENT AT A TIME.
As country Director of Best Buddies Philippines, I see the parallels in the work that I chose to invest my time in back then, when I compare that to the programs that we facilitate with the help of our volunteers.
We have the privilege and the responsibility to change the world
ONE FRIENDSHIP AT A TIME.
However, throughout all of this, this motherhood journey that I have been on for more than 18 years now, there was one thing that I did not expect to happen.
I graduated college.
I became a teacher.
Then a wife.
And then a mother.
What I didn’t know is that when I would welcome our fourth child into the folds of our family, that I would become her student, and she would be my greatest teacher.
She would lead me all the way here, on this stage, giving me the opportunity to speak in front of all of you, and share what we do in the Philippines, in support of inclusion, and Best Buddies International.