this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on July 10, 1999.
The Resources for the Blind (RBI) regularly holds summer camps for blind teenagers. They invite volunteers for that one-week event. I was eager to learn so I came along. The volunteers were assigned three to four blind kids. We were to be their kuya and ate, their guide and their friend. On the third day at camp, we were divided into groups for our ”devotional time.” I was quite excited, anticipating how I would give the kids a good time. Our devotional was titled ”Ang Ating Handog sa Diyos.” We asked if anyone had ever lost someone dear. Many hands were raised. Out of curiosity, we prodded them to tell us something about the people they had lost. Suddenly, I found their words piercing my soul.
Reynaldo was 17 years old and came from Cotabato City. He recounted the time when three consecutive deaths plagued their family: first his grandmother, then his aunt and finally his mother. After his mother’s death, Reynaldo’s father fell ill and could no longer work to support their family. Being the eldest of nine children, the weight of earning a living to feed his family fell on Reynaldo’s shoulders. He had to learn how to massage. He studied during the daytime and at night he often sacrificed sleep so he could earn a living. We asked how much they charged for a full-body massage. ”Fifty pesos,” he answered matter-of-factly. At that I did not voice out my thoughts. I did not want to puncture his pride, his pride in working to support his family, no matter how little he earned.
Joel, 15, spoke last. His father was a farmer who had a feud with another farmer who owned some land upstream. Apparently, this other farmer dammed up all the water so that hardly any water reached the farms downstream. One day, both farmers got drunk and decided to settle their differences in the open field. When the fistfight was over, Joel’s father started to walk away. But a third man, who had been hiding in a clump of coconut trees, slipped silently behind Joel’s father and struck at his head with a sickle. The father’s neck was completely severed and rolled on the ground. The time was 4 p.m. and the day was Dec. 28, 1996. It was all very clear in Joel’s mind. Like a feather blown by the wind, my earlier excitement simply vanished. I was dumbfounded, unable to give any kind of response. And to think I just heard all these things from young men who were in their teens and blind. Such surprises I never expected. I knew I was going out of my comfort zone when I joined the summer camp. But to even think of my own comfort was inconsiderate, even shameful.
Tragedies I’ve only read about in pocketbooks were being revealed to me by children who didn’t deserve to suffer so much, particularly at an early age. It was not the only surprise I would have that day. While we were having dinner at the Caliraya dining hall, Kuya Percy, a member of the RBI staff, told me that Lerma, one of our campers, had severe anemia. Her doctor advised her to eat nutritious food. She asked Kuya Percy what nutritious food was. ”Why it’s what we eat here at camp: rice and viand,” Kuya Percy answered. Then he asked what her family ate at home. ”Mostly, water and salt,” was her reply. ”And if Nanay has some money, we’d have tuyo (dried fish).” After camp, I slipped a cup of instant noodles into her bag. At least they’d have something when she got back home, I thought.
Now there was this little blind girl that I especially liked. Her name was Racquel Java. She turned 14 on May 1. Racquel studies in an elementary school somewhere in Lagro. She is now in Grade 6. The school used to have a special education (Sped) teacher. There used to be special classes for the blind and they had their own toilets. But their principal took all of that away. Now they take all their subjects together with the sighted students. When they have an exam, sometimes they take it outdoors because their principal would not assign a room for them. Racquel told me how difficult it was for her and others like her. But she still promised to do her best to get good grades. I told her I knew she would. She also told me how terribly some regular teachers treated them. These teachers would rush them in their school activities, even if they knew very well that the blind children could not keep up with the sighted children. When Racquel or any other blind child made a mistake, some teachers would slap their tables hard to startle the kids.
I brought up this problem with the RBI staff. With a sigh, they said this was something that kept coming up. There are several schools with blind students. Sped teachers can help a lot. Unfortunately, it is often the principals and the school administrators who show no concern or even show hostility toward the handicapped. Whenever I saw Racquel, I saw someone who was sweet and smart and pretty. I just could not believe that anyone could be apathetic enough to maltreat her or the other blind children. How could some people be so blind to the needs of these children? Imagine, from their original number of 12 blind students, there are now just three of them left in that elementary school. I pray there was something more I could do for Racquel.
I have to admit that I had to overcome with my own biases before I could join that camp. But now I have realized that it isn’t difficult to care for the blind. No, not after I have seen what beautiful people they are. Most of them have led difficult lives and even now they continue to encounter so many problems. But I have never seen a group that was so enthusiastic, so full of joy, so full of life. It couldn’t all have stemmed from the naivete of youth. The RBI ought to be congratulated for what it is doing. Now that these blind children see life as beautiful and a blessing. They are so full of hope. They had made me feel ashamed before the Lord and made me feel grateful for my own life. I walked away from that camp so much richer in experience. With the blind I have gained more than a lifetime of learning. They shared their lives with me, and they have given me their sight.