Michelle Aventajado wears many hats: mother, wife, daughter, entrepreneur, writer, model, product endorser, and Non-Profit Director. She grew up in New York, one of five children, the daughter of a Filipino mother and an American father. Michelle has a degree in Education from SUNY Cortland and has worked as both a teacher in the American public school system and as a camp director. In 1996, she was on vacation when she met the man who would eventually become her husband. By 2006, they had been married a few years and decided to move their young family to Manila where Michelle is currently the Director of Best Buddies Philippines.
LR: You are a mother of four children (two teens, a pre-teen, and a little girl). Your youngest has Down Syndrome. Was that largely the impetus for you taking the job as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?
MA: Actually, I’ve always been drawn to children and adults with different abilities. When I was in high school, my track coach ran a club called Interact. Besides shadowing professionals in our small town to explore what we wanted to study as we went on to college, the main thrust of the club was to “INTERACT” with others in the community. We volunteered weekly at one of the local group homes and spent time with its residents. In college, I pursued my degree in education because I knew it would be the perfect career to satisfy my desire to help kids and change the world one student at a time. After the birth of my fourth child, I realized that God had been preparing me for all that my baby would need for me to be as her mother. I could never explain the interest I had in this marginalized population I had until Evangelina – her name means God’s gift – was born. After the initial shock of her diagnosis wore off, I realized that Gelli (her nickname) suddenly gave the work and volunteering I was doing more purpose. I can’t say I immediately thought of “fighting the good fight” when she was born, though. My initial reaction was to take it day by day and make sure that my daughter and my family had everything they needed to adjust to our new normal. I read up on how to best care for my daughter because her birth changed the playing field. I felt like a new mom. A fish out of water. I thought I was already a pro at the parenting thing, and when she was born, I suddenly felt unprepared. I bought all the books I could get my hands on, watched videos, and read blogs of moms who were parenting a child with Down Syndrome in the States. I followed one particular blogger and credit her for changing my outlook. Kelle Hampton was the blogger who helped me see the positive side of parenting Gelli. I started blogging too. I had no idea that it would open so many doors for me in terms of identifying with other parents who might be in the same situation as myself. It was through blogging that I met Anj Onrubia. Anj has a son with Autism and she wanted to bring Best Buddies to the Philippines. She invited me to the training and the meetings and I signed on as a Program Manager for my children’s school. When Anj started planning her move to Canada, she asked me if I would consider taking on the role of Country Director. The rest is, as they say, history.
I do what I do with Best Buddies, not so my daughter can join the activities I organize but in the hopes that by the time she is of age to join them, that she will feel accepted. That she’ll have less difficulty than the children who came before she did. I do it so that when she’s of college age, she’ll have more than just two choices of schools to attend in Manila. I do what I do because I believe in our programs and hope for a better future for my precious six-year-old. I want more for her. I want to change the world one friendship at a time through our programs in Best Buddies.
LR: What has been the biggest challenge in terms of bringing awareness and education to the conversation surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
MA: Initially, the stigma. The mindset. The culture. The belief that kids and adults with IDD are less. Less capable. Less deserving. There are still families in this country who hide their children away, who are ashamed of the beautiful child they’ve been gifted.
I have a friend who is in his mid-fifties. After asking him to get involved with Best Buddies by volunteering his time to help with a PSA on “End the R-Word”, he disclosed a sad story to me from his childhood. Apparently, when he was a kid growing up here, he remembered a child with Down Syndrome who was chained to the front porch of a neighboring home. CHAINED. Like an animal. Mimi, this was only forty years ago!
LR: Wow! That’s both tragic and maddening! That’s during our lifetime!
MA: Exactly. They say it takes seven generations to see the effects of how we live today (physically) in this world. I believe that it takes just as many generations to change a mindset. Just as many generations to shift the conversation and the perspective. We need that paradigm shift to happen before my daughter will be seen as someone who is counted and included in all aspects of society.
LR: Best Buddies is in fifty countries around the world. It’s great to see the Philippines has been involved in helping spread the organization’s message since 2014. What are some of the things you have planned for Best Buddies Philippines in 2018?
MA: Good question. After attending recent training in Madrid, Spain, I know we’re on the right path. Best Buddies Philippines has been slowly growing our membership and chapters in both public and private schools and making changes to bring added awareness to the plight of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Also, we have an elementary school campaign that we’re hoping to launch a pilot for so that our friendship programs can begin with even younger children.
