Two months into their relationship, Atty. Allen Liberato-Espino and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Ronald Espino already knew how they would name their future kids. One of their favorite things to do is stargazing by the beach so they thought of naming their first child Tala if they get a girl, and Alon, if the universe gives them a boy.
Allen and Ronald got married after eight years of being in a relationship. In 2013, a year after their wedding, Tala Ysabelle was born. “She literally lit up our lives,” says Allen. “She brought us so much joy.”
Baby Tala had chubby cheeks and slit-thin eyes, the mother says, showing photos of her child at seven months. The girl smiled a lot, too. Whenever she was playing, there was always that sense of wonderment in her eyes. “Pag pinanood mo siyang maglaro, parang laging may magic na nangyayari sa paligid niya.”
Before she turned two, Tala can already sight-read words like ‘cat’ or ‘dog.’ She can sing nursery rhymes, although she can’t really mouth the words clearly. At age 2 ½, Tala seemed still unable to engage verbally with her parents, so Allen thought they needed to have her checked.
“I don’t know if that’s mother’s instinct. But I thought parang something was wrong. Something was amiss,” Allen recalls. Through the help of a therapist friend, the Espinos were able to immediately consult a developmental pediatrician. “Wala namang mawawala,” Tala’s mother thought. “Let’s just go thru this.”
Baby Tala underwent a series of tests and the Espinos found out their daughter was under the autism spectrum. “Hindi kami prepared. Sobrang devastated kami,” Allen tells ANCX, describing one of the lowest points in her family life. “Parang gumuho talaga ang mundo namin.”
Allen has always been a woman of action. She won’t sit on a problem. She faced challenges head on. But at that point in her life, she felt helpless. “We were so depressed na lahat ng pinangarap namin para sa anak namin hindi matutupad. Hindi talaga sya nagsasalita e. Hindi mo siya nakakausap. Hindi siya sumasagot ng yes or no questions. Hindi siya nagsasabi ng gusto niya.”
The husband and wife talked about their situation and prayed about it. After some time, they had a realization: their world doesn’t end after Tala’s diagnosis. “Na-realize ko, hindi naman siya nagbago. Siya pa rin yun,” Allen tells ANCX. “Ang maganda lang, alam na namin ang mga challenges na kakaharapin niya at kaya naming paghandaan. Kaya naming mag-commit ng resources para maging high-functioning person siya.”
From then on, action woman Allen was back. She started looking at Tala’s situation on a positive note. “Sinasabi ko sa sarili ko na at least ang anak namin meron siyang resources. Lahat ng kailangan niyang support ay makukuha niya para lumaki siya na may laban,” she says. Tala would later undergo early intervention classes, speech classes, occupational therapy classes, social classes and many more. Today, says the proud mom, the girl is a chatty eight-year-old who dreams of becoming a K-Pop star.
“Naisip ko lang, sana lahat ng kids may ganoong access,” says Allen. “Madaming bata in exceptionally difficult circumstances na hindi nabibigyan ng pansin, ng resources, ng saya—na kanilang-kanila talaga.”
Her daughter’s story inspired Allen to organize a gift donation drive to spread joy to kids in exceptionally difficult circumstances. “Gusto ko yung mga bata na hindi nakakatikim ng Pasko ay makakuha ng gift na talagang gustong gusto nila,” the mom says. “Yung winish talaga nila. Yung pinapangarap nila. So that when they open the gift, matutuwa sila ang they can feel na para sa kanila ang Pasko. Very central dun sa project yung kinukuha ang wishes ng mga bata,” she says. Allen and Ronald decided to name the gift donation drive after their daughter—“Tala ng Pasko.”
Tala’s mom wanted to start the wish-granting project in 2016, but the ball only started rolling in 2017. It was when she saw a Facebook post of a friend, Jean Enriquez, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women–Asia Pacific (CATW-AP). Allen, head of FORA, a strategic communications consulting firm that specializes in advocacy and policy communications, has worked with Jean on previous projects.
Jean has been helping out the orphans of the drug war. “Nag-post siya about a healing session. They were providing psychological first-aid sa mga batang biktima ng tokhang,” recalls Allen. “Yung pictures nila compelled me to finally start the project. Iyon na ang hinihintay kong nudge…Nung time na yun, 2017, people were fighting over the drug war. But they were forgetting kung sino talaga ang biktima—yung mga batang nawalan ng tatay at nanay. I think that spurred me into action.”
Allen then asked Jean of CATW-AP if she would be open to the idea of making the drug war orphans the beneficiary of her Tala ng Pasko Project. Jean warmly welcomed the idea.
