Gerry Dela Zerna: Teaching hope to special children

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"Learned helplessness" or the belief that they have no control over their situation always threatens to plague disadvantaged, disabled or special Filipino children, psychologist and college professor Gerry Duwin Dela Zerna said.

But he has vowed to do what he can help them unlearn it.

"Since I was exposed to the difficulties faced by street children and children with special needs as a college student, I have been actively involved in charity work," Dela Zerna, now 52 years old, told Yahoo! Southeast Asia in a phone interview.

Dela Zerna joined the United Nations Children's Fund as a volunteer in college and assisted in psycological assessments of physically, mentally or emotionally handicapped children.

When he graduated, he became a "street educator," holding classes for homeless children.

"I found the act of tending to neglected children more fulfilling compared to simply giving them money," Dela Zerna said.

When he took post-graduate courses on abnormal psychology, however, Dela Zerna became more interested in children with special needs. He now teaches abnormal psychology and special education in several universities.

"Every month, my classes would have outreach programs for special children aside from literacy programs for non-readers who are imprisoned," Dela Zerna said.

"Young people nowadays have a tendency to rebel against their parents or their families if their demands are not met. What I want to tell them is that they are still lucky," he added.

Dela Zerna in 1997 founded Guided and Unified Interaction for the Development of Children, Inc. (GUIDE, Inc.), a volunteer organization aimed a promoting the welfare of children and youth with special physical, mental or emotional needs--including orphaned, abandoned and street children.

The group annually conducts a 10-day summer camp for children.

Over 2,000 children have benefitted from the program which has been held in Batangas, Benguet, Ilocos Sur, Marinduque, Oriental Mindoro and Romblon, among others, Dela Zerna said.

"We search for a certain area in the coutnry with low awareness for children with disabilities, conduct awareness campaigns and take the children there for the camp," Dela Zerna said.

The group also provides free psychological assessments and therapy sessions for marginalized families in these areas, he added.

"Right now the priority of families is food for the table. But children should be able to play, travel and enjoy. We hope to be able to provide that if their families cannot," Dela Zerna said.

Asked how his group can afford such a program, Dela Zerna quipped: "It's manna from heaven."

He noted that he prefers fund-raising activities such as raffles, bingo or selling products made by beneficiaries over aid from international organizations.

"Not all of these organizations understand the needs of Filipino children. A Filipino should think for the Filipino. We do not shut our doors for funding but when we see that vested interests are being served, we beg off," Dela Zerna said.

Dela Zerna is not losing hope that there will be more state funds for programs targetting children with special needs, but he is not pinning his hopes on government either.

"Our leaders lack political will because they are of the impression that persons with disability (PWDs) are not a strong voting force," Dela Zerna said.

This leads to "limited laws" on children with special needs and PWDs in general, he said, noting the need for policies that mandate support for special children as soon as they are diagnosed.

"Special children will not stay in school for the rest of their lives so we have to help them transition from school to work," Dela Zerna said.

Social skills should also be honed aside from economic skills, he added, highlighting the importance of "Filipino play."

"What we can do is make meaningful activities attractive for children. We must invite them to be better individuals," he said.

Read about the other Pitong Pinoy finalists here.

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