As the sun began its descent, its golden rays filtered through the windows of Rachel Harrison’s home, shinning on a collection of paintings her family had acquired throughout the years. She was most proud, however, of two colorfully abstracted works hanging side by side on one end.
Beaming with pride, Harrison animatedly recalled how her 25-year-old Julyan picked up painting, eventually to be discovered to exhibit in San Francisco, USA. She was telling the story herself, not only because her son was away, but for the very reason that he would be unable to do so had he been present at this interview.
It was Filipino-American Erlinda Borromeo of San Francisco who invited Julyan to ex
hibit his works abroad. She is a known autism advocate and art patron who regularly visits the Philippines to discover artists with special needs and encourage them to shine.
‘End of the world’
It was in the mid-1990s when Julyan was diagnosed with autism—a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as defined by Autism Speaks Organization. He was only two years old at that time and public understanding of the condition was just in its early stages.
“I had not even heard of the word ‘autism’ until he was diagnosed,” Harrison, a former flight attendant who married British banker Keith, recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine.
Julyan was born in Hong Kong and spent his earliest years in the former British colony. With no cases of autism from either side of his parents, the telltale signs of autism that were manifesting as he developed were easily dismissed. Harrison and her husband simply thought Julyan was a shy boy when he would hide under their table when visitors came to the house, or refuse to play with other children. They also thought that his speech was delayed when he should have been starting to string simple sentences.
It was only when Harrison returned to the Philippines for a short vacation with her son in tow that she realized Julyan may need professional help. She came across a newspaper article on autism awareness week, which enumerated signs of the condition.
“Nervously, I ticked off almost every item on the list [based on Julyan’s habits and responses]. And when he was diagnosed, it felt like the end of the world—the dreams that a mother has for her child, all suddenly gone,” Harrison intimated.
It was truly a big blow, especially to a mother who herself is a confessed dreamer. Harrison was an architecture graduate who wanted to see the world and jumped at the chance to do so by working as a flight attendant. Her decision afforded her countless priceless experiences, and she was hoping her middle child, like her two other sons, would be able to do the same.
“It actually felt like you lost a child,” Harrison continued, adding that the diagnosis rendered her in a state of depression. “But then, you recover and ask what can be done. So I told the family, ‘Let’s be proactive about it and see how we can help him’.”
Julyan’s diagnosis came at a time when the Internet was not as accessible as it is today. As such Harrison had to do her research the traditional way—she visited libraries and bought published works at bookstores to read up as much as she can on autism.
And because Julyan was diagnosed at such a young age, Harrison had all the hope that her son would recover—after all, she was not fully aware of autism and its severity.
“At that time, you always hoped that maybe, if you do everything you can, you will help him recover.”
Without questions, Harrison and her husband allowed Julyan to undergo whatever therapy or treatment professionals recommended, hoping at least one of them may be “the one” to “cure him.”
It was only after a decade of consultation, therapy sessions and skyrocketing bills and the Harrisons accepted the truth.
“It got to a point when you just realize that no matter your effort, your child has already reached his full potential. So from then on, we would make Julyan go to therapies not for him to recover but to acquire life skills,” she openly shared.
And so, despite Julyan’s condition, the Harrisons—who have lived in Hong Kong, Switzerland, the United States and Singapore owing to the head of the family’s job —tried their best to be like any other family. They happily realized too that they can enjoy social and recreational activities like dining out, taking skiing trips as well as biking, all with Julyan actively participating.
“We always treated him normally, but at the same time we knew we are a different family in the way that we—my two other boys included—endured stares from strangers when Julyan had episodes of tearing his shirt off or suddenly screaming, especially during the early years. It was a constant struggle but it never occurred to us to give up,” Harrison smiled.
It was this loving and strong-willed mother who persisted in involving Julyan in everyday activities. Her motivation was a belief that special people have the right to be included in the community and that those who have the capacity to understand them will be the ones to adjust to their situation.
Fortunately, the therapy sessions and a nurturing home allowed Julyan lead a life that helped and suited him. Additionally, the environment when they were still based in Switzerland—which, according to Harrison proved to be the best country for people with special needs, among the others they lived in—gave Julyan the kind of peace he needed most.
“When Keith’s job had us moving to Singapore after that, Julyan had to endure the bustling city and unfortunately, it did him no good,” Harrison related of their ups and downs. But by then, she had already educated herself with the ins and outs of autism as best as she can, and eventually decided it was time to look for an alternative.
And so in 2010, almost 30 years since she last stayed beyond a short vacation, Harrison felt it was time for her and Julyan to come home. They settled in Harrison’s hometown in San Narciso, Zambales where she had a 12-hectare property. She decided it was the best place for her then 18-year-old son, away from the noise of the city and with its serene atmosphere.
Armed with her knowledge in autism, background in architecture and love for arts, Harrison built a vacation home near the coast where she and Julyan could live.
“The conversion of the property was the result of the application of all my experiences,” Harrison rightly said with pride.
A picture-perfect five-bedroom luxury vacation home, Harrison purposely chose to use glass panels all around the structure following what she picked up in Switzerland that “one learns in the midst of a beautiful environment.” Inside are eclectic pieces from their many trips around the globe.
“The objective was to make [the house]soothing for the soul,” she added.
And so, in the first two months moving to Zambales, Harrison took Julyan’s hand, patiently taught him skills he would need every time she has to leave. The rest of their family was still living in Singapore and Harrison had to fly back and forth to visit her husband and Julyan’s other siblings.
