Monday, January 23, 2017

"The Impact of the Ripples...."

“A hero is somebody who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

Capes are uncomfortable in the tropical rainforest-like temperatures and humidity of the Philippine Islands. Even if they were more comfortable, it is a given that John Paul Maunes wouldn’t wear one.

He doesn’t see himself as a hero: he’s just sharing his gifts with the community. A promise he made to a friend many years ago. His work with the deaf and persons with disabilities has been far reaching and ever evolving and it started as a young boy.

John Paul, or J.P. as he prefers, resides in Cebu, an island and surrounding others of over four million people, where he grew up with a brother and a sister. “All my life I was raised by people with disabilities.” J.P. says. “My Mom has a disability. She was a doctor and was working in the community and one day, on her way to the community she was on the bus and the bus got into an accident and she almost lost her two legs. I also grew up living in the same house with my Uncle who has a mental illness. Growing up among them you can hear a lot of negative things and that was hard for me as a child to grow up in that environment.”

“When you go to school and there’s a family day and you can see all the kids and their parents playing the games together and you just sit here with your parent; it’s hard because you cannot do the same things as your classmates because your Mom has difficulty moving around or she cannot do physical activities. In the neighborhood I was often teased by my friends about how my Mom would walk. It was painful.” He has struggled reconciling how he and his Mom and Uncle were treated now he is working as an advocate for people like them. “All I saw was a loving mother; I was raised by a loving mother: a Mom and a doctor who was taking care of poor patients in a community and by a loving Uncle.”

J.P. was a normal boy in Cebu. He loved soccer and basketball and played as often as possible around school but beginning high school, his world became a prison. “When I was 14 years old I was diagnosed with chronic granuloma. They told me there was a lesion in my head and they had to remove it and I had to take medication. I was 14; I loved to play soccer, I loved to play basketball, I loved to go out and then suddenly they tell you that you can’t go out and play and do what regular kids do.”

His condition gave him seizures and often landed him in the hospital. “The first time I can remember I was sent to the hospital, I felt my Mom’s finger in my mouth and she was trying to resuscitate me. She told me I was not breathing anymore. The next thing I know, I was already in the hospital and then there was a Doctor in my room telling me, ‘You are not a regular kid anymore. You have to take medicine; you can’t play your regular sports. You can’t play basketball; you can’t play soccer or swim. You have to just stay at home.’ That was the most disenfranchising moment of my life.”

It was out of this darkest time in his childhood that J.P. would befriend someone that would inspire and revise his life forever; his deaf neighbor Peter Paul. “It was my entire childhood in high school. I was second year in high school and so I had this medication and I had difficulty adjusting it and a few months after I met this deaf guy, Peter Paul. We were the same age and he was playing basketball and he invited me: ‘C’mon, lets’ play, let’s shoot some balls.’ I told him I couldn’t play and he said, ‘No, what’s your problem?’ That’s the time I started to play after so many months being confined to my room, I started to play basketball and he told me he’d give me a sign name and he gave me the sign name of ‘Michael Jordan’ when we played basketball. He told me, ‘You’ll be my playmate every afternoon here,’ so that was the most empowering moment I had after being diagnosed with that medical condition.”

J.P. credits Peter Paul with teaching him sign language and getting him back on his feet once again. “He taught me how to take life positively and knowing also he was there and had a permanent disability I had a reflection: How could I feel so sorry about my suffering? Here is this guy with a permanent disability who was disabled from the first place so I think it’s only a matter of mentality and how people see you.”

J.P.’s new inner strength was tested right away. ‘When we were 17, Peter Paul had an accident and passed away. The day before he passed away, I saw him. It’s still quite mysterious. I ran home and my house was empty and our neighbor told us that my parents and family were in his house and when I arrived at his house, I had the surprise of my life when I saw his mother crying and my parents crying and I said what’s happening and she told me that he passed away in an accident.”

