Tomas Leonor, founder and the man behind STEP JUAN, a walking expedition done by himself to help kids with cancer is our featured guest for this week. He is a mountaineer, a freelance artist and a man with the great mission of helping children who are stricken with cancer. Growing up with some health problems he vowed that someday he will travel and see the beautiful islands of the Philippines. When he founded STEP JUAN, his only mission was to support and help kids with cancer but two years later, there is more to that than just supporting kids with cancer: it is supporting dreams and hopes that anybody can make a difference.
Tomas Leonor started it with just one step. Thus, STEP JUAN.
One single step from the Northern part of the Philippines that started in 2009 - to the Southern part of the Philippines, which will start in April 2012. These steps are making the difference. As he walks, more kids are being helped; more services are given to them. As he travels the Philippine islands, he inspires more people to do the same or a similar way to help others.
He has shown hopes in the eyes of these kids who are mostly confined in their hospital gowns and who are deprived of a healthy life. He has given them the promise that life can be beautiful. He has shown that one man – no matter what size, what economic background or social network, he may have can start a mission; can help other people.
He is making quite a difference in their lives and he continues to do so with every walk he makes.
This is his story:
AMS: I first read about you on one of the New England Filipino magazines here in Boston and I was fascinated with your dedication and mission, would you please tell us your education background, your beliefs and your training.
Tomas Leonor: I graduated with a degree in Fine Arts (Major in Painting/ Studio Arts) from the University of the Philippines here in Diliman Quezon City, where I presently reside. I am a free-lance artist/ sculptor and I volunteer for various environmental organizations and groups that help disadvantaged children. My group (http://www.redroot.coop) also teaches children about the value of taking care of the environment using art as a medium through our program, Doodle Earth Art Workshops. I value education and I love working with kids.
AMS: Would you please tell us exactly what is STEP JUAN and where did you get your inspiration to start it? When did it all start?
Tomas Leonor: StepJuan is a long-distance walking expedition that aspires to spread the word about pediatric cancers and to raise funds along the way for the treatment of children with cancer under the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (a national end-referral hospital for childhood illnesses). The inspiration to start StepJuan came from an encounter with about 60 kids with cancer back in June 2008, it was a fund-raiser for www.cancer-warriors.org and I was instantly touched by the children’s stories, their battle to survive and to live normal lives. Having 7 nephews and 3 nieces, and seeing their faces amongst these children, I felt I have to do something to help and being a free-lance artist in a third-world country doesn’t pay that much, and so I told myself that I have to do something different.
In order to understand why I came up with the idea of StepJuan, we have to go back to my early childhood.
I was a sickly child when I was young, constantly hospitalized for asthma and other allergies including dust and pollen. Ironically, PCMC is one of my hospitals during my younger years, and even back then I would notice how hard it is for indigent patients (including myself. I’m the youngest and only boy among four older sisters, and my father died the same day I was born) and their families to deal with hospital bills. I used to wear orthopedic shoes also because my left leg is shorter than my right leg and I’m flat-footed, until now my right leg is longer (1 and a half inch). Being a single parent because of my father’s untimely demise, my mother had no choice but to give me to her older sister and her husband (my disciplinarian uncle, who serves as my father and brother until now) who didn’t have a child. All these things added up together and you have a child who wasn’t allowed to play outside, a child who was left to read books, a child not allowed to draw/paint (because my uncle believes that a career in art doesn’t pay well), a diligent student and a weak childhood. I was reading books that are not meant for my age, I already read Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo when I was about 8, and I started day dreaming about walking the Philippine Islands as early as 12 years old after reading books about the tourist spots in the country. I vowed that one day when I’m stronger, that I would travel, walk, run, take backpacking trips, explore the oceans and climb mountains.
So right there in then in front of 60 kids with cancer, I decided to live that dream and help these kids realize their dreams as well. I told myself that I would walk for these kids who are worth helping and hoping that they too would help others when the right time comes. StepJuan is not just about talks about cancer and fund-raising, it is also a journey of hope for these kids, with each step I take, i inspire others to take that first step to help others as well.
Finally, on January 11, 2010 in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte I started walking and after 58 days (48 days walk with 10 days of rest),on March 9, 2010 I reached the Port of Matnog, Sorsogon completing a 1,300-kilometer walk from the northernmost to the southernmost tip of Luzon.
April 4, 2011, I started my 7 inter-island Visayas walk in Allen, Northern Samar, crossing the San Juanico Bridge and onto Leyte towards southern Leyte, and then went on board a boat to Ubay, Bohol and walked towards Tagbilaran City, so on and so on, passing the provinces/islands of Cebu, Negros Oriental/ Occidental, Panay and finally reaching Boracay Island on May 27, 2011 after 54 days (including 8 days of rest) completing a 1,241.5-kilometer journey.
AMS: Did you have a mentor who has helped you establish your ideas and concepts about startingSTEP JUAN? What motivated to become who you are today?
Tomas Leonor: I didn’t have a mentor but I have my Uncle, Engr. Olivo Arpia, to thank for who I am today. He taught me everything about self-discipline, nationalism, being a good citizen, and to fight for what is right. He taught me about the values of hard work and about giving my best at everything i want to do in life. At first he didn’t subscribe to the idea of me being a volunteer for different NGOs, and sacrificing my time and energy for others, but after seeing the success and impact of stepjuan he is now proud of me and what I have done for these children.
AMS: In 2010, you have successfully walked from Pagudpud to Sorsogon and raised 1.5 million pesos to help kids with cancer, how did you do it all?
