The Davao School for the Blind became our newest beneficiary in 2016. (By “our” I mean, Philippine International Aid or PIA, the foundation we started more than 30 years ago.) It was highly recommended by one of our Board members. It was my first time to visit the school last Valentine’s Day.
I did not expect a sprawling compound when we entered the school’s driveway. There are several buildings for classrooms, dormitories for boys and girls, a chapel, the principal’s office, library, music room, clinic, computer room, a mini-grocery stor, and a “community center” where the dinner-dance was to take place that evening.
A group of students huddled by the entrance of the community center, expecting some visitors (my cousin and me), and another group was in the center of the room, all wearing blue T-shirts and sunglasses, each one carrying a musical instrument. In other projects I have visited, the children usually prepared a dance number to show their appreciation. This time, I was blown away by what greeted me.
Close to 30 blind students played “You Raise Me Up” and my eyes welled up. Not only was this song such an unexpected surprise, but their performance was really quite good. The band included such instruments as trumpets, trombones, guitars, flutes, keyboards, drums, French horns and saxophones. The only instruments missing were violins.
For about an hour, the students performed many popular songs from movie themes like the “Pink Panther” to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Some of the students also sang. It was such an incredible experience, not only because of the circumstances, but also because they were playing only for me! I thought they were rehearsing for the evening’s dance, but the principal said, “No. This selection is only for you. Tonight, there will be more love songs.”
The band’s teacher, Donald Gundaya, is not blind, but he is afflicted with polio. Despite this handicap, Gundaya shows up at the Davao School for the Blind every Monday, as he has for the past four years to pass on his interest in music to the visually impaired students. It took him two years to teach 27 blind children a particular instrument, merely through sound. The orchestra is aptly called One Light Music Orchestra.
Consider for instance, the additional challenge Gundaya faced with some of the children:
John Dave Bughao, the drummer, was born with vision on both eyes until an injury at two years old left his right eye blind, and at five years old, he became totally blind.
Alferny Troy V. Torres, the keyboardist, was born with cerebral palsy that affected both his eyes, but he is a talented musician.
Jefferson B. Galdiano, lead guitarist, was born in Agusan del Sur with congenital cataracts. He was adopted by a Catholic priest after his parents abandoned him.
Edmond C. Montecillio, baritone sax, was born in Bukidnon, also with congenital cataracts and became blind at 11 years old.
Monique Granaderos, alto sax, became totally blind when she was 15 from congenital glaucoma. She also has a brother in school with the same condition.
The Davao School for the Blind was established 35 years ago. It's main funder was the Hildesheim Blinden Mission in Germany until three years ago when funding was cut by 50 percent. Today the funds from Hildesheim is only enough to pay for salaries of the teachers and staff.
The school is undergoing a transition phase due to reduced foreign funding, a new Board of Directors and a dismissed executive director. For now though, the school is in good hands with principal Lolita Inocentes and Dr. Meg Antonio, a leading ophthalmologist in Davao. Surprisingly, many prominent residents of Davao are not even familiar with the school.
There are 50 students in Davao School for the Blind ranging from 7 to 22 years old, from prep to Grade 9, and it is the only facility for blind children in the whole of the Mindanao region. Most of the children have been abandoned by their parents for being blind. The leading causes of blindness are poor nutrition (lack of Vitamin A due to poverty), measles, premature births and cataract (which is largely a preventable condition but due to poverty, is not treated until it is too late).
The school hopes the blind students will be better prepared to stand on their own rather than be totally dependent on society. A few of them have gone on to pursue college and master’s degrees. Some are gainfully employed as teachers, transcriptionists and computer technicians. Those who do not go to college become massage therapists. The school's motto is "That hands may learn to see."
One of their extracurricular activities is to play basketball. Huh? But this is how they play: A bell is placed inside the ball, and the goal also has a ring in it. The players listen to where the sound is coming from. What about computers? They use Braille technology. Social Media? Facebook has been working with the American Foundation for the Blind to make it more accessible to the blind and visually impaired people. A number of students at the Davao School for the Blind have Facebook accounts.
Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”The students at Davao School for the Blind expresses that which they cannot see through music, and hope that you can speak up for them.