A Look Back at the US Sports Envoy Program (Part 2)

Manila – Cebu – Manila

by Eric Hodgson

On the mid Sunday of the two weeks came a visit to Bahay Mapagmahal, an orphanage in Manila for children with disabilities. There was a small room and 20 or so children awaiting the team along with Adeline who had set up the visit. She was giving back as this was the orphanage she was raised in for 10 years growing up and where she found power lifting.

A rope was strung across the middle of the room, no bigger than an American kitchen, and the children split up on sides and began to play sitting volleyball. The smiles and laughter was almost immediate and more than infectious. The children played, figuring out how to move, how to reach and to be active with their maladies, enjoying every second they could on the court. For these few hours, the game wasn’t a game at all, it was pure freedom. After, the children grabbed instruments and played songs for the team, almost all very proficient in stringed instruments. When Katy Perry’s “Firework” was played the smiles got brighter, knowing Americans would appreciate their offering. What was not lost were the lyrics of the song that somehow added to the freedom they just had playing volleyball:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag Drifting through the wind Wanting to start again

Do you ever feel so paper thin Like a house of cards One blow from caving in

Do you ever feel already buried deep Six feet under screams But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there’s still a chance for you ‘Cause there’s a spark in you 

You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine Just own the night Like the fourth of July

‘Cause baby you’re a firework Come on show ’em what your worth
Make ’em go “oh, oh, oh!” As you shoot across the sky-y-y


Everyone shook hands and hugged and as the team headed to the car, the entire school gathered in front of the SUV saying goodbye again, making faces and smiling brightly for a few more pictures. For a few hours, the team had made a difference. Tears indistinguishable with sweat ran down faces into smiles as the night closed in and the new week was upon us.

The clinic starting week two was for the Pasay School District and it encompassed roughly 20-25 teachers and coaches. The Director of the district was there to say a few words and introduce the team. He told us he had 65,000 children in his district- 65,000!!! His schools ran double shifts, his coaches made pennies or volunteered but still this day, they sat and learned and became engaged and then went out into the humid heat and played for much of the afternoon. The next day, at the same school many of the coach’s kids came to a clinic for the younger grades and then the older. The coaches used some games and techniques learned the day before and the kids stayed engaged and busy for the entire day. There was supposed to be 50-60 but as stated, earlier, it grew closer to 100 in each session. No matter, the team ran a rope, had games going almost from the start and helped the athletes with technique, feedback and kept everything positive. The Director asked if the team was coming back next year as he wanted to bring more coaches and kids.

The team headed back to Paranaque the next morning to work with the kids from the coaches we had worked with a week before. The kids were as young as 5 and 6 and as old as High School Seniors but there were, as per normal, way more than anticipated. Skills were gone over and we used the older players to mentor the younger ones which they embraced wholeheartedly. They worked on skills with the younger players from attacking and passing to setting and defense. We taught them all sitting and then let them play over a rope in small court games to accelerate touch counts. The coaches from the week before were there and helped, using some of the coaching thoughts they had gathered 7 days earlier.

J.P. on the right

The team hustled to the airport right after the Paranaque clinic to grab a flight to Cebu, 90 minutes to an island of 6 million. Upon arrival, we met another amazing person who would once again challenge the idea that this is “just a game.” His name was J.P. Maunes and he was the founder and the action behind a group called PADS, (Philippine Accessible Disability/Deaf Services). In just his four months there, JP had gotten the nightly news to add a sign language translator and in the Philippine’s Presidential election, he helped polling places to be more accessible for persons with disabilities to vote, some for the very first time. J.P. was a mover and shaker in this community and yes, he is an upcoming blog as well. He wore a white shirt that said simple, ‘Able Bodied Nation.’

We headed to a local arena in Mandaue City in Cebu the next morning. There we addressed over 70 coaches of Special Education and PWD classes and schools and after some basic coaching thoughts, taught them sitting volleyball to take back to their students. There were several PWD in the gym who had come with some of the teachers or were teachers themselves. What happened for the next few hours was simply magic. These teachers and PWD, mostly men, got on a rope we had set up and with some basic training and rules, let loose. It was obvious that for most if not all, they had not had a physical outlet of fun in a very long time. They served tough, blocked serves, talked smack across the nets and became raucous and totally enthralled. The laughter at one point made J.P. emotional because he hadn’t heard that sound coming from these folks in forever.

The afternoon hosted a clinic for deaf and hard of hearing athletes. Again, skills and play were the norm and then they tried sitting as well, enjoying mixing in with the PWD men who had refused to relinquish their court because they were having so much fun. One of the deaf boys asked to take a picture with Jen and then started crying. We thought he was hurt but he said he was just happy. It’s not just a game…

The next day J.P. got us to a Cebu suburb called Pajo. There we trained more coaches and PWD and deaf and hard of hearing students. The team used the model from the day before putting up ropes to handle the large amount of coaches and athletes. The day we arrived in Cebu, J.P. had brought a couple of his favorite athletes with him and both showed up this day to learn sitting volleyball.

Dexter is in his early 20’s and has an affliction which doesn’t let him use his legs below the knees. He had a wheelchair most of his young life but in the Philippines, there is very little access for PWD. There are rarely ramps into buildings, the sidewalks and roads are uneven and often unpaved. After going through this for so many years, Dexter made an incredible decision. He gave up the wheel chair and began walking on his knees to get around. He has thick rubber pads on his knees, like long volleyball knee pads, and he walks on his knees where ever he goes. He is stared at, he is slow and deliberate but he says he can go where he wants to now and he’s not at the mercy of wheels.