Peter Paul’s influence in J.P. was deeply ingrained already but J.P. recalled one of the last conversations he had with his best friend. “Just days before he died, he was telling me I needed to volunteer in the community and that people were needing help and how I was one of the few people who know how to communicate in sign language. For me, I did not really want to, I just wanted to sign with him and communicate and he said no, you have to. It’s a God-given talent; it’s a gift and you have to share it with the community and I told him I would think about it. So after that happened, the day of his burial, I told myself… I promised myself, I promised him that I would serve the community. That was the first time I engaged myself in the community and I was looking for communities and organizations and I found one community in Cebu which introduced me to the deaf community in Cebu and that started my journey.”

J.P. became a registered nurse and tried to balance his advocacy for the deaf community with his workload. When he finally decided to give up nursing and work full time for the deaf and persons with disabilities, his family reacted badly to his decision to walk away from a career and follow his passion. “My dream was to become a doctor to follow in the positive footprints of my parents but later I realized that you don’t have to really study medicine and heal people to change people’s lives. It’s only a part of it. Healing the lives of people is more of a spiritual thing and being able to give impact to them. That has been the journey I have been through. Half of my life I lived with people with disabilities and I realized that every person has their own purpose and I think when I started to search for mine, I found myself. I ended up here in this advocacy and maybe everything has a meaning and everything has a reason that it’s happening in your life and I think that’s one of those things that had me engage in this purpose.”

For the last decade or so, J.P. has spread himself throughout the deaf and disabled community. He started a foundation and worked with local governments to bring attention to the widespread sexual abuse among deaf women and children. He was instrumental in putting sign language interpreters on the evening news in Cebu and his help in making polling places easier for the deaf and disabled to access lead to a large uptick in that population’s voting in the 2016 Philippine presidential election. He launched a program called PADS (Philippine Accessible Deaf Services) and has used that to bring sports into the lives of the deaf and persons with disabilities. He has started a ‘Dragon Boat’ program with the help of others that allows his deaf and persons with disabilities to row, side by side, working together in an ultimate team environment, propelling a 40 foot wooden canoe through Cebu Bay. Male, female, deaf, blind, disabled: are having and continuing to compete and practice going forward. 

In October, J.P. was also instrumental in bringing in sitting volleyball to his groups. Teachers, coaches and athletes participated and learned the basics. As he watched the persons with disabilities start to play and laugh and compete, he became very emotional.

“I can still remember it like it just happened yesterday. Since I started working for people with disabilities, I had never had the chance to see them really play and engage in sports. There are times in festivals and things that they get invited to play basketball but not as a serious sport, as more of just entertainment of people with disabilities. It was like a circus show and I really don’t like that, I don’t like seeing that. When we started to organize sitting volleyball, that was the first time I saw them by themselves being human beings, being able to fully participate in a sport where people see them not just as a person with special needs but as an athlete.”

“That was so empowering to witness that particular moment in my life and hearing them laugh, I think that laugh came from the heart. I have never heard them laugh. That’s why I couldn’t contain myself because it was the loudest laugh I heard and I think they felt so dignified playing a sport. I think I was so thankful to give them a chance to become a bridge in restoring their dignity of the people we have trained in sitting volleyball. Even up to now, I still see them and most of the guys are now part of our dragon boat team. There’s this burning fire in their eyes every time we see each other. That’s something that you don’t see every day. It’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss and thinking about that day.”

The planning that goes into J.P.’s programs is voluminous and so many of the people on the planning side of things never got to see the fruition of their labor. “I think it’s a rare moment from the planning and then to see how it unfolds and being able to feel the feedback; the impact of the lives and how we were able to change lives of people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience that for me, not all people will be able to experience and I was just so grateful for that moment.”

Leo Tolstoy once said talking about charity that people who think they can’t make a difference are short sighted: “Add your light to the sum of light.” He said. For J.P., that is what gets him through the struggle he faces each and every day. “It’s so challenging, like walking in empty halls. It’s so lonely out there; being able to talk to people, trying to convince them. If only I had more skill I could do more. It’s so difficult, so hard. Every day I always think about this mission of being able to set up the sporting programs. My great motivation was when I was able to come to the United States a few months ago and able to see with my very own eyes how things are going out there and then saying yes, I can do this in the Philippines. How people there started from the ground up and if they have done, I can do it too. I may not be able to see the bigger picture later on because I have to pass it on but something has to start somewhere else and it’s so challenging right now.”
But the light continues and sitting volleyball has become a lynchpin in getting persons with disabilities involved in sport. “In Mandaue City where we had our first sitting volleyball clinic, I am so happy they have allocated the funds for a clinic and a tournament this coming summer of 2017. Also, the department of education and particularly the city of Mandaue has communicated to us and wants us to conduct more clinics for the students. So they are very eager to integrate sitting volleyball here. Also a few weeks ago we organized a small clinic for sitting beach volleyball.”


