A Dreamer of Widening Horizons

A Dreamer of Widening Horizons

by Stef Juan

There are many factors to consider in determining one’s calling. It could be inherent talent, an aptitude for a certain skill, a passion, an interest, or even economy. For occupational therapist and educator Professor Abelardo Apollo Ilagan David Jr.— “Teacher Archie” to his students at the Independent Living Learning Center (ILLC), Academia Progresiva de Manila (APDM) and the Rehabilitation and Empowerment of Adults and Children with Handicap (REACH) Foundation — early in his life, he found that he had a knack for spotting a need and coming up with creative solutions to address them.  When he was a child, he came up with games and activities for his siblings and cousins to keep them productive and happy. For his grandmother who had dementia, he assembled an album of photos arranged chronologically to help her remember.

But what cemented David to his calling is the warm feeling of satisfaction that he gets when he has made people happy. It was the “Awwww” feeling he got when his cousins didn’t want to go home yet because they were having fun with the activities he had made for them, and when his grandmother put his picture to the front of the album he made because she appreciated what he had done for her. We all know this feeling of joy and gratification, oftentimes it is reward enough after working hard worthwhile endeavors.

Little did David know that this happy feeling that he discovered in his childhood would take him to a path where he would eventually help hundreds of children with special needs and their families.

Going All In

David wanted to pursue medicine as a profession so he took up Occupational Therapy (OT) at the University of the Philippines Manila for his premed course. However, it didn’t take him too long to decide that he had found what he wanted to do in life already in Occupational Therapy. He didn’t have to pursue medical school anymore.

“As an occupational therapy intern, we had to rotate in different settings,” David shares. “There was stroke rehab, a psychiatric facility, a pediatric clinic for children with developmental conditions, the geriatric population — across the age spectrum and disability groups. This was meant for us not just to be a generalist, but to also find for ourselves where our passions are. I discovered that it’s really kids for me. Kids with developmental conditions — autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy — those are the people  that I wanted to serve.”

After graduation, David accepted a full-time teaching position at the College of Allied Medical Professions (CAMP) at the University of the Philippines - Manila. . This position also gave him the opportunity to take up his Masters degree in Occupational Therapy at the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia where he also worked as a part-time lecturer. He was given an offer to stay there and work, but he knew he had to come back to the Philippines with everything that he had learned to establish health and therapy programs here.  As one of the few Filipino Occupational Therapists with a Masters in OT degree at that time, he helped develop the University of the Philippines’ Masters of Rehabilitation Science Program. Ultimately in 2014, he was a lead OT faculty who developed and taught the University of Sto. Tomas’ Master of Occupational Therapy Program.

In his mid twenties,  his mother sat him down for a Talk. She wanted to ask him what his plans were in becoming financially independent. A professor’s pay wasn’t that high and she noticed that he took the leftovers in the refrigerator every time he went home to the province on weekends. “She had a point,” he concedes. He could have gone abroad or even started his own private practice to earn more money, but David had bigger dreams for his profession.

“One of the most gratifying experiences that I’ve had in UP as a faculty member was heading the Clinic for Therapy Services (CTS),” David continues. “Usually the clientele there are families from PGH, those who can’t really afford private therapy.” Eventually, he found that many of the children were fast outgrowing the programs offered at the clinic.

This realization prompted David to propose a new program for the college. While the college liked his proposal, they didn’t have the resources to support it. “But I felt very passionate about it,” David shares. “So, I thought: Ok, why not set up the program using whatever resources that I have at that time?

But even with his financial concerns, David’s life savings were just enough to start a small school to put his program to work. “Good thing my family taught me to save all the birthday presents, graduation gifts, Christmas gifts in my bank account,” he shares. “I even saved the money I earned from teaching in UP and UQ — by raiding my parents’ pantry,” he sheepishly adds.

So with the blessing of the Dean of his college, David started Independent Living Learning Center with all the money he had saved. “It gambled — well, I think you don’t lose anything when you do what you are passionate about. I guess it was an investment,” he says. He turned down offers from other investors, explaining that he wanted to do it on his own first so there would be no pressure from anyone else. The direction and vision would only come from him. He shrugs and adds, “If it doesn’t work for whatever reason, I was still young and I could recover.”