Dexter and Daisy

Daisy is also early 20’s with Phocomelia which is an abnormal growth of limbs or a limb, in her case it’s her right leg which is half the size of her normal left and is supported with a crutch. Daisy is beautiful, charming, loves to dance and tried sitting volleyball for the first time this day, helping the littler kids and working through her own learning curve. She never got frustrated; she never gave up and just enjoyed her time on the court. She would shank a serve and smile and ask how she could get better. She is the youngest of 10 kids in her family and despite her life on a crutch, she is a vocal and effective leader in her local community for women with disabilities and works with J.P. to offer more programming and help make their daily lives better. She was an incredible ambassador for the PWD community and hopefully for sitting volleyball for years to come.

One man in a wheel chair who had been at the clinic from early in the morning stayed off to the side and the back of the proceedings, maybe just taking it all in. Toward the afternoon, when the play got louder, he ventured closer to a court. Finally a ball came toward his chair and he scooped it up. He tossed the ball up and served it over the rope to start a rally. He moved a little closer and served again, and again, and again. At one point, a ball came back to him and he stuck his arms out to pass it. He was now into the court and smiling as his team wanted him to serve every ball.

Just a game?

As the day wound down, the deaf students executed a flawless hip hop dance routine and soon everyone, including the team, was involved: dancing, shouting, singing and extolling the virtues of persons with disabilities everywhere and celebrating life. It got to a fevered pitch with everyone in a circle yelling and singing and dancing. Finally, as the song ended, J.P. got in the middle and yelled, “Let’s hear it for PWD!” and the loudest roar in Cebu echoed over the bay.

The final day in Cebu was spent with many of the same folks from the past two days, including Dexter, in Dragon boating, which is a form of rowing in a specific style of boat more common in Southeast Asia than in America. The team grabbed oars alongside PWD’s and we raced into the bay, taking turns at 10 stokes, 20, 30 50 and even 60 at a clip under the barking rhythm of the boat’s leader. Arms burned, the sun was torrid and the water a cool respite, but the men and women on the boat didn’t notice any of it. They were on the water; someplace many of them, as they climbed from their chairs and crutches, probably never imagined they could be. Working together as a unit, the ultimate team, they powered this 20+ seat hopped up canoe over the water, gliding at times through the small breakers and the wakes of the water taxis.

As soon as the team came back to shore, another group, including Ms. Daisy, went out and trained as well. They came back and the team and the rowers all talked and took pictures under a big shade tree by the dock. The group of PWD struggled at times getting in and out of the boat but J.P. built a transitional seat that made it easier. One thing this team member has learned in the past two years is there is nothing the Filipino people can’t do and being around the deaf, hearing impaired and PWD these two weeks, that idea has become concrete. The team gathered together for one last good bye and as we headed toward the van and our flight back to Manila, we saw Daisy, floating in the bay, effortless and peaceful, finding a place where her crutch wasn’t needed, her disability not in play. It was the perfect ending to our Cebu excursion.

Our final day was in the suburb of Tondo. On the outskirts of Manila near the docks, the town and its inhabitants scrounge for survival. They pore over bags of garbage for food, clothing, shoes and anything they can clean up and sell. Poverty is the norm and human trafficking is routine. In the middle of this ‘war zone’ is a purple building called, appropriately, the Purple House which is home to 411 students of Tondo who have to earn their way in with behavior and a commitment to education. They are schooled and fed daily from private donors and corporations. The clinic was only a half day and only for 30 or so of the students. It was played on a slab of green cement that was the size of a basketball 3 point line with a stage behind it, 3 feet higher. Again, the kids managed to figure out how to navigate the skills games we offered and they had a wonderful 4 hour respite from their daily lives. A few times in the past two weeks, the team introduced ‘Queen of the Court’ to the athletes and having never played it before, they devoured it. Tondo was no exception as they continued to play as the team packed up to leave.

One smaller girl who looked to be 9 or 10 was wearing canvas shoes that had such thin soles, you couldn’t help but think her feet must be getting bruised. She jumped around with everyone, played every drill and never complained once, something that is the norm with these amazing kids. You couldn’t help wonder where she had gotten them.

The team, at least the American part, was headed home. It was hard not to realize, while long days and short nights were the norm, just how much work had been done in these two weeks and the ‘Sweepers’ had been the nucleus of the atom. There aren’t enough Thank You’s for these folks that for the second time in two years, have allowed USA Volleyball to come in and change lives, make friends, grow our sport and do something that coaches long to do every day: make a difference. Dina, J.P., Adeline, Jen, Jaemie, Dred, Bunny, Alvin: these are the heroes without capes. The ones that walk past you on the street: everyday heroes.

It’s just a game. When you hear that phrase uttered the next time, stop the person saying it and tell them it’s not. It can be transformational, it can be uplifting and inspiring and educational. It can redirect lives and give confidence to those in need, and reaffirm the honor and dignity of others.

Sadly, some coaches do make it ‘just a game.’ But if you are reading this, you are probably in it for more. It doesn’t ever have to be ‘just a game’ unless you want it to be. You have the ability to transform lives, help facilitate great experiences and raise confidence and self awareness. You, coach, have that power!

It’s not just a game. It can save people.


I know. It’s saved me.

You may watch the USAV in the Philippines video again here:


Read Part 1 here. Read the original blog post in full here.

Eric Hodgson has coached volleyball for the last 18 years and been working with the Arizona Region for the last 13. He was named the Director of Outreach in 2012. Eric is also the Coaching Education Director for the Region and started and ran the Region’s High Performance Program from 2001-2011. He is a CAP Cadre for USA Volleyball and the Grassroots Chairman of USAV.  From 1999-2004 he coached Club and High School volleyball and worked with Arizona State University. Eric works summers with Gold Medal Squared Volleyball clinics and has worked clinics in Canada, Sweden, and Germany the past two summers. He is currently a CAP III level instructor for USA Volleyball.