The Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece, began under blazing fireworks over Kallimarmaro Stadium. Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou greeted the crowd. Superstar Stevie Wonder sang.
And Emilda Soriano, an 18-year-old sponsored child, skipped onto the stage with her teammates, waving to a cheering audience. She and 7,000 other athletes, 40,000 family members and 25,000 volunteers had gathered in Athens for three weeks of competitive sports.
But most in the audience did not know the extra obstacles beyond her special needs that the athlete from Iloilo City, Philippines, had overcome to get here.
A Homeless Start
Emilda’s mother, Vilma, and father, Reynaldo, were homeless when Emilda was born. They lived in a cemetery — above a cluster of graves that a friend owned. Their “home” was a tarp and wood scraps.
Most days, Vilma, a washerwoman, and Reynaldo, a tombstone maker, could barely afford to feed Emilda and their other four children, much less pay for medical care.
When Emilda was 3, a terrifying event changed the course of their lives.
Emilda contracted a high fever, convulsed, and slipped into a coma. “She was unconscious for five days,” says Vilma. “The doctor told us that she would not recover.”
Vilma and Reynaldo were devastated at first, then overjoyed as they watched Emilda gradually begin to laugh and play again — but she was not the same girl.
The coma had left Emilda with permanent brain damage and the cognitive capacity of a 3-year-old — and Vilma and Reynaldo had no resources to give her the special care she needed.
When Emilda was 5, Vilma enrolled her in a local public school. Yet Emilda could not grasp basic concepts and repeated kindergarten five times because, Vilma says, “I couldn’t give up on my daughter.”
A New Approach
After five years, Emilda’s mother was about to lose hope when she heard about SPED, a school for children with special needs. Vilma was determined to find a way to help her daughter, so she worked even longer hours to pay Emilda’s tuition.
Vilma also enrolled Emilda in a Compassion student center near their home. Joseph Alba, pastor of Salem Christian Life Center, says, “Emilda was a very sad girl when she came to our center. We just noticed that many of her mates frequently teased her, and she would sob in the corner."
So the girl’s father encouraged her to run, hoping the exercise would help her. To his surprise, Emilda loved to run — and was good at it — so Vilma rushed to Pastor Alba to ask for his help in developing her as an athlete.
An Athlete Is Born
“When we first learned that she could be a good runner if supported,” says Zusie Mai Diaz, the director of Salem Student Center, “...we knew that there would be something great in her …."
Alba and Diaz found a coach for Emilda — Mary Gen Mahinai, a teacher from SPED. They also provided Emilda with track shoes, clothing, food, and money for transportation to and from the track near her home. But they didn’t realize the challenges training would bring.
Emilda had trouble with basic skills like tying her track shoes. And she had trouble staying in her lane when she ran. “We felt sad,” remembers Diaz, “because when she was asked to run in a straight line, she would follow someone running next to her.”
Still, they were determined to develop Emilda as an athlete. Coach Mahinai tried many approaches. She lined tape on the track. She asked Emilda to run in the same lane for several days so that she was less likely to get confused. Slowly, Emilda began to improve.
After months of training, Coach Mahinai entered Emilda into national competitions — and she won gold medals.
Just Within Reach
Emilda’s gold medals qualified her to compete in the Special Olympics, but Diaz and Alba had one more hurdle to clear. Expenses for the trip to Athens would total nearly $19,000.
Vilma and Reynaldo earn less than $2 per day — and the money for the trip was more than the Salem Student Center could possibly cover. Still, Emilda’s supporters were determined to do whatever they could to get her to Athens.
“I asked people in my church if they could help, and they started to give,” says Pastor Alba. “Almost all of our church members, including the staff of the student center, live in the same squatter areas and experience the same living conditions as Emilda.”
Compassion staff members in Uganda were inspired by Emilda’s story and gave more than $1,000. Hundreds of Compassion sponsors and donors also gave. In about three weeks, Emilda had all she needed to reach her dream.
A Journey and Competition Like No Other
On June 18, 2011, Emilda, her coach, and other athletes from the Philippines boarded a plane for Greece. While in Greece, Emilda experienced many firsts with her teammates and coach. She rode a tour bus, played on a Mediterranean beach, and posed for pictures near the Parthenon. When the starting gun went off for the 200-meter race, Emilda sprinted into action. This was the moment she had dreamed of. The moment that all those who rallied around her had dreamed of. She passed one girl — and then another — finishing triumphantly to win a bronze medal.
Emilda clapped and waved, scanning the audience for Coach Mahinai and Diaz. Then she took her place on the medal stand, proudly displaying her bronze, and hugged the other athletes next to her.
The success Emilda achieved at the Olympics has inspired other sponsored children and their families in her community.
“Emilda’s going to the Special Olympics just set the bar of hope so much higher for everyone,” says Alba. “Many are thinking, ‘If Emilda can go to Greece, there is no limit to what God can do in my own life.’”