With their partnership settled, Allen thought her resources might be a little limited to provide gifts to all the kids. She brought up the idea to her friends. “Sabi ko, if I can get 50 kids and I have 200 or 250 friends, siguro meron naman akong friends na magbibigay. Simple lang din naman ang mga wishes ng mga bata—bola, damit, sapatos.”
Allen formed a private Facebook group for the Tala ng Pasko Project, inviting only her close friends. Then members of her barkada also invited their own set of friends until the donors grew to its current number of 360. “Ayokong i-public [ang group] kasi ayoko ng parang pinanlilimos mo ang mga bata. Gusto ko may dignidad. Gusto ko sala ang mga tao. Yung gustong tumulong and won’t say anything bad,” she explains. “Very sensitive din kasi ang circumstances ng mga bata, so I really could not publicize.”
Through the gift-giving, Allen, Jean and their friends wish to change the way the kids look at life. “Galit sila e. Galit sila sa mundo. Galit sila sa buhay. Galit sila sa mga tao for taking their parents away from them,” says Allen. “Gusto namin ipakita na may nagmamahal sa [kanila]. [They] can still turn to other people. There’s still some goodness left in this world. Para hindi sila lumaki na jaded, na violent.”
Allen and Jean were so happy that they were able to find sponsors for all the children. “Part of the experience is that the donors themselves would buy the gifts for their chosen beneficiary. Ang maganda dun, yung mga donors namin, sila ang mas may nakuha sa experience. Sila ang nagte-thank you sa amin for the opportunity to help,” she shares.
They did the drive for a second time in 2018 with the same set of kids but added new ones from four other communities. The group was able to get the wishes of over 100 kids that year. Since many would like to participate in the project but didn’t have the time to shop, Allen volunteered to do the shopping and gift-wrapping for them.
Allen was supposed to do another round of the Tala ng Pasko project in 2019, still with the tokhang victims, but she came face to face with a health problem. “Late 2019, marami na akong nararamdaman sa sarili ko. Sabi ko, parang di ko ito kayang ituloy this year,” she recalls. It was only in February 2020 when she found out she has Stage 3 breast cancer.
She underwent breast surgery a week before the first Covid lockdown in the country. Suffice it to say, it was tough going through the ordeal—tougher that it happened during the pandemic. After the operation, she had to undergo six chemotherapy sessions and 30 radiation sessions. By October 5, her last radiation session, she was completely exhausted. “November, parang wala akong lakas ituloy ang project, kaya nagpahinga kami sa Tala ng Pasko ng two years.”
Thankfully, Allen has recovered from the cancer and is back in shape. Because of this, she’s decided to revive the gift giving drive for Christmas 2021. When a friend of hers posted a status on Facebook asking for help for pediatric cancer warriors, she right away messaged this friend and offered to sponsor the kids’ wishes for the holidays.
These are children from different hospitals like the Philippine General Hospital, Philippine Children’s Medical Center, and Las Piñas General Hospital. They come from all over Metro Manila, and provinces like Bulacan and Bataan.
“Sa dinami-dami ng mga children in exceptionally difficult circumstances, kaya sila ang napili ko this year is because of my experience,” she says. “Ako na matanda, nahirapan sa cancer, sila pa kayang mga bata? Fortunate ako kasi wala na ako doon [sa state yon]. And I’m hoping that I have moved on completely. Pero sila hindi ko alam gaano katagal pa makikipag-battle ang mga batang ito against their disease. Alam kong mahirap. Alam ko rin na may ilan sa kanila na hindi magsa-succeed.”
Which is why the focus of the Tala ng Pasko Project this year, says Allen, is to celebrate life while there’s still time. “Cancer changes everything. You come face to face with your mortality. Magkakaroon ka ng realization na finite ang time mo. Tapos i-apply mo yun sa buhay ng mga batang may cancer. Gaano kaikli ang buhay? Gaano ka-delicate? Gaano ka-limited ang time mo to make these kids very happy?”
Allen showed ANCX some of the photos of the kids holding a list of their Christmas wishes. From what they wrote, it seems it would take very little to put a smile on their faces. They listed down biscuits, clothes (dress, jogger pants), toys (basketball, Lego, toy dinosaur, RC car, a doll, bicycle). Most of them request for milk, especially Pediasure and Igco, which are especially recommended for cancer patients. Allen is happy to note that donors in this run are so generous the group is able to provide most of the kids’ wishes. Some even donated bicycles.
“Nakakalungkot lang,” Allen says, her voice trailing off. “Feeling ko kasi ang mga batang ito, hindi mo alam kung next year makakapagpasko pa sila.” She knows she can only do so much—but making their simple wishes come true can make a difference. “Yun bang, ma-achieve nila yung rurok ng happiness kahit isang araw lang,” Tala’s mother says, holding back her tears, “kasi naibigay namin ang inaasam ng kanilang very pure and simple hearts.”