I arrived in the Philippines in 1964 and was assigned to work in parishes to the north of Manila in Zambales province. In 1972 I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was able to deal with the illness and continue with the parish mission, but it was not until 1985 that I began to develop a systematic approach to aid the disabled where I was working. I suppose I saw the need earlier but did not entertain the possibility that I might do something about it. I had always helped the needy in a piecemeal way but had not tried to work out a more effective response.
A young parishioner named Melody got me moving. She was thirteen years of age and paralyzed from the waist down from polio. Meeting her was like a new beginning for me. Her father made a side-car that he attached to his bicycle to take her to school. I then helped him make a tricycle that Melody could propel. One of her neighbors made parallel bars from bamboo poles so that she could do daily therapeutic exercises. She helped me see a world of struggle, pain and endurance that had been hidden from me. Maybe my interest was also stimulated in part by own experience of sickness but, in my case, I feel I was lucky to be able to seek medical attention where these people had nothing.
I began the project in Candelaria Parish where I was parish priest at that time. Once people heard about the priest who was showing interest in the disabled, many began to come out of the woodwork. The disabled family members were hidden in the family home because their families did not know what to do with them. I had heard about a program for helping the disabled that was running in Malate Parish in Manila. I contacted the organizser, Barney McGlade, an Irish psychologist sponsored by GOAL, an Irish sports group that helps people in third world countries. Barney served as a consultant, helping me to set up a program in Candelaria Parish and then he set up another in Santa Cruz Parish which really started the ball rolling!
Facts and figures may not be the most imaginative way of describing a project but I think, in this case, such an approach will help you appreciate how that initial insight has grown into a continually growing service that is now bringing help and joy to the lives of over 1,000 disabled people. The following is a brief description of what we did in favor of the disabled in 2009.
Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) for People with Disabilities and Families (PWD) is presently serving in thirteen parishes of the diocese of Iba. It has grown steadily since its foundation in Candelaria Parish in 1985. In 2009 there were 1,037 members in a wide variety of programs for people with disabilities — 315 in the 13-21 age group, 234 in the 7-12 age group, 169 in the 0-6 age group, and 159 in the 36-70 age group.
Topping the list of disabilities is cerebral palsy with 181 people affected, mostly children. There are 348 people who suffer from stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, spinal cord injury, epilepsy and other brain or spinal infections. There are 206 members who are deaf, hearing impaired, mute, blind or partially blind. There are 198 members with a congenital anomaly, such as club foot, hare-lip and cleft palate, heart disease, missing one or more limbs, etc. There are 170 people with learning disabilities, such as mental retardation, Down syndrome, etc. There are others with a variety of difficult conditions.
Our programs aim to help members achieve as much personal development and independence as possible. We have 161 members enrolled in the public schools, and most of them on are a scholarship which provides for school fees, books and other essentials. We have four members in a vocational school where they learn a basic skill or trade that will help them earn a living. Then we have eleven children in kindergarten, 90 children in primary school and 39 youth in high school.
We have 120 children in our home and center based program, where parents learn to work with their disabled child. For those who need it we also offer massage therapy and this year 166 availed themselves of this service. Medical assistance of some kind has been given to 876 members, 34 of whom have been hospitalized. The Philippine Band of Mercy, with whom we network, regularly performs operations for children with harelip and cleft palate on behalf of the center.
We are not alone in this work with people with disabilities. Willing helpers, professionals, local government units, private and public agencies, NGOs and a variety of institutions lend a hand here needed. We are never short of support for social and religious activities. We have been accredited by the relevant government agencies and recently received a Certificate of Accreditation recognizing the CBR Foundation as a NGO at the service of people with disabilities.
Our members are not simply beneficiaries of free services. They too are required to do their part in so far as they are able. They help out by paying some of the cost of services, giving materials, collecting empty bottles for recycling, cleaning the center or office, paying membership fees, volunteering in activities, attending meetings and training seminars and generally helping out in any way they can. Our members and networks generate some of our funding. However, we do rely on outside help. Price increases, which we know will always be a part of life, have put us under pressure. The cost of much needed medicine and medical supplies continues to rise. In addition, there was a flood last year in part of the province that destroyed our files and some other materials. And, the number of people needing assistance from our program continues to grow.
Watching more and more members gradually learning to deal and live with their disabilities gives all of us on the team the heart and the will to push ahead. In many ways, my diagnosis of MS opened my eyes to those who were suffering around me and led me to this life of service. Twenty-five years have passed since I was motivated by Melody to do something more. I look forward to continued years of service.
Columban Fr. Fintan Murtagh lives and works in the Philippines.