THE FIRST thing one would probably notice upon entering the gates of the Maria Lena Buhay Memorial Foundation, Inc. would be the unmistakable sound of children’s laughter.

But the foundation is no ordinary school—it is a special place where hearing-impaired kids are given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to talk and be heard.

Established in 1987, the 22-year-old oral school located at Blueridge-B, Quezon City is the first of its kind in the country. It teaches kids who have hearing problems to develop the communication skills they need in a normal environment, while at the same time nursing their intellectual, social and spiritual growth.

Through the years, the foundation has helped dozens of kids to talk, all thanks to the vision of one Thomasian miracle worker, Leticia Buhay.

Start of a dream

Even at a young age, Leticia had always been fascinated with speech. Not surprisingly, when the time came to choose a college course, she took up journalism at the then Faculty of Philosophy and Letters in UST.

Leticia’s love for oral communication drove her to learn more about speech. She took up a master’s degree in English in UST and pursued further studies abroad.

“I initially wanted to master in speech,” Leticia said. “But a friend told me about something new called speech therapy so I applied to different universities offering that course.”

Leticia eventually struck gold at the University of Illinois, which gave her a fellowship grant—free tuition and an allowance to boot. After learning all that she could in the course, she came back and taught public speaking at UST in the hope of sharing her accumulated knowledge of speech with others.

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Her interest and passion made her a shoo-in as the speech therapist at the UST Hospital’s A. Mabini Rehabilitation Center. After class, Leticia would run to the hospital’s back door to fulfill this role. The hard work paid off, as her part-time job at the hospital eventually blossomed into a full-time career at the Manila Hearing Aid Center.

It was here where Leticia began toying with the idea of establishing a speech school for hearing-impaired kids.

“I had a group of 10 hearing-impaired children whose parents wanted me to open a school because I taught their children words,” she said. Initially, Leticia considered the prospect, but mulled over the logical approach as to what to teach the kids.

“We cannot bring them to a sign school because it defeats the purpose of why they are learning speech,” she said. “Similarly, we cannot bring them to a normal school because the tempo might be too fast—they might be left behind. It was at that time that the parents suggested I strike a happy medium—build a school that will teach them to speak (while learning subjects at the same time).”

In 1986, the beginning of the dream was established. But it was not until later that year that Leticia would fully embrace the cause.

Last ‘wish’

Once again, Leticia packed her bags and went abroad to learn modern trends in teaching hearing-impaired kids.

Tragedy struck in April 1986 when her daughter Maria Lena, a graduating psychology student at the Ateneo de Manila University, succumbed to leukemia. Her close friend told Leticia that her daughter wished to open a speech school for the hearing-impaired.

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“I went to the States in June and came back in December,” said Leticia. “I and my husband Roger laid the plans and the following year, in 1987, we opened the school and named it after Maria Lena, in honor of her wishes.”

Teaching hearing-impaired kids to speak is no easy task. Each kid must be equipped with hearing aids in order for them to hear sounds, which will eventually lead to them speaking.

“Talking is speaking by ear,” said Leticia. “It is very hard to speak if you cannot hear sounds.”

Despite the difficult task, Leticia is determined to teach the kids how to communicate orally, since she considers speaking as still the “number one mode of communication.”

Leticia’s commitment to her advocacy has reaped concrete benefits for her students in the corporate world. Many of her graduates have become successful entrepreneurs. And they all have their “teacher ma’am,” a term the students fondly call Leticia, to thank for.

“My only wish this Christmas would be for more people to donate to us,” said Leticia, “I hope the donors will be fellow Thomasians, so that they may realize that helping these hearing-impaired kids will really make a difference in their lives.”

Currently, the kids are busy preparing for their Christmas concert, where they will be able to show their progress through the simple act of singing Christmas carols and dancing along the music. Though the carols may be monotone given that the children have trouble identifying the pitch, just hearing their sons and daughters sing and try their best is divine music to the parents’ ears. Emil Karlo A. Dela Cruz

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