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Home Cover Beyond the chrysalis: Philippines Graphic interviews Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza

Beyond the chrysalis: Philippines Graphic interviews Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza

People stand in awe of stories told and retold that border on the magical: an abandoned child, in the throes of death from advanced leukemia, with little hope of surviving as per doctors’ diagnoses, finding healing in a home for abandoned babies and, later, solace in the arms of foster parents. That child moving on at last, and becoming a productive member of society.

For Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, stories like this rarely come few and far between. In fact, these are well-nigh expected in A Home for the Angels, a children’s crisis center created by Atienza that stood witness to these “miracles” since 1995.

These stories, Atienza told the Philippines Graphic, hardly belong to the realm of the imagination or the pages of press releases. Actual documentation of these lives exists as part of the achievements of a band of volunteer doctors, nurses, workers, and caregivers who have been closely monitoring these abandoned infants for the last 22 years.

It is a matter of pride to have the children remember where they came from. This, Atienza believes, will help each child cope with his or her past, one of the necessary steps for building a better future. No future would be worth having if the children will be left in the dark about their prior conditions and how they were rescued from such conditions.

“In fact, many of these abandoned babies have moved on to lend their time and support to the foundation after their new lives with foster parents,” Atienza told the Graphic, “even sharing their resources to help other abandoned children. Because of this we are saving lives by the dozens, some even realizing their hopes of being medical practitioners, artists, and athletes.”

As with all efforts to sustain a costly undertaking such as this, a steady supply of resources is needed. Atienza brings together his network of contacts and friends—both in the House of Representatives and outside of it—to ensure that things are well-oiled and up and running.

It’s not a job for the faint of heart, he told the Graphic, but one which, at the end of each day, compels Atienza to want to do more.

“Unknown to many Filipinos, infants and children are being abandoned in many places every day: hospitals, churches,” Atienza recalls. “Some, after giving birth, leave the newborn in the delivery room—just like that. I put up A Home of the Angels Crisis Center because I firmly believe in giving these children a second chance. I’m pro-life.”

It is apparent from Atienza’s own words that preserving life doesn’t stop at rescuing a child from abandonment or death. As Pro-Life advocate, the second lease on life Atienza means to provide includes opportunities to undergo development, training, knowing certain skills. These children, to Atienza, must be given the chance to contribute, to share their talents, even lend a hand to those in need.

These undertakings take enormous amounts of singular dedication, to say little of the need for a gift for convincing people that such undertakings are worth the resources they can infuse into the effort to sustain it.

It helps that Atienza, former mayor of the City of Manila, today sits as Buhay Party-list Representative and Senior Deputy Minority Leader in the Lower House. More than his network of colleagues and friends in government, all potential supporters of his agencies and foundations, Atienza looks to his volunteers as the heart and soul of these organizations.

On account of his efforts, Atienza is the proud recipient of this year’s Outstanding Public Service Award from the Guillermo Mendoza Memorial Scholarship Foundations through its 49th Box Office Entertainment Award.

Atienza’s efforts for improving the lives of the marginalized and less privileged sectors of society—from abandoned children to women and senior citizens—have finally received the recognition they deserve.

The Mahal Ko Si Lolo, Mahal Ko Si Lola Foundation is itself a visionary undertaking. Back in 1976 when senior citizens’ rights were not even remotely considered, Atienza took the government to task for benefits that rightly belong to the elderly.

In the course of building this foundation, Atienza was mocked for breaking tradition that said benefits to the elderly should come from their families. Atienza refused to budge: “Even then, I firmly believed that government has a stake in the lives of its senior citizens, thus it should bear the responsibility of caring for them.”

In 1984, Atienza went on to create the Kababaihan ng Maynila Organization which have been providing to this day livelihood opportunities and skills training to women of Manila, including values formation and the promotion of a culture of life.

Of course, there’s A Home for the Angels Crisis Center, which in the last 22 years has been the haven of a little over 500 abandoned infants placed in foster families here and abroad.

Lito Atienza’s Cultural Arts Foundation has assisted and trained gifted yet underprivileged children in the world of the arts and dance through scholarships. His Maynila-TV program on GMA7 likewise received recognition as the longest-running daytime drama anthology and highest-rating morning primetime drama of all time.

It has been said that to break from the chrysalis is every butterfly’s perfect moment. Lito Atienza has done this and more, besides, despite not being a stranger to controversy and hardships in building his foundations.

He gives credit to the abandoned infants and children whose prayers, all throughout his career as a public servant, have become his balm and consolation.

PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: Recently, you’ve received an award conferred by the Guillermo Mendoza Awards for outstanding public service. Some of these efforts were quite visionary, not the least ‘Mahal ko si Lolo, Mahal ko si Lola’ which you put up back in 1976. At the time, government support for the elderly wasn’t even being considered.

REP. LITO ATIENZA: I have been helping people in different sectors from the very beginning. I have sustained my movement for senior citizens’ “Mahal Ko si Lolo, Mahal Ko si Lola,” which I founded in 1976. They laughed at my ideas back then. Why take care of the elderly when the responsibility should fall on the shoulders of their families?

Even back then I already believed that we should have laws upholding the privileges of and benefits for senior citizens. We’re fighting for the elders to have benefits from government. They said I was wasting my time. I said there will come a time when elders would need government subsidies. Now’s the time to start.

Which is quite visionary back in the day, I mean, 1976, I don’t recall any effort by government to subsidize benefits for the elderly.

We didn’t even have a home for the aged, not even nursing homes. And it was always a given that families will take care of their elders. There will come a time when Filipino families and the young ones will become so busy also, and the elders will be left on their own.

What served as your inspiration?

I’ve always been aware of elders needing the young’s support. I was very close to my grandfathers—my grandfather on my father’s side, my grandfather on my mother’s side. And I learned many values from them, which, I am sure, influenced me. And in my travels then—I was a dancer with the Bayanihan Dance Company for eight years. In my travels I saw how other societies take care of their elders. They treat them differently.

Here, the elders have to jostle themselves in line—the movies, the bus line. In fact, people didn’t queue to get in the bus. In order to grab a seat, elderly people get elbowed.

I saw all that, and I said, I will work for that day when the elders will be given full priority, and given discounts, like the one they do in civilized societies. When I was starting it, I was the butt of jokes. Madali raw ako tatanda (They told me I’ll age very quickly). But I’m very, very happy to note what some people say, that I’m not getting older. All those who laughed at my efforts ended up looking old.

So what is the moral of the whole story? When you help people, and busy yourself with helping people, you will not grow old. That’s one of the secrets of youth. At the same time, I also founded an agency—a foundation that handles talented children. Talented children who are poor. They cannot even take up any special studies but they are good in ballet, they are good in dance. I put up the Cultural Arts Foundation which gives dance scholarships to poor, gifted, and deserving children, and we start them off with ballet. Ballet is expensive. You’d rather spend the P3,000 on food than on lessons. It branched out to Hiyas ng Pilipinas Dance Troupe.

Where do you get funding for this?

It’s primarily volunteer work. Civic-minded people, and of course, my own productivity and my own connections. In line with all of this, young, the elderly, we founded in 1995 the Home for the Angels. Home for the Angels is a crisis home for abandoned babies. We are an agency—we are a foundation that takes care of any child, any baby, found in the garbage can, the sidewalks, anywhere. Public hospitals—some parents leave the newborn after delivery. We accept these babies, take care of them, nurse them to good health, and eventually, work with [adoption] agencies. So, all of them are all happily, securely taken care of by adopting parents all over the world, and in the Philippines. We have counted about 540 at this point of those we have saved. And miracle stories are all over those 540. One of the babies was dying of leukemia and the hospitals gave up on this baby boy. We took care of him, we took care of the expenses in the hospital, although government hospital.

Newborn? One, two years old?

He was denied treatment because the disease has reached its final stages. We were advised to bring him home and allow him to quietly pass away. We accepted their diagnoses, but didn’t give up that easily.

Children’s crisis center: A Home for the Angels

In Home for the Angels we took care of him in a small space, we provided transfusions. You know what? He got well when he was about a year and a half old. He was diagnosed free of leukemia and became a very healthy baby. Two years old. He eventually was adopted by a Spanish couple from the Canary Islands. The only child is well, healthy, he’s a young teenager now, and he’s now very, very good at football. The parents told us that their son might soon join the national team.

If this baby succeeds in becoming a famous personality in Spain, can you imagine the stories he would tell? Because he is not shy to say that he came from our crisis center. We make it a point to advise adopting parents not to hide the fact that you got him from the Philippines. We’ve seen success story after success story.

But those with foreigner families, do they visit you? Did some of them ever visit you?

Yeah. They get in touch, they visit. In fact, they also send support every months. I got the inspiration 23 years ago. I was then vice mayor of Manila. I wasn’t sure if I could sustain it. I was thinking about it but I was hesitant to launch it. I was talking to a good friend, Bro. Mike Velarde and I related to him the inspiration because of my activity with the Pro-Life Movement. I was leading the Pro-Life Movement in the country then. He said that when you get an inspiration like that, you have to fulfill it. It’s a message. You have been chosen to take care of babies and to launch this home, so don’t hesitate.