“One of our participants, who broke her leg a few months ago, was sitting there on the beach watching us. We were able to get her to play and she was another reason we realized why we play adaptive sports. One of the participants who was in Washington D.C. works for the Sports for Change program and she told me that while there are a lot of discussions in the U.S. about where this is going, it was the first time she saw it unfold with her very own eyes: the impact of sports on the people, on the members of the community, There’s a lot of discussions in the U.S. where they are doing it and you can literally see that happening here.” Because of this, J.P. has been invited to a conference in Florida over the summer to talk about his programming and share his successes with his U.S. colleagues.

“I was so happy to hear that and to share with her the different experiences, the stories of the people that we engage through our sporting program; it drew a lot of interest. It’s so nice to see people talking about adaptive sports, more people getting involved in these disability programs and the growing interest here in what sitting volleyball looks like. Since we inaugurated it here a few months ago, there has been a growing interest in our community about how are they going to engage and learn about it. I am trying to fix my schedule right now to organize a few more sitting clinics. We are talking to the guys who provided us with the volleyballs and maybe they can invite more people to come here to Cebu and organize a volleyball clinic for the officials and for the volleyball stations so we can collaborate with them and their sporting programs to include sitting volleyball. I’m really excited about 2017 and just so happy about the acceptance of people with disabilities working program. I hope to do more and I hope to provide more engagements of people with disabilities and programs where we can work together.”

For J.P. sans cape, he continues his work tirelessly. “My motivation is in the faces of the people we have been meeting in these past few months. If I turn back on this mission, I turn back on them. That keeps me going, thinking about them, thinking about the smiles and all the laughter that we have experienced the past few months. It motivated me to do more. The feeling is so good that you get addicted to it, no matter how difficult it is.”

His work requires him to knock on hundreds of doors a week, looking for help, looking for volunteers and venues and taking constant steps to grow the advocacy. “Financially, when the person or the organization would say no to you, it’s just another person but I know there are thousands more out there for me to get connected and to hear the stories of these amazing people. It doesn’t matter if they cannot help financially but we tell the same story and they feel ripples, the impact of the ripples. I still think that someone someday will knock on my door and tell me hey, let’s work together and start something from what you started. I’m waiting for that day to come. I also know I cannot do it alone. I need people with me, my team, everyone. They say it takes a community to raise a child and I believe that philosophy. It’s not about one person; it’s about the community taking ownership. For me, I try to plant the seed and convince people. Convince more people to play this sport and share this beautiful moment and the experience I have. I think our world here is sharing a really good feeling and it’s just one step at a time.”

While he is driven by promises made in his youth, and by the faces and the ripples, J.P. is not without sadness at times, thinking about what he has sacrificed to follow his passion. When he faces those demons, he looks into the eyes of his newest motivation: his son. “Being able to work in the community doesn’t really have a lot of financial support, it’s hard. You live by the day. And being around 30 and I’m already in the middle stages of my life, the reality is that I may not be able to give him the luxuries compared to that of other parents. But I think the legacy that I can give him is a better future for him regardless of what happens to him. The thing that I am doing now, he’ll be able to recognize it. If something would happen to me tomorrow, am I sure my children would have a better future compared to what I went through when I was a young boy? The people I meet and the things that I see will happen to my child and my children’s children and that’s the main motivation.”

“It’s the purpose of why I am here right now.”

“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It's something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.”
—Vince Lombardi (1913-1970)   Athletic Coach

If you would like to help J.P. and his work, you can donate to his organization P.A.D.S.