Shining through the haze
Ronaldo Vicente Rubio didn’t know what hit him.
When he was a child, he was physically clumsy and he could not contain himself.
“I seemed to be a wrecking ball in a jewelry store,” he told Cebu Daily News.
Rubio, a Filipino-American, felt strange and needed someone to understand his condition.
But even his own family considered him a mess and a curse.
Rubio was often ridiculed by his kin, and his father, a former U.S. navy officer, beat him frequently.
As a consequence, he had low self-esteem and very little confidence in himself.
“I felt so useless as a child. I was the black sheep of my family, and they could not figure me out,” Rubio said.
Later in his life, he found out that what he has is Aspergers, a form of autism or developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and communication.
Without any support from his family, Rubio finally decided to leave home. He was 16 years old then.
Amid doubts that he will never be accepted by society, he looked for a job and did his best to support his needs.
Persistence paid off when he was hired as a dishwasher in a restaurant.
He eventually picked up cooking and dancing as hobbies which he thought would bail him out of his predicament.
Along the way, he met some friends.
But his new found relationships were short-lived. All his peers left him after they noticed his strange behavior.
For Rubio, life needed to end at that point in time.
“I was so hopeless in trying to enjoy social interactions,” he says as he recalls his failed attempts to end his life.
It was then when he realized that perhaps he still had a mission to fulfill in life.
Instead of wallowing in misery, he broke out of the slump and decided to face the challenges head on.
Now in his 60s, Rubio engages people with autism and trains them to become productive members of society despite their condition.
Today, Rubio teaches dancing, music, martial arts, health and fitness.
He says that what surprised him most was his ability to deal with people with developmental needs.
His past miseries, he adds, were what propelled him to success.
“I have no regrets about having autism. I was born with autism and did not choose to have it. But I know I could not have been effective in my work as a mentor if I did not go through the pains in life,” says Rubio who once also worked with the Independent Living Learning Center in Cebu and Manila.
“I think it was because of the turmoil and abuse I suffered as a young boy that allowed me to put myself in anyone’s shoes and relate to their situation,” he adds.
Rubio has written and published two books: “The Odyssey of Woolly Mammoth Boy” and “Mind/Body Techniques for Asperger’s Syndrome.”
He is currently busy training people with autism in Hawaii, and hopes to return to the Philippines to serve the growing autism population in the country.
Dr. Jacqueline Jabonero-Espina, a developmental pediatrics specialist in Cebu City, says that to date, the Philippines doesn’t have any reliable data on the number of persons with mental disabilities.
Although they vary in degree, she says that mental disorders always affect the routine of a person. Among the common recorded mental disorders are autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities.
Amid advances in technology, Espina reveals that causes of mental disorders remain unknown until now although theories suggest that they are caused by an interplay of genetics and the environment.
“The world we live now is different from the world a hundred years ago. The intake of anything that is contaminated with pesticides, chemicals, and pollutants could contribute to mental disorders,” she says.
While there is no cure for mental disorders, Espina, a physician for 16 years, says that there are ways to address the condition to make a person more functional.
She says parents play a major role in the development of persons with mental disabilities.
“Parents should be involved in managing their children. They should realize that they have a very big impact on what the child is going to be in the future,” says Espina.
Lee Jennie, a retired U.S. Navy, believed that people with mental disabilities can bless the world.
To help special children reach their full potential, Jennie founded a school located in Barangay Looc in Mandaue City where students with mental disabilities can study for free.
The Adam Jennie’s Christian Center for Special Children (AJCC) opened in 2005 and continues to thrive each year. Just recently, the school changed its name to Heart Messick Learning Center Inc.
“My motivation has always been to prove to people that if you give persons with mental disabilities a chance, they can do it. I want people to start looking at them as normal persons. Just give them support and you would be shocked at what they can do,” he tells CDN.
To sustain the program, Jennie receives donations from his friends abroad.
When he was young, retired U.S. Navy Lee Jennie Lee would roam around the Filipino plantation in Hawaii.
Mesmerized by the place and the Filipino culture, he made up his mind to someday retire in the Philippines.
From his retirement pay, he wanted to buy a condominium for himself.
But while working for the Special Olympics—the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities—he realized that poor children with mental disabilities had no way to go to school.
Touched by their condition, he immediately decided to use his retirement pay to establish a school for them in Cebu to help special children reach their full potential.
“My biggest fulfillment is to see these people being cared for, seeing them actually get out of the situation they are in. We should always remember that they too want to be loved just the way we do,” he says.
Although they can’t live like normal children, Jennie says people with mental disabilities can be productive.
“They may be nuisance to some people but they are God’s blessing. The Lord set these children for us to learn patience and give us better understanding. Don’t just think that all we do is to teach them. We learn from them as well,” he said.
To make learning fun, Jennie includes multi-media interaction as part of the training.
“That’s the key. When we teach them the A, B, C. . ., we flip ‘A’, for example, on the screen and the colors come out. Using this procedure, they will not only know the letters but as well as colors. They have so much fun,” he says.
At AJCC, students are also taught the basics of proper hygiene, gardening, cooking, speech lessons, and livelihood skills.
Since it started operating 11 years ago, AJCC has helped at least 300 students with mental disabilities and is affiliated with 20 schools in Cebu which send interns to help the students.
“You can’t save the world, but you can help the world with a smile and just show them that you care,” he says.
Susan Villanueva, a volunteer at AJCC spends some of her time serving mentally-challenged students at AJCC. She refuses to receive any allowance.
“The more I spend time with these people, the more I see the real meaning of life. It’s all worth it. I was looking for something else only to find it here,” she says.
Villanueva, a midwife by profession and a graduate in Special Education (SPED), works as human resource officer of a private hospital. But she never forgets to visit the students at AJCC.
“They are so simple. We, normal people, dream of having this or of having that. But look at these kids, they dream of ordinary things and yet they are happy. You can see real happiness through their smiles,” she said.
Villanueva teaches students to do household chores which includes cooking. She has shared recipes like pastillas, banana cue, and munchkins with the students.
“They are here to learn. In the future, when their parents are gone, they can survive independently. They have their exceptional talent and you’ll learn something from them,” she says.
“All you can say is that God is really amazing. Although they are like that, they too are gifted with talents,” she adds.
Anyone who aspires to be a SPED teacher, she says, must have patience and passion for kids.
“If you want to be a SPED teacher just because it is the trend, it won’t work. You earn a lot of money but if you don’t have passion and love, it’s all useless. You won’t be happy,” says Villanueva.
BELIEVE IN THEM
Leah Quintana, regional information officer of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Central Visayas, says the government is doing its best not to turn a blind eye on persons with mental disabilities.
Despite their limitations, these persons, she says, should be given the chance to prove themselves and make the most of the skills they possess.
“They try to live against all odds. But despite their condition, I know they can contribute something to society. Let us give them the opportunity to prove themselves,” Quitana says.
“To us, they are an inspiration. We may differ from each other but all of us have a purpose in this world,” she adds.
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