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Photo: Mark’s scrapbook from his year in the US. Courtesy Manila Bulletin.

This article originally published in the Manila Bulletin
 
By INA HERNANDO-MALIPOT
 
While others see disability as a hindrance to success, Mark Gil Punzal and Jeremiah Bartolome look at it as a passport to widen their perspective in life and gain more experience crucial to their growth as persons with disabilities.
 
Through the AFS Intercultural Programs Philippines — under its Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program — Mark, Jeremiah and many others have been given a chance to explore and study abroad, to dream and aim for higher goals in life. Mark has been an AFS scholar for YES 2008 while Jeremiah is a chosen candidate for the 2009 program.
 
Both third year high school students at the Manila Science High School, 17-year-old Mark and Jeremiah believe that they are both lucky to benefit from AFS, one of the world’s largest non-profit volunteer-based organizations that offer international exchange programs in over 50 countries.
 
Through its local organizations, AFS provides intercultural learning and volunteer opportunities for students, young adults, teachers and families through international exchange.
 
OVERCOMING CHALLENGES
 
Life could be hard to people with disabilities but it can be harder for parents like Juliet, the mother of Mark, and Eva, the mother of Jeremiah. Both went through great lengths just to give the best for their children.
 
“I discovered Mark was deaf when he was three years old. I noticed that he was not responding kapag tinatawag ko siya ng nakatalikod,” Juliet says. While Mark would respond to TV shows that he was watching, he was not talking. Juliet immediately brought Mark to an Ears, Eyes, Nose and Throat (EENT) specialist and it was then that he was diagnosed with hearing loss — moderate to severe on the left ear and profound on the right ear. “Sabi ng doctor, it could be na nagka-high fever siya at yung nerves niya na-apektuhan so dun niya nakuha yun,” she says.
 
Eva also had the same suspicion when her son Jeremiah would not respond. “Kailangan pa niyang kalabitin,” Eva recalls. Busy with work, Eva was not able to keep track of Jeremiah’s development, until she heard the real score from an EENT specialist.
 
Because of their children’s condition, Eva and Juliet decided to give up their respective jobs and focused all their time and attention on their sons. “Nag-focus ako sa paghahanap ng school at nag-resign talaga ako para sa kanya,” Eva shares.
 
“I learned advanced sign language to ensure na magkakaintindihan kami at maipasa ko sa kanya yung mga hindi niya naririnig,” Juliet adds.
 
Despite the initial setback, both mothers picked themselves up and started to look for schools and establishments that could help their sons. Living in Balagtas, Bulacan, Eva and Jeremiah had to travel three hours to get to Manila, in search of the “perfect” school.
 
“Lipat kami ng lipat from SpEd schools to regular schools over the years at halos naka-eight schools na ang napasukan niya,” shares Eva.
 
Juliet, on the other hand, tried her best to provide a conducive learning environment at home. “I dedicated most of my time teaching and guiding Mark in his school works and extra-curricular activities.”
 
BREAKING BARRIERS
 
Juliet and Eva are thankful that organizations like AFS are giving their kids better opportunities despite their disability. AFS volunteer development manager Beth Venzon-Eduave says AFS started in the Philippines in 1956. Over a period of 24 years, about 1, 047 young Filipinos have gone to the United States for one year and 609 American teenagers have come to the Philippines as AFS exchange students.
 
In 1980, AFS Philippines ceased its operations and remained closed for the next 20 years. To keep the AFS spirit alive, AFS returnees organized themselves initially into a student organization, then into an association called the AFS Returnees Foundation Philippines, Inc. (ARFP). This group revived the exchange programs by implementing the ASEAN High School exchange program in cooperation with AFS Japan where 41 Japanese and 20 Filipino exchange students have participated from 2001 to 2003.
 
In 2004, the first batch of Filipino exchange students under the YES Program was sent to the US and currently, in its fourth year, the program provides full scholarships for a year of living and studying in the US to a select group of teenagers, including those who are physically challenged.
 
Eduave says YES Program in the Philippines specifically includes students with disabilities as their scholars.
“We wanted diversity — not just indigenous groups, low income level, urban or Muslims and others religions — we want an all-inclusive program,” she explains.
 
Locally, AFS is closely working with National Commission on Disability Affairs (NCDA) to mainstream students with disabilities for them to have greater chances to avail of scholarships available.
 
Under the program, Eduave explains that the student will be placed in Grade 10 or 11 in US public high schools. “They are expected to attend school and participate in classroom — homework and examinations — and extra curricular activities as regular students,” she says. But, the student will not be given credit for their studies because they will be required to go back to the Philippines to complete their fourth year. “Upon their return, the scholars are expected to initiate activities and projects that will allow them to share their experience under the program not only in their schools but also in other schools or the community,” Eduave says.
 
FUELING DREAMS
 
Mark’s experience as an AFS scholar has made him dream big. He realized that it is possible to achieve his goals despite his condition. He enjoys attending Math classes immensely.
 
“Math is the best for me because it’s easy for me to do addition, subtraction or multiplication,” he says. At home, Mark sees to it that he help her parents. “I help my father in painting or my mother in washing or in everything.” He wants to learn all these things so he could be able to live on his own, or maybe go back to the US to study, visit his schools, the Indiana School for the Deaf, and also his foster family.
 
Jeremiah, on the other hand, is a candidate for next year. “I want to learn more about the US, share the same experience as Mark, and study there to become a chef,” he says.
 
Despite their difficulties in school, quitting was never an option for these two. They know they are capable of doing so many things, even admonishing students with disabilities like them to never lose hope and not be easily influenced by other people.
 
(Application for an AFS scholarship is ongoing. Applicants must be between 14 to 17.5 years old, currently enrolled in a Philippine high school, college or university and willing to study abroad for a year. For more information, visit AFS office at the 2/F ISSI Bldg., E. Jacinto St., UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City, email [email protected]@afs.org or log on to www.afs.ph)
 
Copyright 2009. Manila Bulletin | All Rights Reserved


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