Janela Lelis: Flag bearer, hope bringer

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While most of her neighbors fled to higher ground amid typhoon Juaning in July last year to save their lives and property from flood, a 12-year-old girl braved the strong current of the murky water to save the Philippine flag.

Janela Lelis, then in sixth grade, salvaged the Philippine flag in Malinao, Albay, worried that it will be lost or buried in mud.

A photo of the feat eloquently told Lelis' story, which spread through social networking sites and was eventually broadcast by major media networks.

It was a "selfless act of courage, reflective of her love for country and constant reverence to the national symbol," Ludovico Badoy, executive director of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) said as he presented a plaque of recognition to Lelis last Aug. 25.

The NHCP, the government agency tasked with the promotion of Philippine history and cultural heritage as well as respect for the flag and other national symbols, has also given Lelis a pin of the national colors which she can proudly wear on her collar, a full-size Philippine flag and P20,000 in cash.

"We thank and admire Janela and we hope that your classmates and all the other young people in the country will follow your wonderful example of giving tribute to our national flag," NHCP President Maria Serena Diokno said during the recognition ceremony.

"I did not know that I would be able to do something good for our country at a young age," Lelis said, who said was not scared during the act as she held on to a rope that had been set up in their barangay for the evacuation.

Lelis, however, modestly said she retrieved the flag following orders from his elder brother Edcel, a color officer in his high school's Citizen Army Training corps.

"He would have to pay for it if it was lost," Lelis said.

Relatives have been caring for the Lelis siblings after they had both been orphaned at a young age.

"Even if it was ordered of her, the fact remains that she did it--holding the flag reverently at that, if you've seen the photo. Clearly, the intention was there," Josefina Saliva, president of the public-private volunteer group Flag and Anthem Advocates, Inc., said in a phone interview.

Saliva said Lelis should serve as a role model for Filipinos, young and old alike, to respect flag and other national symbols.

Janella Lelis

This, as she noted that even government offices and employees sometimes violate Republic Act 8491 or the Flag and Heraldic Code by displaying tattered or faded flags in their offices.

"I think this is because we no longer instinctively look to the flag when we pass by a pole. We only really notice it during flag raising ceremonies, sometimes not even then," Saliva told Yahoo! Southeast Asia.

The law requires, among others, that the Philippine flag flown in public areas should be "replaced immediately when it begins to show signs of wear and tear."

In a separate phone interview, Teodoro Atienza, head of NHCP's Heraldry Section said Lelis' act should inspire other Filipinos, especially older ones who are no longer in schools, to not maintain respect for the country's most recognizable symbol.

"Most young Filipinos still revere the flag because this is taught in schools," Atienza said.

He added that the NHCP regularly conducts seminars on the flag and the national anthem for teachers.

"However, it's hard to imbibe respect for the flag on the older, more stubborn Filipinos," Atienza said.

Atienza said Lelis is a hero at best and a brave girl at worst.

"The courage to take the risk to save the Philippine flag is something you don't normally see in Filipinos, even in the older and stronger ones. That makes her (Lelis) exceptional," he said.

Read about the other Pitong Pinoy finalists here.

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