Selling fish with his mother and helping people carry their goods at the market was all Leo knew when he was young.
Leonardo, or Leo as his family and friends called him, was born Deaf. He is the third child of 11. His father provided for the family by farming while his mother worked as a fish vendor to augment their income. Being born in the year 1959, education for Deaf children in Bohol did not exist. The Deaf were kept at home to do the household chores and that was Leo’s childhood.
“I only stayed at home when I was a child. Children in the neighborhood laughed at me. It hurt me. I didn’t understand them. I remember when I was a child, I was walking along the road and a vehicle just hit me. I didn’t know it was coming. It wasn’t easy being Deaf. I even experienced being chained to a tree by my father because he was afraid I would get hurt wandering around,” Leo shared.
“When I became a teenager, I started to go with my mother to sell fish at the market. At first, I would just sit in the corner observing people moving around. Then I saw men carrying boxes, pails and other things. I kept observing them and tried to learn what to do. I tried to help people carry their things and they gave me some coins. It made me happy,” he added.
At the age of 17, his father decided to bring him to Tagbilaran City Central School where a class for Deaf children had opened. He became one of the very few Deaf who attended school.
“At the start, I had a hard time in class. The lessons were hard. Learning sign language was hard. I even stopped attending classes. When I returned to school, I tried hard to learn. I was just happy that I graduated from Grade 6 and was able to learn vocational skills,” he recalled.
There was no available high school for the Deaf back then. When Leo finished elementary school, he was able to work in a local restaurant as a dish washer. He also helped with cleaning. Then a wonderful opportunity came. In 1985, he was hired at the newly opened Garden Café and restaurant. He went through training and seminar workshops so that he could work as a cook, purchaser, and maintenance man.
His friends and coworkers encouraged him to find a girl and get married. He fell in love with Trinidad, a former Deaf classmate. They became sweethearts and got married at the age of 27. They were blessed with one son.
“I continue to work at Garden Café and raise my family. My wife also has her own dressmaking business at home, in Baclayon, Bohol. She makes gowns and dresses and her earnings really help in sustaining our daily needs. My salary went to support my son in his schooling. My wife and I tried to be independent in raising our son even though we had difficulties. We are just very happy and proud that he finally finished college and is now working in a hotel. He said he wanted to be a cook like me,” Leo happily stated.
For more than 30 years, Leo has worked diligently at Garden Café. He even trains new employees to cook, all are Deaf. His coworkers love him for being a good trainer and for having a sense of humor. Since he is now near retirement age, he told us that he just wants to enjoy his family. He is happy knowing that his son finished his college degree and has a job.
“I am really grateful to be employed at Garden Café. Working here boosts my confidence. It helps many Deaf people like me to become self-supporting. Without Garden Café, I could not have a good life and I could not provide for my family and necessities like education for my son,” Leo said.
Garden Café is owned and operated by the Bohol Foundation for the Deaf and Disabled, Inc. (BFDDI). It is a Public-Private Partnership with the Provincial Government of Bohol as part of the the government’s Poverty Alleviation Program. For over 30 years of existence, the Café has employed more than 100 Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), including the Deaf, as well as indigent persons who come and go from the business. Aside from employing PWDs, the income derived from Garden Café funds the education and social welfare services for the Deaf student-beneficiaries of International Deaf Education Association (IDEA) Philippines, Inc. Through this partnership, many Deaf students have had the opportunity to get an education and some of whom become employed full-time at Garden Café.
For Deaf workers like Leo, the Garden Café has allowed them to be self-reliant and to provide for their families. Through the collaborative effort of BFDDI and the Provincial Government of Bohol, the Deaf are being empowered as members of the labor force. Many lives have been turned around with the opportunities for Deaf employment. Through new employment opportunities, the Deaf are now the ones supporting their parents and helping to pay for their siblings’ schooling when they were once seen as a burden to the family. They have once again proven that the Deaf are as productive and efficient as anyone. Truly, this public-private partnership has a great impact in the lives of the Deaf in Bohol.