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Attending classes with an empty stomach and working until 12 midnight to earn a living? This was me for three straight years while in college. I did not have an easy life. I came from a poor family. But the only thing that inspired me to keep going was the importance of education to change my life. And this was what my parents instilled in me since I was young.
Determined, I finished college in 2008 with flying colors – class valedictorian, magna cum laude, and one of The Outstanding Students of the Philippines. I was proud. My family was proud. My parents told me, ‘You will finally find a good job and earn and change your and your family’s life’.
I was proud. My family was proud. My parents told me, ‘You will finally find a good job and earn and change your and your family’s life’
Weeks after my graduation, I still hadn’t found a job. I was desperate and embarrassed despite all my accolades. And I couldn’t send any money for my family to support or even feed them.
A week later, an organization hired me as their teacher for children with disabilities from poor families. I disliked the nature of the job as I didn’t understand the importance of educating these children. But I had to take it. I needed to earn. I needed to feed my family. The organization paid me USD133 a month and 30 per cent of my overall salary went to my family. Honestly, it was not a good offer. But I had no other choice.
But as I continued working closely with children with disabilities and their families for two years, I began to truly love what I was doing. I poured that love into the initiatives I spearheaded to advance their rights as children.
I came to understand that the inclusion of children with disabilities is one of the greatest diversity challenges of our time. I came to believe what Cardinal Roger Malhony said that any society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest. And I realized that in the Philippines, like in so many other countries, we had a long, long way to go. In addition to working with children, I started working at the policy level which made me get to know more the people on the margins of society. I felt a deep sense of purpose and meaning.
I came to understand that the inclusion of children with disabilities is one of the greatest diversity challenges of our time.
But three years after I graduated, nothing significant had changed with my family’s economic situation. For three months, for example, the house had no electricity because my parents couldn’t pay the bills. I felt that I had failed my parents especially when they said, ‘We understand that you are happy and fulfilled with what you are doing, but fulfillment does not pay the bills’.
‘We understand that you are happy and fulfilled with what you are doing, but fulfillment does not pay the bills’
That moment was a game changer. I was at crossroads. Should I look for good-paying jobs? Or continue with what I was doing for and with children with disabilities? Most of my friends agreed with my parents that ‘Fulfillment does not pay the bills’. And I have to admit that I was tempted to give up and agree. But I didn’t. I decided to keep on working for and with children with disabilities and their families, and advocating for their rights at the grassroots and political level.
I took another job. Right after my community work, I’d go straight to the university to teach from 6 until 10pm. I also managed to do paid workshops and talks on weekends. Honestly, I felt physically exhausted but I was fulfilled. I was able to send my younger sister to school. And she is now a grade school teacher in a public elementary school. I was able to provide some livelihood support for my parents so they could have their own sustainable income. These days, my older brother and younger sister are also earning, so the three of us help in supporting our family further. Two of them provide for the daily needs of my parents at home while I provide financial support to our youngest sister going to university. I do this in parallel with my work in the disability sector – passionately advocating for disability rights, now as a youth ambassador to the United Nations.
I know how challenging it is to choose between pursuing one’s passion and one’s economic stability. But how an individual deals with this dilemma is a matter of choice. Choosing to try to do both, like I have, requires real strategy. One has to explore the concept of having more than one job, for example. What about using weekends or evenings to earn money in other ways? I am aware that this sounds exhausting. But that’s how it works: Pursuing your passion forward is not a bed of roses. It’s about making sacrifices, but at the same time, about feeling fulfilled and happy.
I’ve learned that building a more inclusive world isn’t easy work. A lot of us face this challenge in one way or another. Whether you’re working on disability issues like me, working on refugee integration, on women empowerment, working for social change requires long hours, taking risks, making tough choices, and a lot of focus and a lot of hard work. But none of that has or will stop me.
By being strategic and working really hard, I continue to support my family and to advance the cause that I care about. For me, for now, I am happy and grateful to say that fulfillment really does pay the bills. And I believe that it can for you, too.