(This post is also published in Rappler. See: The angels of Cottolengo)
Last December, I had the privilege of being with kids with special needs for my university’s senior immersion program. This is part of our requirement for our Theology of Catholic Social Vision class where we tackle social issues in the society and the role our spirituality plays in it. During my stay with the differently-abled kids, I was able to reflect on a lot of things about life – how we often take the smallest things for granted and how we are often unappreciative of what we have.
Initially, we were supposed to stay in the Maximum Bilibid Prison, but due to some concerns, we were moved to Cottolengo Filipino, a non-profit religious and non-government organization that caters to poor, abandoned, neglected and surrendered persons with disabilities. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that we were not allowed to stay overnight in the institution unlike in the other communities assigned to other seniors. Furthermore, I had been facing some personal issues and it led me to think that I would be too distracted to interact with the kids. But as I learned, one can never be distracted when with the differently-abled.
When I first saw the kids, I knew that I had a difficult weekend ahead. Some of them can’t walk and those who can have to be led around and guided at all times. It was difficult to communicate with most of them and some even had the tendency to be brutal. I was faced with fear – fear that my patience would run out, fear that I’ll get too irritated, fear that my immersion experience will not be as good as my other batch mates’. As the first day went through, however, I realized that the kids would help me more than I could help them. I knew then on that I they would affect my life more than I could affect theirs.
The first thing they taught me was gratitude. We have a tendency to take for granted even the smallest things that we can do and that we have. Have we ever been thankful for a morning walk, a conversation or a meal with our families? Have we ever appreciated the fact that we can eat, sing, dance and even, argue without someone guiding us?
Not all the time. Instead, we sulk at the smallest things like a failed exam, a missed meal or a disappointment. We overlook the fact that we can do so much without being dependent. We complicate our lives to the point where we find ourselves tangled because of our own doing. In my stay with the kids, I learned to be more grateful and appreciative of everything I have.
The second thing I learned from them is love. A lot of people have a stigma against kids with special needs. Some see them as incapable of any emotions and some, even as incomplete human beings. My experience with the kids taught me differently. They are as much humans as we are. They are more than capable of loving and hurting as we “normal” people are.
Because of my experience with them, I realized that love transcends everything. It might not always be communicated well, but love is something that we can still feel. Perhaps, it is possible to love regardless of distance and differences – that it is possible to love across boundaries.
During my three days of stay in Cottolengo, I felt that my kids, Gilbert and Michael, and I shared a connection. I felt their affection even though they expressed it differently. And I do hope that they felt the love I was able to give them. I know that I will forever treasure those moments with them.
The last thing I learned from the kids of Cottolengo is the value of action. I believe that we go through great experiences so that we might be inspired to move and be part of something bigger. The sad thing is that when we go through such experiences, we have a tendency to stagnate. Our experiences only become memories. They don’t really affect us.
I do not know yet what action I’ll be doing because of my three day experience with the kids. What I do know is that I’ll do something for them. I will not let my experience simply slip into one of my feel-good memories.
I guess my experience can be summed up with what our formator said before we left Cottolengo. He said that maybe it’s not just us immersing ourselves with the kids but they also immersed themselves in us. Perhaps, we need to have a bigger lens towards reality. Maybe we are not always the center and our perspectives are not always the right ones.
There’s a reason why they are called differently-abled. They do things differently from us but they are no different from us. The greatest thing we share is our common humanity even if we have different ways of acting it out.
To the kids of Cottolengo Filipino, especially Michael and Gilbert, thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn from you. Thank you for the chance to be immersed!
P.S. For those interested to know more about Cottolengo Filipino: http://cottolengofilipino.org/