Small Beginnings

At 26, David started ILLC with just four students. He rented a small property along Wack Wack Road in Mandaluyong City for the school. From his initial computations, he needed at least 10 students to meet his overhead expenses, but after an orientation with the families of his first potential students, most of them backed out. “The program was too unconventional for them,” he recalls. But because the four families who remained had already deferred their slots in their previous schools and counted on him, David still continued with the school.

“Thankfully, the other parents were just on a wait and see mode,” he continues. “They needed a proof of concept first. When they saw that the four had a good experience in the school, enrollment grew exponentially. The four became eight, the eight became 16. We grew until we had to expand and rent the adjacent property.”

Two years after ILLC was established in Mandaluyong, David opened a branch in Cebu. After another two years, he opened ILLC Davao.

While ILLC’s population grew fast, he couldn’t develop the facilities to keep up with their growth because he didn’t own the property. David set a goal that in ILLC would have a permanent home in 10 years. Sure enough, in 2013, they acquired a suitable and more spacious property and moved to the school’s present location in Mandaluyong.

Reaching for More

“When I was starting ILLC, I had so much time in my hands because I only had four students. I felt that I wasn’t optimizing myself,” David says, introducing his other projects. “Coming from the University of the Philippines, we’re taught to be service-oriented, to pay it forward.” At around the same time as ILLC, David started a foundation called the Rehabilitation and Empowerment of Adults and Children with Handicap (REACH) Foundation which aimed to establish community-based rehabilitation and education programs in other areas of the Philippines.

So he approached the city government of Mandaluyong to see if he could get a referral from them to start a community based program to help children with special needs. With the City’s backing, the foundation   tied up with  a charitable organization called Hands of Mercy. The organization worked and had a multipurpose place in the middle of an informal settlement in Mandaluyong. At first, he went there by himself to see the children every Friday morning. But the number of children needing therapy grew, to the point that he couldn’t accommodate them anymore. So he trained members of Hands of Mercy and some of the mothers in the community to be his assistants.

David taught himself to write grants to fund the project. He won his first  grant from a competition organized by the World Bank called “Panibagong Paraan: Building partnerships with the local government.” The funding came from the Australian government. “The idea was to set up a community based therapy program using that seed money, but to sustain it, we made sure that the local government would absorb it after we have set it up successfully,” he explains. They collaboratively defined “success” with the local government and signed a memorandum of agreement for the city to fund the project when the money from the grant is depleted. “The city kept its word and absorbed the project. Now the community based program called  Project Therapy, Education Assimilation of Children with Handicap (TEACH) is fully-funded by the city.”

A beneficiary community in Mandaluyong, Philippines 

Project TEACH has earned recognition from the Department of Health, Department of Interior and Local Government, National Government  and the United Nations as a best practice model. “I feel confident that the program will stay even if ever there will be a change in administration  because the government  has  already seen its  impact. Besides, we have lobbied for the signing of ordinances that got Project TEACH recognized by the local government as a fundamental health program,” David says. “That’s the benefit of getting awards, I think. Those awards we got, those are jewels of the city and the communities we have empowered.” People from other local government units have come to Mandaluyong to study and to replicate the model. They have interns from other countries coming in to study how they empower the community and how the community program was organized. And to learn from how they manage to stretch the resources that they had as well.“REACH Foundation grew because of the local governments who looked into it and implemented the model in different communities,” David continues.

Project TEACH includes facilities for physical therapy

More than two thousand kids have set foot in ILLC since 2003, either for therapy, schooling, tutorials, or home programs. But David dared to dream bigger and work harder, for there is still a lot more to be done.

“Five years ago, I asked myself what we still need in the program. We had early intervention therapy services , work placement program for adults, but we didn’t have is mainstreamed education,” David continues, “Other than giving our differently abled kids the opportunity to be mainstreamed, I thought that if our methods in teaching special kids work, all the more with typically developing kids. We would be able to teach them to be independent, if this is how we demonstrate our patience and creativity, personalized instruction.” So he set up a regular school: Academia Progresiva de Manila (APDM).