LR: Hillary Clinton famously said “it takes a village” to raise children and I know Best Buddies Founder, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, believes deeply in community service and helping those in need (Anthony’s mother, Eunice, was the Founder of the Special Olympics and his father, Sargent, was Founding Director of the Peace Corps). What is it about Best Buddies that you love most? Is it one thing in particular or a lot of little things?
MA: It really does take a village. The village I live in consists of children, families, and professionals who all can take part in our programs. Small businesses that can employ individuals with IDD. Educators. All of these people are important in furthering our mission of inclusion for all people.
I was bullied because I was different as a child. Living in a small town where there were very few Filipino kids – most of whom were related to me – makes this cause even more meaningful to me. I’ve been on the other side and I know what it feels like to be left out. Everyone wants to be a part of something. As a mother, I want Gelli to be included in all that she desires.
What is it about Best Buddies that I love most? The time I spend with the Buddies. The selfies. The stories. The smiles. The laughter. The growth of each individual as they participate in our activities. The leadership I see that is nurtured in both the typical kids and the kids with IDD. I enjoy seeing our parents sigh with relief, knowing that their children are safe in our programs, that they’re being included, and that their kids have a chance at friendship.
LR: In May, you were honored at a ceremony in Malibu, California with the award for Mother-Of-The-Year by Best Buddies International. What was that like for you?
MA: A bit awkward. Humbling. I do what I do for Gelli and others like her because it’s personal to me. I don’t do it for recognition. In fact, I didn’t even know I was being honored. I thought they were just asking me to attend as a guest. It was a surprise to learn that I was actually being given the stage to share part of my story as Gelli’s mom and as Country Director for the Philippines. I can talk for hours about the work we do and how others can help, but talking about myself in front of all those people was difficult for me. Still, I wanted to make sure the audience understood that it was only a few years ago the Department of Education in the Philippines made it the law for my daughter to have the right to an education with her diagnosis. I bring the knowledge of that statistic to the work I do for Best Buddies and what we are up against. I felt it was my job to share these personal experiences of mine so they could understand that it was only through my motherhood of Gelli that I became aware of what the real fight was about here. I am extremely thankful for the award and the recognition but it felt a little silly being acknowledged for a job I would do anyway. Does that make sense?
[L: Michelle with Maria Shriver and R: Michelle with daughters Gia, Gelli, and Cindy Crawford]
LR: It makes perfect sense. You’re a Filipino American who made the decision to move to the Philippines with your family. What’s a big difference in terms of how people with disabilities are treated in the Philippines as opposed to in the United States? I know you mentioned earlier that there’s still a stigma, but you also noted some of the improvements you’ve seen.
MA: We are still light years behind the United States when it comes to an inclusive society. When Gelli was born, my first inclination was to move back to New York where I knew she’d have a better chance at becoming who she was meant to be. In the end, I realized there’s a reason for everything. A reason she chose me as her mother. And a reason why I found myself in Manila. There is so much work to be done here. It’s why I had to step up and walk the walk.
LR: What’s a typical day like for you as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?
MA: I wake up and see the kids off to school and then I jump on my laptop and answer any emails or messages received. I check on the activities we have planned for the week and see if any of the chapters need my help with anything. I talk to parents and check in with the ambassadors. I do this while also balancing the writing I do for my own website, attending events, and preparing meals for my family. I’m hands-on with everything and honestly, when my head hits the pillow at night I find myself making lists of things I need to tackle when I wake up. Some days are full of work with Best Buddies and others aren’t, but I’m pulled in so many different directions that no two days are ever alike.
LR: How does the Buddy System work?
MA: In each chapter, the faculty advisor and/or the program manager has to be really astute in making matches. We match according to age, gender, and interests. By getting to know the Buddy and the Peer Buddy, we can make the best match possible. It’s not easy, but with help from everyone involved, we try to make matches where a selected friendship will naturally evolve to a deeper one. In our more established chapters, you can see the matches that were made well because they stay on as Buddies long after the year-long requirement has been fulfilled.
LR: How can people volunteer or get involved with Best Buddies Philippines?
MA: We are always looking for Buddies, parent volunteers, schools, teachers, and professionals. Interested parties can contact us on Facebook at Facebook.com/BestBuddiesPhilippinesManila, on Instagram at @bestbuddiesphilippines or email us at BestBuddiesManila@gmail.com.