The living room is humming with activity, and there is a palpable energy in the air. You hear laughter and chatter, and then the sound of a camera flash every few seconds. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to think you’ve just walked into a home that’s having a party. Well, in a sense, it is a party -- it is certainly a celebration of potential.
The “party” was hosted by Miss Possibilities Foundation, which is holding the "Beauty Knows No Boundaries" pageant. It features young ladies with special needs who are, at the moment, are waiting for their turn to have their photo taken in front of the giant backdrop in the middle of the living room.
It was all part of the pre-pageant activities with the photos and videos to be shown during pageant day on November 13 at the at the Henry Lee Irwin Theater in Ateneo de Manila University. The first time the pageant was held was just last year, spearheaded by Suzanna Pavadee Vicheinrut-Yuzon (above, with daughter Joey), who has held the titles of Miss Thailand and Mrs. World.
Now based in Manila, Suzanna used to have a frenetic career in her native Bangkok before she and her husband, John, had Joey, her eldest daughter who will soon turn 4 years old. That all changed when Joey was born and was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Suzanna devoted herself to finding out everything there was to know about the condition, but she admits she and John were “devastated and had a hard time” in the beginning.
Accepting the opportunity -- and challenge Lani Robles, mom of Julianna (below), one of this year’s participants, can relate to Suzanna’s ordeal. After she found out Julianna had cerebral palsy, she recalls, “I cried for one hour in the clinic. I could not be consoled, I was engulfed by fear. Later on, after a few months, I recovered. Then, the concerns about how to handle the expenses for her care crept in.”
It is Julianna’s first time to join the pageant, and she is wearing a beautiful gold dress that glitters in the light. Julianna says the dress was her second choice; the store didn’t have her size for her first pick. The youngest and the only girl in a brood of three, Julianna is smart and confident. She is very good at small talk.
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“I like to eat everything,” she declares. “Everything?” we ask. As it turns out, she loves even that most pungent king of fruits, durian.
At 12 -- “almost 13,” she corrects her mother -- Julianna is on the cusp of puberty. She already has a crush at school that she shyly mentions with a special smile. Her mom thinks she will begin to have even more questions about her physical and emotional abilities.
“When she’s with her cousins and her friends at Sunday school, they will run around and maya-maya, naiiwan na siya. Minsan, naiisip ko, magtatanong na kaya ito [about what she can and cannot do]? I explain to her that disability is broad, that she is challenged…and that’s why she went to therapy at an early age.”
Lani, who has a degree in psychology, and her husband Mel, however, did not want to limit Julianna’s experiences even if she is in a wheel chair. That was why the couple agreed to let their daughter join Miss Possibilities. “We want her to experience many things. We think ‘possibilities’ is very positive. We also want to be in the presence of other families with children with special needs,” Lani says, expressing the same sentiments of parents of kids who join Miss Possibilities.
Miss Possibilities was nothing more than a distant what-if last year. While she visited relatives in California during Easter break, Suzanna chanced upon a poster of a pageant for girls with special needs. She took a photo and posted it on Facebook with a caption: “Sana we can have this in the Philippines one day.”
A friend, Eric Teng of the Mango Tree Restaurant group, who is also a supporter of the Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines, then offered Suzanna his Mango Tree restaurant in Bonifacio Global City as a venue for free. From there, things snowballed.
“I called a bunch of my mom friends and just said the venue is free, let’s just do it, pool our money...We started thinking it would be small,” Suzanna recalls. An inclusive community The crowdsourcing and crowdfunding efforts resulted in cash and in kind donations: perfumes, t-shirts, and pre-event activities like photo shoots and video shoots for the 15 pageant participants. The venue was filled to its 300-capacity and gained coverage from national broadsheets, websites, and TV newscasts. The first pageant for people with special needs in Asia was held on October 7, 2015, coinciding with Suzanna’s birthday.
“It was a community that came together to celebrate the kids. We just want to bring more attention…to not only people with special needs, but also their families. We want to show that they’re productive, and they have something to contribute to society,” Suzanna says.
A returning participant is Alyssa, 24 (below), who has Global Developmental Delay. Her mom, Bebu Bulchand, gushes about her sociable daughter: “She loves to join [different activities] like programs, fashion shows! She is very outgoing and she does not have an inferiority complex.”
“It is a good exercise for attaining their potentials,” her father, Dan Guerrero, says of the pageant.
In school, Alyssa is one of the popular girls, the life of the party, and always a winner at the talent show. “She is now in the hall of fame,” says her mom. Alyssa has had lessons in different musical instruments and dance, and she loves doing all of them. Angel, 15 (below), who has Down syndrome, is clearly enjoying her first time at Miss Possibilities. This is her forte, her mom, Lorelei Cruz, explains. “She loves to dress up and model.” And it shows. Lorelie doesn’t hover, stays quietly in the sidelines, and pretty much leaves Angel in the hands of the photographer, who praises Angel for taking instructions well.
This year, the pageant will be more inclusive, with a fashion show component so that children with special needs who are younger -- or male -- can still participate. Local celebrities have been invited and will walk with the kids during the fashion show.
“I have met so many people who have no connection to kids with special needs. They are so giving, so willing to help, writing in to volunteer,” Suzanna says. “I have also gained so many heroes like moms who give their time and resources here.”
Suzanna also applauds the participants. “The girls who participate are amazing. Through the pageant, we can see a glimpse of the person, her talent or likes and dislikes. We see them through their parents’ eyes, as individuals, beyond being differently abled.”
Louie Ysmael has the same wish for his daughter, Missy, 13 (below), who has Global Developmental Delay and is non-verbal. Although she usually doesn’t like a lot of noise, Missy seems to be coping well in the middle of this pre-pageant frenzy (actually all the girls are holding up well). Her dad also leaves her on her own when she does her video bit, but she returns immediately to her father with a quick hug. Missy had been part of the Miss Possibilities last year, and Louie said Missy seemed to enjoy the experience so he had no qualms of joining again this year.
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The foundation is committed to do more social activities throughout the year including holding free clinics for differently abled children who have never had therapy. Their families even have less opportunities to pursue their potential.
Miss Possibilities hopes to get more help and change the conversation about how people see kids who are developmentally challenged. As Suzanna points, “We’re not expecting them to be doctors.” But the parents want to spread the unconditional love they learn from their kids.
Lorie speaks for all the parents of Miss Possibilities when she says, "Sila yung nagpapakita ng love so parang nakakahiya na hindi mo maibalik yung pagmamahal na yun. They teach us [parents] more about love than we do."
"Beauty Knows No Boundaries" will be held at the Henry Lee Irwin Theater, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City on November 13 at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, please call 0905-2858204. For more details, click here for the Miss Possibilities Facebook page.
This story was updated to reflect the following correction: Alyssa has Global Developmental Delay, not Down syndrome.