Surely it was not that easy for the family to be apart, including Julyan, but Harrison knew that a mother needed to be strong even when her heart felt like breaking. She was firm on her decision that Julyan needs to learn to be on his own so that whenever he would cry out for her when the first time she left for Singapore, she stopped herself from looking back.
“It was tough love,” she tearfully said.
In Singapore, she also had the task of explaining to Julyan’s two brothers why she had to take him away from them.
“I explained this to them that when I find a way to give Julyan a purpose in his life, they won’t have to take care of him. My vision was for Julyan to be self-sufficient so he won’t need to depend on his brothers when he gets old and my husband and I are already gone.”
Immediately, without their parents asking them, Alexander and Jonathan—Julyan’s older and younger brother—accepted and cooperated with their mother’s project. Slowly but surely, the family adjusted to their set up wherein every month, Harrison flies back and forth to their two homes, while special occasions and holidays meant everyone going to the Philippines.
For his part, Julyan was also able to adapt to his new lifestyle—from cleaning up his room, building and tending to his farm, cooking and even surfing. He effectively made a life of his own.
“Yes it was hard and I have to admit it was an expensive decision but it had to be done. It’s very important for him to learn employable skills to make him functional,” Harrison asserted.
Today Julyan has his hands full tending to their property which is now a popular luxury accommodation called Zambawood.
They also extended the property with Julyan’s Surf BnB, an additional five-bedroom bread and breakfast structure. Additionally his mother proudly updated that not far from their accommodations, Julyan’s mini garden has grown into a full farm that produces harvest such as ampalaya and watermelon they sell in the local market.
“He has his friends now—the people at Zambawood have become his friends. Even the people from the local market have befriended him. Whenever he goes with the staff to buy ingredients for the kitchen, they call him by his name,” Harrison happily related adding he no longer runs after her whenever she needs to leave for Singpore.
And of course, Julyan developed his painting skills along the way, which saw its full potential three years ago when he represented the Philippines in a United Nations art event for special people. His works have also been used by celebrated fashion designer Patis Tesoro and by San Francisco-based designer Anthony Legarda in their collections both showcased in New York.
‘If Julyan can’
With Julyan’s achievements—major ones to be sure—Harrison believes her son is a testament that people can be who they want to be no matter what.
“All these things Julyan learned through constant repetitions, through following instructions regularly.
“Therefore, he is a realization that when you really want to learn something and you put your heart into it, you can do it… If Julyan can, so can you,” the mother emphasized.
More importantly, Harrison said that Julyan is in a much happier disposition right now—he laughs more often and no longer throws tantrums as frequently as before.
As she enjoyed watching her son develop, coupled with the steady growth of their incidental business in Zambales, Harrison found the inspiration to share their experience with other families with special members.
“One time I asked myself, would I be happy if he’s the only one to develop these life skills? To me, answering yes would be selfish.”
Soon enough, the idea of building a learning center where she can use the methods that worked for Julyan to help other Filipinos with special needs came to be.
“Julyan is proof to other parents that their children can do more and be more—that they are not good for nothing,” Harrison emphatically explained. “So what I’m doing in Zambales right now is sharing what I’ve learned through all our travels and all the schools that I have gone to. I picked out which ones are applicable to the Philippines.”
Harrison chose to begin with the Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical approach wherein the environment and nature are incorporated in learning. Eventually, she also plans to incorporate culinary arts, farming, bartending and arts and crafts into the center’s curriculum.
But much as she wants to speed up the building of the art center and eventually expand their existing business to accommodate graduates in the future, Harrison knows the only way to do so is to seek the help of both public and private organizations who will share in her vision.
Already, she is grateful for the help of so many kind-hearted and generous individuals—a private citizen who donated the lot where the center will soon stand; the office of Senator Cynthia Villar, which has been giving free farming training; Accelsprout, which provides natural fertilizers to make the sandy soils of Zambales planting-friendly; Allied Botanical for the seedlings they use in Julyan’s farm; muralist KR Raposas, Riva Ridad and Patricia Dizon for volunteering to work on a massive mural for the center; and coffee brand Nescafe, which has provided machines for Julyan’s Coffee Corner.
While the physical Julyan Arts and Skills Centre has yet to be completed within the year, Harrison has also already partnered with Rotary Housekeeping and Barista Academy to become venues for persons with disabilities to further their training in Zambawood.
And despite the many challenges that come with fulfilling her mission, Harrison promises she will not give up especially after seeing the gap in this underserved segment of the society.
“I have learned that globally, 10 percent of the population belong to the special needs community. In the Philippines you can barely see them, not because we have fewer of them but because families tend to hide them,” Harrison informed citing incidences when, upon looking for future students, they met skeptical parents who believe their children with autism are useless and are a burden to them.
“So for now what we are initially instilling is awareness for the community and also for the parents. They must be aware that disability doesn’t mean their children cannot have fun and be productive in life.”
At the end of the day, Harrison dreams parents of people with autism can prepare their children for a bigger world someday, just as she did with Julyan.
“Parents are only delegated to raise their children, not to impose what they should do every step of the way. I believe children can and should have their own lives, even those who have autism. So if I can make a difference in the lives of 10 or even just five children and to their families, I think I’d be able to say that I have fulfilled God’s purpose for me,” Harrison ended.