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NY benefit showcases artistry of kids with autism

/ 01:57 AM April 15, 2017

Model presents a creation by Anthony Cruz Legarda. The modern Maria Clara is made with indigenous materials from the Philippines featuring a hand-painted artwork by a child with autism. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

NEW YORK—On the occasion of April as World Autism Awareness Month, Bay Area-based Erlinda Borromeo and her team flew in from San Francisco to New York City to promote autism awareness and services for individuals and families affected by the disease.

The team is from Autism Hearts Foundation (AHF), an organization founded by Borromeo that seeks to empower every child with autism to “reach their maximum potential while developing opportunities for entrepreneurship and helping them become self-sustaining individuals.”

The grandmother of a child with autism, Borromeo is no stranger to the pain and disillusionment associated with autism—a lifelong condition characterized by deficits in communication and social skills, and challenging behaviors, among others.


Series of events

Through a series of three events, the AHF group showcased the softer side of living with the disease.


Model presents a hand-painted creation by one of the visiting Filipino children with autism. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

Last Monday, they joined an autism event at the United Nations where one of the local organizers, Carol Tanjutco, spoke about the importance of meaningful livelihood for autistic children.

On Wednesday, the beautiful works of six special children from the Philippines were featured at an art workshop held at the Philippine consulate.

Capping the week’s events was last Friday’s benefit fashion show featuring the couture collection of Anthony Cruz Legarda, a Fil-Am designer widely known for his work using indigenous materials, who successfully incorporated the designs of the autistic children into his piña collection.


Erlinda Borromeo, president of Autism Hearts Foundation (left) and Consul General Tess Dizon de Vega. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

“I spoke at the United Nations and told the audience about what we do,” Tanjutco, who is an AHF local organizing partner in New York, told

“I challenged them about their global initiative. They’re talking about healthcare; they’re talking about where they can put the children, but nobody is talking about meaningful livelihood—something where the children can have their own satisfaction and happiness by having their own money. So I told them about our Philippine initiative and they were very appreciative,” she added.

Several benefit events


Tanjutco explained that while they may have produced several benefit events in a week, these were not the main moneymakers. “These events we are doing are to create awareness and hopefully we can tap corporate sponsors to help AHF programs and services for these kids with autism.”


Hon. Harry Thomas (former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines) with wife Mithi Aquino Thomas (right) and Mrs. Eleanor de Leon. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

For his part, Legarda became involved with the foundation when “Mrs. Borromeo approached me in 2014 and asked me if I’d be interested to do a fashion show to benefit the autistic children.”

Without hesitation, the Fil-Am designer agreed to collaborate with AHF.

“I know that children with autism are really good with painting, so for the next three years, we gathered eight children who would paint on piña, my favorite textile,” Legarda told

The fashion show held at the consulate featured two parts: a scarf collection that boasted the intricate painting of the young artists and Legarda’s piña couture gowns and dresses that revealed the children’s beautiful artworks.

“The scarves, the children did it on their own,” Legarda said. “Now when it came to my collection, that took about a year to make (from painting to concept to actual design). The group followed an artistic direction whereby from the textiles, I turn them into gowns.”

Beautiful couture

Legarda, who has transformed the delicate artworks of the young artists into beautiful pieces of couture, depicted things from the Philippines as well as his experiences living in San Francisco and New York.

“I put these ideologies together and came up with a creation that is very now. Because we wanted to make a Filipino American statement, everything is made of piña,” he said.


FilAm fashion designer Anthony Cruz Legarda and program host Henni Espinosa of Balitang America. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

The Fil-Am community in New York welcomed the benefit event with much gusto and appreciation.

Jean Nabong, a volunteer model, found the event inspirational. “It’s touching to see these kids share their talents,” she told “It makes me cry knowing that we gave these kids a chance to show their talent and artistry. I will always support this event no matter what.”

“The artworks done by these kids with autism who flew all the way from Manila are very intricate and were deeply admired by folks that support our cause,” said Myrna Gutierrez, AHF co-organizer in New York. “A lot of people now want to purchase these shawls and gowns.”

Amazing designs

For Jeanette Marco, host of “Get Reel TV” who is a constant supporter of kids with autism, “Anthony’s simple designs were amazing, it’s heartwarming and inspiring for everyone, especially that Anthony was able to highlight the kids’ designs into his collection.”

