FOR the last 24 years, Lanie Vergara has been actively advocating for Down Syndrome Awareness among Dabawenyos.
With the further studies on special education (Sped) she completed and the activities and projects spearheaded, one can say that Vergara is really best suited for this advocacy. This February, as the nation is celebrating the National Down Syndrome Awareness month, Vergara looks back to the last 24 years of her life having spent for this advocacy.
After working as a hospital nurse right after graduation, Vergara also worked as a medical representative. That was when she heard that the Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines Inc. (DSAPI) was looking for a manager in their Davao City branch.
"Nagesign ko sa pagka med rep to work as branch manager of the association in 1997. After a year, I took a course in special education, got two master's degrees in Sped. One is from the University of Southeastern Philippines (Usep) for Med Exceptional Children, and the other one Master's Degree in Sped on Rehabilitation Psychology at Kumamoto University through a Japanese government scholarship," Vergara shared.
As if these educational attainments weren't enough, she is also currently taking up her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU), hoping that her academic background will further enable her to help people with Down Syndrome, as well as raise awareness to their families and educators. Right now, she juggles her responsibility as DSAPI branch manager, doctorate student, and a faculty member at Usep.
In her 24 years of working to advocate for Down Syndrome awareness, Vergara has seen different forms of discrimination and misconceptions.
When she was still starting with the association, she said community acceptance was still a challenge. Because of this many people with Down Syndrome tend to just stay in their houses.
"Persons with Down Syndrome have feelings. They can be taught and they can learn. They have abilities and capabilities. If given the right support and direction, they will reach their maximum potential," she shared.
To change this mindset of the community, DSAPI started activities showcasing the potential and the abilities of persons with Down Syndrome. They would do Mt. Apo hiking and even art activities.
Eventually, social media also became a great help to move forward with their advocacy and to reach more people to educate about the rights and potential of people with Down Syndrome.
Part of DSAPI's responsibility, Vergara said, is to show people from all walks of life that people with Down Syndrome should be treated like a regular person as they are also capable of what a regular person can do.
"We partner with companies for on-the-job training. Usually, after their OJT, they actually get hired by those companies. We are just very thankful because our city and its leadership are very supportive of our cause. One of our adult members is now working in the City Government. Companies like Anflocor, T'nalak Home, Green Windows, and Pearl Farm Beach Resort were the very first private companies who willingly opened their doors to partner with us and gave our adults with Down Syndrome an opportunity to be trained," said Vergara.
Now, Vergara is just happy to see changes in the community as far as acceptance of people with Down Syndrome is concerned. They are given opportunities to work in industries that require entertaining clients such as in hotels, resorts, food chains, and as well as in private and government institutions.
She has also seen changes in schools that have also started offering special programs that specifically address the needs and potentials of people with special needs. Available laws were also made to protect their rights and spread awareness specifically the RA 9442, An Act Amending RA 7277/Proclamation 157 declaring the month of February as National Down Syndrome Consciousness Month.
Vergara shared how being a part of the advocacy for more than two decades has opened her mind and heart in understanding the true meaning of love and service.
"I just wish to thank the overall coordinators of DSAPI-Davao, Mr. and Mrs. Antonio M. Brias for allowing me to be a part of this advocacy and for the trust and support that they have given me. This advocacy, the association, and the persons with Down Syndrome made me a better person. It is a big part of my life. And I will surely treasure this for the rest of my life," she said.