Persy So: A life well-lived
Perseveranda So, better known as Persy, was just a little girl when she first enrolled herself in school. Handing Persy her birth certificate, Ernesto So gently directed her to a line and told her to give the certificate to a waiting teacher. He then took a step back to watch what his young daughter would do. Would she refuse to leave his side like an older sibling had done when faced with the same challenge? After a few minutes, Persy returned to her father, waving a piece of paper. “Tay, Grade 1 student na po ako! (Dad, I’m a Grade 1 student now,)” she said proudly.
From a young age, Persy exhibited a commitment to education and children, which would exemplify her life and career. “We taught her that the older children should always look after the younger ones,” Mr. So said. It was something Persy took to heart - making sure that her cousins attended school and even giving her younger sister, Eleanor, her first reading lesson.
Education was so important to Persy that even though she was unable to attend her own graduation from the University of the Philippines – Los Banos because of a fire that hit their home, she always went out of her way to attend all her loved one’s graduation ceremonies. “Dad, don’t you know that not everyone who starts school finishes?” Mr. So recalled his daughter saying.
It was no surprise then that as an adult, Persy continued to advocate for children’s rights, particularly their right to an education. As Chief of Education for UNICEF Philippines, Persy was instrumental in the passage of the Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Law in the country and pioneering the multi-grade system in local schools. She brought her crusade for children to Indonesia and Cambodia where she helped create child-friendly schools, and was in Pakistan helping girls gain greater access to education when a bomb ripped through the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar in June 2009.
“Persy was talking on the phone at the time, giving instructions to one of her staff when the explosion happened,” said Eleanor. “Until her last moments, she was working for children.”
From Peshawar to San Roque
The way to Barangay San Roque in Guimaras begins where the asphalt road ends. It’s a long way from the Philippines’ capital of Manila, and even a longer way from Peshawar. But both places, like many other isolated and poverty-stricken areas where Persy worked, have young children who now have a chance at an education.
In time for Persy’s first year death anniversary, the Perseveranda So Memorial Day Care Centre opened its doors to the small farming community’s children on 22 May 2010. UNICEF country representative Vanessa Tobin said other memorials are planned as a tribute to Persy as she praised her commitment to children.
“It’s very difficult to work for UNICEF,” she said. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job. You become dedicated. It’s different because it’s for children. It’s your children. It’s our children. Persy worked everywhere. The most important future any country has is its children. Peshawar is very beautiful, but violent. The risk to staff can’t be underestimated, but the risk to children is even greater. We support the construction of daycare centres where we can and San Roque is an example of where UNICEF wanted to do something to honor Persy.”
Speaking before other parents and their children at the centre’s opening, Ernesto So said he and his family were overwhelmed by the impact Persy had and how her efforts helped change the landscape of Philippine education. “We never expected such a warm welcome. My daughter always talked about ECCD, but I never understood. When I was younger, we started school at the age of 7. We didn’t even know how to hold pencils. “
As the community’s children played with toys and books donated by UNICEF, family friend Arleen Sena noted that Persy would often bring her friends and family to the places where she worked. “Even now that she’s no longer here, she’s still leading us to the places where children need help,” she said.
Opening doors for forgotten children
The centre is stocked with complete ECCD supplies including books, musical instruments and toys. The washstands are positioned at a child-friendly height and there are separate comfort rooms for boys and girls. However, the real gift is the future it will open up for the barangay’s disadvantaged children, as they take their first steps toward a lifelong education. Studies have shown that children who attend daycare fare better in early grades and are less likely to drop out from school.
Inside the daycare centre, twins Tamara and Tamia leaf through picture books and play with musical instruments. Their grandmother, Herna Ramos, walks several kilometres everyday to sell noodles and fruits so she can provide for them while their father is stationed in the city of Tacloban as a soldier. Sometimes, she would have to bring her grandchildren with her because there is no one else to watch over them. She said the centre is a big help to the community.
As she watches her granddaughters lose themselves in new books, Herna offers a silent prayer for Persy – a woman she had never heard of until that day, but whose life is now intertwined with her family’s and so many others.
While Tamara and Tamia and the other children of San Roque may never meet the children of Peshawar, they are connected by Persy’s sacrifice and her hope that one day, another child might be able to run to their parents, hold their head up high and proclaim that, “Mom, Dad, I’m now a student!”