“It’s so interesting how he [Legarda] uses Filipino materials and those hand-painted designs are one way of maximizing awareness about the disease. This is a milestone for our community,” said Miguel Braganza, a theater arts teacher and producer.

Medical doctor Jon Rafael thinks it’s about time to shine the light on some of the triumphs of children with autism.


Model with a hand-painted creation by one of the visiting Filipino children with autism. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

Mithi Aquino could not agree more. “I’m happy that fashion and art have been used a medium to reach out to people in promoting awareness about autism,” said the wife of Harry Thomas, former ambassador of the U.S. to the Philippines and now to Zimbabwe.

Time to shine

“It’s time for them [autistic kids] to shine. It’s time for them to be in the center stage and hopefully the whole world will be aware about these special kids. And that many will see and appreciate their creations as well. I want to bring one of their creations to Africa,” she added.

In her speech, New York Consul General Tess Dizon de Vega lauded the efforts of AHF and the movers and shakers who made things possible for this noble cause. The Philippine consulate general in New York was among the partner government agencies that helped AHF stage their show at the Philippine Center on Fifth Avenue.

“It is truly an honor to be part of this wonderful advocacy and campaign,” De Vega said in her speech.

She told the audience how the event reminded her of “Life Animated,” a movie she had seen last year.

“In this film, we can see how distinct persons with autism are and how there is this desire despite their seeming lack of communication or attention or connection to the world to reach out,” De Vega said.


Autism Hearts Foundation beneficiary Nina Bantoto (right) and benefit show committee co-chair Carol Tanjutco. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

“This is what we’re celebrating tonight and when I met our young artists with autism, I immediately thought of Owen [person with autism in the documentary] and this is what psychologists called the ‘communicative intent’ which is inherent in all human beings in which I would like to believe, it is inherited in all young artists that we are showcasing today,” she added.

Steady progress

She noted the steady progress of support in the Philippines for children with autism and their families. Aside from the Magna Carta for Persons with Disabilities, various executive orders and presidential proclamations promote awareness about autism, she said. Autism awareness month is likewise celebrated in the country, which leads Southeast Asia in providing educational programs for autistic children.

“But all these are institutional. Every individual like you here tonight can play a part. Mother Teresa once said, ‘You don’t have to wait for leaders, you can do it alone, person to person’ and that is exactly what each one of you is doing here tonight,” De Vega said.

“And for many years, persons with autism were judged or were seen in terms of their deficits, their challenges, their difficulties, when ranged against typically developing persons but tonight, we’re not doing that. Tonight, we’re doing something else. We’re looking at the other side of the coin.


Model presents a hand-painted creation by one of the visiting Filipino children with autism. INQUIRER/Elton Lugay

“Tonight, we are celebrating and admiring and recognizing their strengths, their ability to do visual thinking, and also their utmost focus on details which is rules-based thinking, which is sometimes difficult for typically developing persons, and exceptional memory skills. And we see all these strengths tonight in the distinctive artistic output and expression of all our young artists supported by organizations like Autism Hearts Foundation [and] Autism Speaks, shaped by their teachers—art teachers and nurtured by much love by their families, especially by their parents,” according to the Philippine consul general in New York.

So much to know

Henni Espinosa, anchor of Balitang America and emcee of the event’s program, said there was so much to know about autism and what could be done to help individuals affected by it. She cited official estimates placing autism prevalence at one in 16 children in the U.S., including one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls.

Espinosa, who did a story on AHF in 2008, lauded Borromeo as a grandmother who would do anything for her grandson and whose act of love has turned into a commitment to serve the community.

Aside from her grandson Julien Borromeo, persons with autism who participated in the benefit shows in New York were Jorel Alegre, Nina Bantoto, Vico Cham, Nick Huang, Samantha Aragon Kaspar, Julyan Harrison, Karl Oliveros, Daniel Sanchez, and J.A. Tan.

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TAGS: Anthony Cruz Legarda, autism, autism benefit event, Autism Hearts Foundation (AHF), children with autism, Erlinda Borromeo, Filipino children with autism, Magna Carta for Persons with Disabilities
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