Learning doesn’t come by chance for Marie Alonzo’s son John who is blind with mild autism.
“Patience is one virtue that I have learned because of John,” said Marie, who quit her job when John was a boy to spend more time at home. “Every simple task that he does is a big joy for us and it motivates us both.”
In the Philippines, less than five percent of children who are blind go to school – a reality that Marie has been working hard to change for over a decade now. While outsiders saw only the limitations of children like John, Marie always knew John was capable of learning.
After years of acting in the role of mother, teacher, and advocate for John, it was Marie who needed to be taken care of in May 2011 after surgery put her on full bed rest for two months.
“There was only John and me at home,” recalled Marie, who has three other sons. After three weeks in recovery, laundry was filling up the house. “The others were in school and my husband was in the office. So I talked to John and I told him, ‘Mama needs some help to do laundry.’”
At this point Marie had been working with John to do simple everyday household tasks but laundry was something they never attempted. With her voice Marie used details to orient John and help him get to the laundry basket. Slowly and step by step, Marie guided John through putting the clothes in the washer, finding and pressing the right buttons, taking the clothes out, and transferring them to the dryer. Nothing about the process was intuitive – each small step required practice and patience. But the effort paid off.
“Voila! Laundry is done! It was John’s first experience to do the laundry but definitely not his last,” Marie said proudly. Today Marie and John look forward to laundry time as a bonding experience.
Together Marie and John are accomplishing much more than household chores. They are helping change perceptions about what people with disabilities can accomplish.
Marie is a leading member of Parent Advocates for Blind Children (PAVIC). The group of 400 parents is partnering with Perkins International and Resources for the Blind, Inc. (RBI), a Philippines organization that coordinates a range of education, training and health programs for children and adults who are blind or have low vision, to increase public awareness about the educational needs of children with disabilities. With a grant from the Lions Club International Foundation’s SightFirst program the groups are collaborating in a 3-year project. Over the course of the project 60 new schools throughout the Philippines will develop inclusive education programs and 1,400 students like John will receive educational services.
The SightFirst project will include three parent workshops each year on topics including advocacy, parent leadership skills, and education of children who are blind or have low vision. In year 3, a Parent Congress will bring together hundreds of parents, teachers, and government representatives.
Beyond creating opportunities to advocate for better services, Marie said a major value of parent events lies in the chance to share experiences with other parents. “Interaction with other parents is very important because you feel you’re not alone in these struggles. Just listening to the great stories and successes of other parents changes your outlook … and gives new hope and inspiration.” And, as Marie knows from her own experience, many of the lessons parents share with each other are based on what their children teach them.
The LCIF SightFirst program funds projects that fight the major causes of blindness and improve the lives of individuals who are blind. The Philippines project, focusing on the Luzon region, has special significance as the foundation’s first grant awarded for work in education and rehabilitation.
This collaboration of two organizations dedicated to improving the lives of people who are blind around the world makes perfect sense, says Perkins President Steven Rothstein. “The Lions have a longstanding reputation as agents of change for people around the world who are blind. As the school that educated Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, Perkins believes that when given opportunity, an individual’s potential to overcome obstacles and contribute to the greater community is limitless.”
Through expanding educational opportunities and empowering parents as advocates for their children’s rights, the SightFirst Philippines project will lay a foundation for broader social inclusion throughout the region. When communities witness the achievements of children with disabilities who are given the opportunity to attend school, stigmas and discrimination will begin to dissolve.
Marie is proud of what has been accomplished so far but she knows there is still a long way to go.
“When we visit parents of children with visual impairments in far provinces, sometimes our hearts really cry out to them; listening to their stories, their frustrations and their aspirations”
“As parents, we all have a common dream – a better future for our children,” said Marie. “We know it will be a long and slow process, but we are willing to work overtime just to achieve our goals.”