If at any time resources seem scarce, he said, run to me and I will help you financially. Believe me, I never got to asking him for support. It has sustained itself. Believe this or not, I figured in a very tight race in the 1998 elections. I credit my victory to the babies who probably prayed for my victory. I went against Ernesto Maceda, the [former] Senate President. His pork barrel was P2 billion. I went against Bagatsing, son of the former mayor, and Lopez the brother of a former mayor. I was an ordinary young man from San Andres Bukid.

While they were all on the campaign trail giving out gifts, I spent the last two days of the campaign in the Home. We were just renting an apartment then. I kept talking to the babies. I told the babies they had better pray hard to Jesus, so that I would win and all this will not stop. I said ‘I promise you, I will build you a home, a permanent home.’ No one could believe that I won against them by a very slim margin. Tony Cabangon leaped when he found out! My babies prayed for me.

Then there was the Kababaihan ng Maynila Foundation…

That was in 1984. We involved them in livelihood training, additional income, luto-luto (cooking) for their families, and making their values orientation stronger—especially [for] life. My pro-life advocacy figured in all my projects. One foundation, one movement after another are all related to life. The babies, saving lives, teaching that life is valuable.

 

Every life has value, every life is of utmost value. To me and my wife Beng, it’s all about life. People, no matter what age they are, should be cared for. We got all this support from private and government sectors. There are now laws, in fact, and laws which are even expanding, giving them more and more benefits. Their VAT requirements have been waived by the government.

I got disappointed with Sec. Pernia because I heard him on the radio. He’s considering lifting the exemption of the elderly from the VAT exacted from their purchases because he said there are more rich elderly than poor ones. They can afford it. That’s not true.

Eighty to 90% of our senior citizens are poor. Especially in the provinces. They have no livelihood. They’re all relying on the charitable environment of society, family, friends, government. Their pension cannot even afford their medical needs. I will fight this with everything I have if he dares, officially, transmit any requests that the VAT exemption of the elderly be lifted. I have enough allies in Congress who are already imbued with the same commitment with the situation of the elderly. I hope he reads this.

Are you pretty much a hands-on manager in all this?

I help directly when I can. But of course, I have to be prudent and careful so these efforts will not be dragged into too much politics. For example, there’s a pending measure giving women 120 [days] maternity leave with pay. I said wait, maybe we should first study this. Not because I don’t want it passed, no. In fact, I want it to succeed.

But I also have to think: who and what will subsidize this effort? SSS? GSIS? LGUs? Can these agencies do it? No one’s asking. No one’s raising these important points. But any measure for women, I am immediately receptive. Any measure for the elderly, definitely. Any measure for children, I am always there, supporting. I’m glad I have a seat in Congress. It helps.

Your Pro-Life advocacy eventually gave birth to the Buhay Party-list.

Buhay means to let life flourish. It was an inspired decision. Let’s call our party-list Buhay because we are fighting for a culture of life. I’m a pro-life advocate. It was I and Mel Robles. Mel Robles is with Bro. Mike Velarde. I was then mayor of Manila. I have a lot to thank these people for. Bro. Mike sat as head of Buhay until the time when we planned on bringing [it] up to Congress as a party-list. I was a retired Cabinet member, so I said yes. I ran. We won in 2013. I was part of the 16th Congress. I ran for re-election 2016 and, again, we’re still in Congress. I’m enjoying it because I’m able to pursue aggressively our culture of life.

Between being a representative or mayor again of Manila, which would you choose?

I will have to admit to you that every day I am under pressure from friends, acquaintances to run for mayor.

In Rockwell last week, I just went to the comfort room and someone there tried to convince me to run again run for mayor of Manila. You see, Erap has to do a lot more than press releases. He can continue to fool the people, but people in Manila will not be swayed. I’m not really sure what kind of management strategy he has in mind.

So, I’m under severe pressure but still praying over it. I’ll ask my babies to help me make the decision. Personally, I like it here in Congress. I am able to speak freely, agree or disagree with Duterte and everybody else as long as I am pursuing my advocacy.

I read a headline saying Duterte has found a ‘surprise ally’ in Atienza. Is this true? You’re a Duterte ally?

