PROJECT BEYOND: LOOKING BEYOND ONE’S DISABILITIES
SWIM from Santa Cruz Island to R.T. Lim Boulevard? A good 2.6 miles or approximately 4 kilometers distance? No way! Really? No way? But Arnold Mina Balais just did that! And that is just one half of this incredible story!
When the center head of the Tzu Chi Great Love Physical Rehabilitation Center and TIMA volunteer Dr. Raymond A. Sator first approach Tzu Chi Zamboanga regarding 30 year old Arnold Mina Balais offer to swim from Santa Cruz Island to R.T. Lim Boulevard; it was greeted with skepticism. Not only because of the distance, but also because of the strong current that at times can prove to be treacherous! But Arnold is a young man with a noble mission. A mission to prove that no matter what physical disabilities one has in life, one can still accomplish what his mind has set out to do! You see, Arnold is an AKA or Above-Knee Amputee. His mission fits right into what the Tzu Chi Great Love Physical Rehabilitation Center hopes to accomplish for all amputees; that are to RESTORE HOPE...REBUILD LIVES, ONE FOOT AT A TIME! By looking beyond one's disabilities, half the battle is already won. He will swim the roughly 4 kilometers distance that separates Santa Cruz Island and R.T. Lim Boulevard on one foot to prove before our eyes what he decided to be his life's mission. The founder of Tzu Chi, Master Cheng Yen has always reminded the Tzu Chi members "Not to underestimate oneself, because everyone has boundless potential!"
To prove that he can walk the talk, Arnold faxed in an article that essays his exploits which includes crossing the lung-busting 3.5 kilometers Hilungan Channel that separates the island of Olango from Mactan in 1 hour and 26 minutes. A no simple feat when for a two-legged swimmer. He accomplished this in 2003 in a swim dubbed SWIM FOR A LIMB, a project of Handicap Anchor In Christ, Inc.(HACI) to raise funds for the purchase of foot prosthesis for handicap indigents in Cebu. Aside from this, he is a true-blue Olympian, a paralympian to be more precise. Under his belt are several gold medals for powerlifting, butterfly and freestyle swimming events earned from international competition like the ASEAN and ASIAN PARAGAMES that took him to Atlanta, USA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Busan, South Korea among others.
Convinced of Arnold's credential, Tzu Chi agreed to sponsor the event together with the City Government of Zamboanga City led by City Mayor Hon. Celso L. Lobregat. To make the swim more meaningful, it will also be a fund-raising event for the Zamboanga City Federations of Differently-Abled Citizens headed by workaholic Mr. Jojo Navarro. Mr. Navarro was the one who coined the very apt name for the swim... PROJECT BEYOND and the man who together with Ms. Reina R. Loreto head of the orthopedic ally-challenged group of the federation worked for the success of the project!
To make sure that all contingencies are in place for the safe swim of Arnold Balais, perennial Tzu Chi partner in service the STOP D.E.A.T.H. EMS group headed by Dr. George Rojo and ably assisted by Mr. Tony Onrubia, Riverine headed by Major Peter Ramos held meetings to thresh-out potential problems. While this was happening, Arnold Balais, worked the swimming pool for one month to condition his body for the event!
On November 27, 2004 at 8:30 AM in front of hundreds of abled and difierently-abled onlookers at the R.T. Lim Boulevard, Arnold Balais boarded the Riverine rubber boat together with Hon. City Mayor Celso L. Lobregat, STOP DEATH EMS volunteers and escorted by military soldiers led by Major Peter Ramos and Tzu Chi Zamboanga volunteers on two jet skis that took him to Santa Cruz Island where he will be drop off to start his swim.
At the start, strong underwater current hampered the smooth swim of Arnold. For every stroke he makes, the current carries him sideways. In spite of this, the only comment you will hear from Arnold was: "Am I going in the right direction?" He was really determined to finish what he started. After swimming for over an hour, his stroke was still strong and sure! Unlike the Tzu Chi volunteers who in spite of just sitting on two jet skis coasting alongside Arnold, their legs were already getting the cramps. From the start, you could see and feel the determination of Arnold not to let the people down and not finishing the swim was never an option. After 1 hour and 46 minutes, Arnold touched the shorelines to thundering applause and cries of relief from the spectators. He made the swim look easy and definitely a role model for the differently abled and for all of us two-legged weaklings!
