In late September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana barreled into the Philippines, striking the Rizal province hard. It was one of a handful of devastating typhoons to strike the country that year, and it claimed more than 700 lives.
Five years later, the province is still recovering. On March 5, Jessica Cox, the world’s first pilot born without arms, and a Goodwill Ambassador for Handicap International visited Baras, Rizal. Baras is where Handicap International runs its REBUILD project, which helps people with disabilities, the elderly, and single mothers, most of whom were affected by Typhoon Ketsana in several ways.
Outgoing project manager Mary Grace Baban and her replacement Joana Villaflor, explained that REBUILD is empowering 250 vulnerable families, so that the families can improve their livelihoods and social opportunities. They also connect these families with health and psychosocial support, since the staff want to "support the whole person."
But before anything can be done, staff need teach people with disabilities about their rights and that they are valuable people—so many of them don't know this, Baban explained. To prepare to earn a living, Handicap International offers job training, business skills (making business plans, saving money, etc.) and other things like interview skills, and resume writing.
"It is amazing to see Handicap International's long-term investment in people with disabilities in the Philippines following disasters," Jessica said. "I saw HI's emergency work in Tacloban, and heard many people who were feeling uncertain about their futures and were hoping to find employment so they can rebuild their lives. In Baras, I saw how HI is rebuilding lives and teaching people with disabilities business skills, and connecting them with loans and employment opportunities. In a way, HI's coming in to a community is the silver lining of these typhoons."
Handicap International partners with SEED, a micro-finance provider, which gives people with disabilities mini loans to start or build small businesses. Most micro-finance companies in the Philippines will not give loans to people with disabilities. However, after being educated by Handicap International, SEED will.
Handicap International also works with the local disabled persons organizations to register people with disabilities in Baras and to advocate for their rights. The Philippines has passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but it still has a long way to go in terms of implementation. Also, most people still use negative words to describe people with disabilities, so a big part of the disabled persons organization’s work is educating others on how to treat people with disabilities. The third aspect of Handicap International's work is promoting accessibility and the rights of people with disabilities with the local government.
Jessica attracted large crowds wherever she went. In fact, at her second meeting, with the town’s mayor, a brass band played as she arrived. Baras Municipal Mayor Katherine Robles and her father met Jessica, and introduced her to a group of teachers who had just finished their training to teach sign language in the local schools.
The mayor spoke about what a hero Jessica was for inspiring people with disabilities in the Philippines and Jessica spoke about her experiences in Tacloban. Local artists then gave Jessica a little plane, complete with a mini Jessica in the cockpit.
At the office of the Baras Federation of People with Disabilities Association, which is supported by Handicap International, Jessica met local volunteers who are living with a disability, or have family members who are disabled. These volunteers go around the community to find and register people with disabilities, and connect them to services they might need. The organization counts more than 330 members. These volunteers educate other Baras residents on the proper terms to use for people with disabilities. Commonly, most "able-bodied" people are referred to as Buo, which means “whole”, whereas people with disabilities are called Sira, which means “missing something”. The organization is working hard to change that.
Later in the afternoon, Jessica we went out in to the community to meet some of Handicap International's beneficiaries. We'll report more on that tomorrow…