APDM is a progressive regular school with a focus on inclusion and mainstreaming. Students of APDM who are typically developing have a better attitude towards diversity. They grow up alongside differently-abled students who have autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, so it was normalized for them. “They have learned to be more compassionate, respectful, kind,” David says proudly. “Sometimes I feel that we go overboard with inclusion and mainstreaming. We give sensitivity training from Day One, as early as preschool. Our teachers are trained to work with kids with special needs because they are included in the classroom. The Department of Education (DepEd) — despite APDM being a new school — has come over to benchmark our inclusion and mainstreaming practices, so I guess our emphasis was just right.”

ILLC and APDM have a socialized tuition fee system to allow students who would otherwise be unable to afford to go to a private school would be given a chance to go. But even then, David recognizes that there would still be families who wouldn’t be able to afford even their smallest tuition bracket, so he set out to strengthen the public sector to address this need. The REACH Foundation met with the Mayor of Mandaluyong and worked with line agencies, including DepEd and DSWD, to come up with a cost-effective way to provide quality early childhood, special and inclusive education  even for the poorest of the poor.

REACH Foundation, through Project TEACH, currently renders about    Php 10,000,000 a year 1 worth of treatments available for free to indigent families in the community. There are volunteer specialists in development pediatrics and rehabilitation sciences who see the value to their own private practice in helping with the community program. Parents are empowered by the training provided to be their children’s own therapists at home.

Because there are  sectors of society outside the cities that need access to therapy, David co-founded  a  program called TheraFree alongside with the University of the Philippines College of Allied Medical Professions Alumni Association (UP-CAMPAA) in 2002. . It organizes volunteer therapists — originally exclusively from UP CAMPAA, but eventually other therapists from other universities joined as well — and deploys them to remote and rural communities. They conduct screenings to determine the needs of the differently-abled children and adults alike and teach them home programs with the materials written in Filipino. Serving as UP-CAMPAA President in 2016, David reenergized TheraFree by forging a partnership with  with Unilab Foundation. TheraFree now has over 700 hundred professionals in its roster of volunteers and has 23 partner site provinces nationwide.

David led the creation of   TheraCon, a pioneering bi-annual conference organized for and by therapists. Unilab provides the venue for it at the Bayanihan Center and the conference’s revenue is used to fund Therafree activities.

Already this is a long body of work for someone who is only 42 years old. But David is only grateful for the opportunities and doors that have opened to him to make all of these possible. “Who am I for Unilab,international funding agencies, the Mayor of Mandaluyong City and other local governments and line agency heads to  pay attention to me?” he says at the end of the discussion on the work he is doing now. “They have seen that the concept is solid, viable. The awards help. They open doors.” It is a long list of awards, but he shrugs, “At first, I was apprehensive about going for them, do we really need them? But I immediately saw the opportunities that were made available to me when I received the Apolinario Mabini Presidential Award and the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines (TOYM). It’s like they looked at me differently and people that I have approached were more receptive and welcoming.”

Continuing work

He sees his work, and even learning, as far from finished. At present, he has just graduated from the Equity International’s Atlantic Fellowship Health Equity program. “It has really broadened my perspective on health,” he says. “Not just through the formal modules or training activities being conducted, but also from the interactions that I get from other fellows. Since we’re all very passionate about our work, it feeds our motivation and our spirits.”

The collaboration among the fellows has enriched David’s own work and he feels that the privilege to be a part of this group of people is a blessing that compels him to pay it forward.

At the end of the program, David’s project, in partnership with another fellow from Myanmar, is to produce Diversity and Inclusion Modules for Preschool and Late Elementary Students — DIMPLES, for short. Winning a funding grant from the Atlantic Institute and the AusAide,  it’s an ambitious undertaking but David is excited for it.

