ATE GEL FERNANDEZ is the president of the Queen of Angels Praesidium of the Junior Legion of Mary in the Holy Spirit Parish. She and fiance Jay Tolentino have been preparing for their altar date this year since February this year oand thought the idea fair, fun, generous and getting-it-together if, instead of buying souvenir give-aways for their wedding, they allocate the budget instead for an outreach activity that would gather all the special-needs wards at the Sacred Heart Center on Lilac Street (behind the Good Shepherd Cathedral Shrine). That Center* is dear and near to Ate Gel’s mother, Geraldine (Sister Gelly), from way, way back when most of those wards were still practical kids. Legionaries from the Holy Spirit Parish visit the Center on a periodic basis to conduct catechism through music. In accord with the Legion of Mary instruction manual of paired-off apostolic work, they catechize the children who (at least those who are not physically impaired to act out simple song-and-dance exercises) would mimic them to near perfection. Sister Gelly was – is – a legend in the art of charming and disarming mentally-challenged children, having a youngest son, Mateo, who has Down Syndrome and is now twelve years old. Those twelve years of loving, nurturing, convergent care for the core of six siblings were more than enough material for the couple to celebrate a private engagement but they chose to include the likes of Mateo’s qualities and contemporaries. I will personally insist to do more than doff my hat to that noble act.
It was early August when they booked the place. Most of those who came were from their wedding entourage.
There were sponsors who pledged McDo food and other favors and provisions. Perennial outreach volunteer host, Jun, was instantly all over the place warming the crowd with his infectious energy and winsome charm. Mariz Dearoz and Cathy Maulit organized an art activity which many participated in earnestly, energetically and enthusiastically.
As in most sessions with the children, Sister Gelly called on me to lead the opening prayer-cum-action “Beautiful.” That the children still knew the song (I was away for more than two years) struck me as shockingly too beautiful to be true. Then Ate Gel said Grace and no sooner had she finished than the volunteers among the multitude (as if on cue) trooped to the kitchen to distribute food. It was a blessed bayanihan of sorts, blending wedding and wonderment blessings in a joyful hub of cheerful service and gracious camaraderie between and among server and served. The convergence of grace and goodwill could not have augured a more auspicious felicitation for Jay and Gel’s upcoming union.
The kids had a grand time joining the games the team organized without the caveat of disqualification after having joined – win or lose – one game.
There were January birthday celebrators among the children (Roy, for one) and Ate Gel’s fellow legionary, namesake Ate Gel Rivera, and kins Ramon and Apple Soriano, so the cake-blowing ceremony was a collective fun chore. The community singing
had the children dancing (an automatic, natural impulse for them) to the classics Pagibig Ni Hesus, Tanging Buhay Ko and “Give Thanks.” The last number, like the beautiful “Beautiful,” has become the Center’s anthem of sorts it was easy to understand why the children not only knew the words by heart but also acted them out like my absence never happened.
Even without accompaniment, Tish, younger sister of Ate Gel, braved an a capella of Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and no one needed to prod hearing-impaired Roy to sing along with her. That encouraged some in the audience to join in, the result a cutesy concoction of Tish’s smiling soprano, Roy’s rougish bravado (despite his Down Syndrome) and the others sounding like an impromptu backup. The exercise had everybody smiling, just the way the song meant, sincerely, childlike, special, apt, endearing and amazingly in sync with the event.
That was not all. Kuya Benjie soon announced that there will be McDo bags of “looties” for everyone to take home. Like a reward for everyone’s presence and participation in the grand occasion.
It was hard to find a face that was not lit up and aglow in the Sacred Heart terrace that was open like all outdoors. The celebratory sharing of time, talent and treasure was evident on all those who came to simply spend them with the “little ones'” and their benefactors. Most of all, no one could have missed the other significant reason for that well-spent morning
- Mateo and the others like him. They were all-smiling and all over the place like the blessings that were similarly everywhere and merely at everyone’s fingertips. No one needed to reach out. The very essence of the outreach.
* The Sacred Heart Center began in 1995, when the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence (Guanellian Sisters) opened their house (in BF Homes, Holy Spirit, Quezon City) to the very poor and disabled who live in depressed areas around the village. The Sisters operate in 17 countries around the world. They have dedicated their lives to God for charity’s cause. In the Philippines, St. Mary serves the elderly, persons with disabilities, less fortunate children and youth. They spent several years looking for a permanent foundation for their work which was rapidly thriving in BF Homes alone. God intervened. Negotiations with the Vergara Family, who owned what used to be a college dorm, resulted in the purchase of the building, now officially named the Sacred Heart Center. It is now a haven for 175 children, teenagers and young adults and a number of stroke parients and 33 normal, poor children who are provided tutorial and feeding programs daily.
The staff is headed by Sr. Eleonor Rosare, with the able support of her fellow daughters of St. Mary, teachers, staff, benefactors and friends.
By Abraham de la Torre