If you think Arnold was born with strong will, nothing could be farther from truth! Like you and me, his steel-like strength and determination was forged by fire through life's many trials. It was on a fateful day in October 1989 when a freak basketball accident changed the life of a 15 year old third year High School student. He heard a sharp crack after a bad fall and immediately knew it was something major, but was afraid he'll get into trouble if he tells his parents. Although in pain, he shrugs it off! The next day, he could barely move and his whole body was in pain. Left with no choice, he told his parents. They immediately brought him to Olongapo General Hospital and was diagnosed to have complete fracture of the right femur. An operation was done and his leg was placed in cement cast. Against doctor's advise, they immediately left the hospital to recuperate at home because of the mounting hospital expenses. After a month, he learned to walk with crutches. Except for a very small wound that refuses to heal, everything was going well or so he thinks!
One day, he observed that his foot was turning blue and was excreting foul smelling fluid. He was immediately brought to the hospital and was told that the wound at his operated right femur acquired severe Pseudomonas infection and was in really bad shape. Luckily, they met the Gift of Love Foundation composed of wives of US Military Servicemen. They took pity on him and shouldered his expenses at the UST Hospital in order to try to save his leg. For three months, the doctors tried all the expensive antibiotics but the infection refused to budge. Having used up the fund allotted to him by the World Rehab Fund and tired of staying in bed, he screamed at doctors to amputate his leg. They prepared him psychologically and Arnold thought he was prepared to lose his leg until after the operation. He woke up crying and feeling self-pity. He became so bitter with the world that he was blaming their poverty and everyone else for his fate except himself. He unleashed his short fuse on his mother who took everything in stride without saying anything. In spite of everything he did to spite her, his mother continued to be at his bedside, taking very good care of him. One day, it just dawned on him that his attitude is just hurting the people who loved him and that feeling sony will not bring back his foot He has to help himself if he wants people to help him. Light shines at the end of the tunnel, with the full support of his family and friends he changed his attitude and regained his self-esteem and most importantly his zest for life. Because of his long rehabilitation at the UST Hospital, he became a regular fixture and befriended a lot of people. He was offered a job at the UST Rehabilitation Center. While working, he took the opportunity to attend the FREE Night school and was able to finish his High School studies through sheer determination. By this time he was already 18 years old.
In 1993, Because of his very good performance, he was sent to Downey, California USA to leam how to fabricate steel braces. When he came back, he was became the Vocational Coordinator for the UST Rehab Center and a brace maker at the same time. Feeling good about himself and regaining his self-esteem; He started working out in the gym too. In 1994, without any formal training, he joined a powerlifting competition which he handily won. Having found his niche in life, there was no looking back as he collected one gold medal after the other.
Looking back, he credited everything to what he accomplished now to his loving mother who never gave up on him in spite of his difficult and painful words said towards her during his year-long confinement. He shuddered to think what he could have become if his mother gave up on him and let him wallow in self-pity. He also felt so blessed by the Lord that everything he needs help, somehow, somewhere someone unexpectedly offers their help asking nothing in return.
Arnold Mina Balais now 30, have moved on to greener pasture working for a private prosthesis manufacturer in Cebu. He is deep in training for the forthcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Paralympics to be held in Manila. He admits that occasionally he still feel sad, but he never to allow his mind to wallow in self-pity. Instead, he looked at his handicap as one big challenge and continue to do what he loved doing most - SPORTS and advocacy for the disabled!
Tzu Chi Zamboanga is truly blessed to have learned valuable life lessons from him and can look back to this one leg swimmer who challenged nature and won. If he can, anyone can! That is what Arnold proved and that is what he wants the abled and differently abled people to leam from his feat and his life! He says: "If by successfully crossing the channel I am able to change the way a person feels about himself for the better, then all the sacrifices I had to endure during my training is made worthwhile and worth the amputation of my right leg!"