“These modules are designed to teach typically developing children in ASEAN countries to be more respectful of diversity and differences, and to be more inclusive. Now, the focus of inclusive education and mainstreaming are teachers — and rightly so. But the important component of a school ecosystem that is being neglected are the classmates. That’s where bullying happens,” David says. “So this is the objective of the project. We researched on what values that have to be taught, what are the instructional materials that are appropriate for  each  grade level. We consulted experts, we had focus group discussions, literature review.”

David, his partner and his team  have developed  evidence-based instructional materials such as  songs, cartoons, videos, storybooks, arts and crafts projects, storytelling, role playing, and lectures for pre and grade school students. These were piloted in private and public schools in the Philippines and Myanmar. A research on the effectiveness of these modules were presented in the International Developmental Pediatrics Association Congress and was awarded the Perla D. Santos Ocampo Research Award. The aspiration  is to have the modules shared to more  private and public schools in the Philippines, Myanmar and other ASEAN countries.

Archie at a local government community center, Mandaluyong, Philippines

A legacy of inclusion

When it comes to success in his line of work, one can cite the awards, recognition, and grants given to his initiatives, but David has a different definition for it. “Ultimately, really, success is seeing a more inclusive society,” he replies. “Not just for persons with disability, but also for others who are marginalized because of their faith, their gender orientation, or economic status.”

When talking about his legacy, he admits that he’s still too young to say that he has one. It hasn’t been a conscious effort, he admits. But he hopes that one day, there would be a transition of leadership for all the organizations that he had started. “I don’t want all of these dependent on me, on one personality,” he explains. “I want this to be institutionalized. So when the time comes when I can’t do this anymore, or I’m not available, the programs would outlive me.”

This is why he now happily reports that he could afford to have free time on weekends now. He could take leaves on extended periods, like for when EI sends him somewhere for two weeks. “I don’t have to worry,” he says. “I’m very lucky with my team.”

The goal for the programs to continue without him has been there from the start. This is why he had set up the Davao and Cebu ILLC branches early on. To see if the programs could be replicated without him. He is also writing manuals to document the processes that have worked for the past 16 years.

In his office in ILLC, there is a stainless metal pitcher on his desk. It’s a memorable pitcher, he says. It tells a story of his student, John, who has cerebral palsy. “In ILLC, we teach our students simple yet effective compensatory methods and we taught him how to put his elbow on the table for stability when holding a pitcher. One day, I saw him hesitating to pour himself a glass of water at a corner in the kitchen. Eventually, he was able to do it without spilling a drop!”

He continues, “I saw on his face that he was looking for someone to celebrate with so I went up to him and confessed that I had seen the whole thing. He stood up and hugged me. He said, ‘I poured water for myself without spilling it!’ From then on, he learned how to button his shirt, tie his own shoe laces. He helped cook scrambled eggs. His mom was so proud! She told me that he even helps around the house now.” David smiles. “It’s those wins. John tells others he learned how to pour water for himself from a pitcher in ILLC. He will carry the story of this place with him.”

He looks at the pitcher on his table again and murmurs, “I guess, that’s a legacy too.”

Postscript

Since the COVID19 pandemic, Archie has actively supported the Philippines’ crisis response and recovery. He was invited by the Department of Education to sit as a member of its EducForum, a multi sectoral council that works towards ensuring quality and accessible education for all Filipino children during the period of distance education.    In May 2020, he co-founded Occupassion, a global platform that actively helps Filipino and international Occupational Therapists  to widen their perspectives and skills as the health care industry shapes its new norms through online continuing learning activities and professional dialogues. Archie served as a speaker for several webinars including How COVID-19 burdened Equity in Education and Health for Special Needs Children, alongside EI Fellow Nila Tanzil, and Risna Utami of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities in July 2020. He also served as a speaker and panelist at Naga City’s and HELP Learning Center Foundation Inc.’s Virtual Conference: Persons With Downs Syndrome Transitioning to Adulthood. In November 2020, he was invited to speak at the Philippine Pediatric Society’s Annual Convention on Life Skills Education of Children with Disabilities for Independent Living. Together with the Atlantic Fellows in the Philippines, Archie coordinated  community consultations on suicide prevention among children, and collaborated on potential interventions, particularly those applicable in remote local governments.