Charter Change. China is being pilloried by so-called nationalists, egging him to take another stand. I somehow agree with his stand. Benham Rise, too. I would like to take a little credit for that. Benham Rise is now ours because of the submission that we did during my time in the DENR. We had a choice of defining, really, what to claim before the United Nations.

What do you think about the Hague decision?

The Hague decision said the area does not belong to China. It didn’t say, however, that the same belonged to the Philippines. China cannot claim the disputed area. Duterte’s strategy, for me, makes a lot of sense. How do you deal with a superpower neighbor? We can either gain or suffer whatever consequences may come of our decisions. Do we want to make friends with them, or do we want to be antagonistic with them?

You sat as mayor before, so you know how communities in your jurisdiction feel when confronted with issues as big as, say, Federalism. Do you agree with Federalism?

If you ask me, if we can avoid pursuing federalism today…

‘Today’—so there’s a time frame for it, in your opinion?

Yes, let’s study it first. I am keeping an open mind. Up to now, there are no definite proposals on how to federalize. It’s still up in the air.

Our Constitution already has provisions for local autonomy. The Constitution assures us of that. I feel it’s better to try that first before leaping into something very different. That way, we don’t have to gamble with anything.

Let’s provide the local government units all the powers that they need. Not just the Muslim areas—all regions, all LGUs. Let’s talk about improving what we already have. Pero changing the system now may become too costly an experiment. What if we fail? What if the country breaks up? There’s no real need for a complete overhaul.

Secession can be a real problem should the government’s efforts fail.

We cannot gamble our way into this. We cannot risk dividing the country further. Let’s learn from Spain. Spain has a serious internal problem. Catalonia, together with Barcelona, would like to secede. Can you imagine if that happens, what will happen to Spain?

The Philippines is already naturally separated by water. It’s so easy for the Visayan area to secede. Mindanao could do the same.

Those with vested interests would sure find ways to provoke. What if Malaysia enters the picture? UK or EU for Visayas. Many powerful countries and entities are interested in our tuna, sugar and other resources.

What if America tries claiming Luzon? Bring back SBMA, Clark, we’re going to be divided. So, there is no need for a complete overhaul at this point when we do not even have a clear idea of our direction. What is the President’s idea of a Federal government? We have to ask that.

Unless there’s a clear and solid path, I believe we should continue to study our options.

Continue the debates, the discourse.

Yes, let’s not force the issue. Learning exactly what we want to have is crucial here. Let’s have public debates, not the ‘hearings’ they staged in Congress. Don’t believe those. Nagpunta sa Cebu, hearing na yun. At tsaka ano yung hini-hear nila (They went to Cebu, that’s already a hearing. And what were they hearing)?

The question of do you approve of a federalized system without explaining what that is? I tried staging my own hearing. I went to Cebu in a meeting of eastern and Mindanao leaders. Our question: do you approve of a federalized system? Then I asked if anyone in the audience knows the kind of federal system being pushed by the government. None [laughs].

I will tell you, if the government initiates the experiment by first using local autonomy as a stepping stone towards federalism, that’s a big chance of success with no risks involved. No risks because you’re giving a way for the LGUs to think, act, and handle their own problems in their own level.

You belong to the Buhay Party-list. Now, there are many talks on extrajudicial killings, and even a story that Bangladesh has launched a Duterte-style anti-drug campaign where reportedly 200 ‘addicts’ were killed. As a pro-lifer, have you ever raised your voice against Duterte’s war on drugs?

For the record, I am the first one who stood up in Congress to deliver a privilege speech denouncing the extrajudicial killings. I said this will not succeed. Violence will never be a solution.

What do you think is a good, effective solution?

Fully support the president’s total war on drugs campaign. But like any war, it should get Congressional support as this resolution intends to give him. It should be a campaign that will now singularly focus on the drug problem and preventing the commission of extrajudicial and other forms of violence on the suspect.

Killing them will never solve the problem. Most of these so-called users are desperately poor. Many users are also rich, and they get into drugs because of the excitement. They buy their supplies from rogue policemen. Some cops do this because no one is raising the issue.

Duterte should address the problem squarely, not to resort to extrajudicial killings. We will be behind you. All of us. I think many Congressmen would be signing on that. It’s good Duterte raised the issue because it’s a serious issue. But he has to change his strategy. If he changes it, people will support him. There’s no other way.

So, are you planning on running for mayor of Manila?

I cannot answer that. If you ask me now, I’d rather be a Congressman. Because the job has bigger reach. Give me a month or two, if I get that inspiration. Perhaps my babies will pray for me again and I will run, who knows. First I have to be certain. G

 

 

 

 

 

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