Tomas Leonor: In 2010 my goal was to raise 30,000 pesos (roughly $600.00) only because that is my estimated salary for two months as a free lance artist/sculptor and the scheduled walk was for two months (January-March), but God has plans for StepJuan. The bulk of the 1.5 million came from different groups such as the Philippine National Police, Soroptimist International, Intercontinental Hotel Group-BaguioCity and other Socio-civic organizations, companies and individuals. It was a huge success and was totally unexpected. Part of the success was the passion of fellow-volunteers and new found friends who have worked hard to spread the message of stepjuan. I just do the walking (sometimes I consider the easiest part), but these friends of mine take care of the things I can’t do while walking the highways.
AMS: Did you have any challenges, disappointments or failures when you were launching your first ever walk? How many miles was that and how long did it take you to walk?
Tomas Leonor: Late of 2009 while I was preparing for StepJuan, “Ondoy” (typhoon and worst flood in Manila) came and wiped out my apartment, leaving me with just a laptop and some pillows. A month after, on Christmas day, my grandfather (father-side) died and everyone and everything was going against me walking, the companies that I talked to six months ago didn’t reply to my letters and calls. Except for some close friends and my sisters, everyone was surprised when they heard that I started my journey. The first steps was the hardest, but after the first five steps and some tears, there is no going back…this is what I am destined to do. At this point I already knew who my real friends, and they formed a volunteer group to assist me, organizing fund-raisers to sustain the walk, calling up companies and would be donors(while I was walking) and taking care of my daily needs (like food and shelter) by calling up friends along the way. It was a 1,300-kilometer, 58-day (including 10 rest days, mostly on Sundays) walk, from January 11 to March 9 of 2010.
AMS: During your walk what were some of the challenges you’ve had? What were they, if there were? How did you overcome these circumstances?
Tomas Leonor: Challenges include people who ignore my proposals, requests, etc. Mayors who don’t listen, even if this project will actually benefit their constituents if ever they get hospitalized at the PCMC. Seeing the suffering of common men compared to those corrupted few who rule. The news of a patient dying despite all my dead toenails (which miraculously grew back after the 1st and 2nd walk), all the body pain, the blisters and the sunburnt skin. I just tell myself that I couldn’t do everything and that I could not please everyone, I am just human and I’m just doing what I can and what I do best. I just think about the kids and the all their parents’ prayers keep me strong.
AMS: What do you think is the biggest impact STEP JUAN has to your family, your friends and the Filipino community and to rest of the world?
Tomas Leonor: The biggest impact was that it made my family stronger and we became closer, they are proud of what I have achieved. I have shown everyone that a simple thing such as walking can help create change. My fellow advocates are more passionate with what they do, becauseStepJuan has proven that a simple guy, with few resources can do something big, that anyone can create change. Filipinos especially in the provinces that I have passed by are more aware that kids are not safe against cancer. Some cancer cases are misdiagnosed and are often attributed to withcraft, but people now are more aware and are cautious with the symptoms among kids. I haven’t thought of my impact on a global scope but I’d love to think that StepJuan has shown the world that the Filipinos are passionate, who loves and take care of their future generation. Sadly we rank high among the list of most expensive medicines and the high mortality of pediatric cancers (1 child dies every 3 hours every day, Dept,of Health, 2009)
AMS: As a mountaineer and a passionate artist, what do you think are the most important skills one needs to have in order to be successful in achieving his goals?
Tomas Leonor: As a mountaineer and an artist, one has to have the heart (and the stubbornness) for what he/she does. Walking 40-60 kilometers a day is not hard for a well-trained athlete, but having the patience and enjoying a long walk like that for the next 50 days is not for everyone. I enjoy every single step because I get to experience new things, different cultures, meet new friends and learn more about my country and its people. Being an artist also, these experiences i bring back when i do my art inside the studio. I’m sure there are others (younger people) who have better ideas like this, but are just afraid to take the first step, because they are afraid of failure. I always say when I speak in front of a crowd, “Just believe in yourself because your greatest enemy is yourself, when you fear that you cannot do something then you end up not doing anything.”, “Always thank God for the simple things, thank Him for the legs he gave you, for the shoes he gave you, for the hat he gave you, so on and so on”.
StepJuan started with nothing and now, after 2,500 kilometers, almost 2 million pesos in donations and sacrificing a total of 4 months of my life, all I have is 500-plus new friends all over the country, and that is something miraculous and which I would be thankful for the rest of my life. Lastly, you have to be wiling to give up everything in order to achieve your goal.
AMS: Now, how about your 3rd walk (Mindanao) – how are you preparing for it?
Tomas Leonor: StepJuan Mindanao will start April of 2012 and will end late May or early June 2012. Red Root Artists Cooperative (www.redroot.coop) which I am proud to be a member of, is helping me reach out to would be donors and supporters of this next walk. We need to find sufficient funds for next year, since I spent most of my personal money for the past 2 years of StepJuan. Personally I am preparing mentally more than the physical preparations, since walking everyday is more of a mental game. I play Frisbee and Basketball at least once a week, I’m a pesco-vegetarian, I walk 5 kilometers or more everyday and I climb up and down (20 times) a 40-step stairs in front of a nearby school building at least every sunday(as part of my physical maintenance), I still climb summits at least once every two months, and I’m an active member of a loal boat-rescue team, specializing on flood-rescue and (RUIBs) boat maintenance. As the months progress I will walk more kilometers every day, until I reach 15-20 kilometers a day, 2 weeks before I leave for Mindanao.
AMS: What would be your next goal? For yourself and for STEP JUAN?
Tomas Leonor: After the Mindanao expedition maybe I will start looking at the possibility of walking the lengths of Asia, starting fromThailand going north. But I am still dreaming of walking in the Batanes islands and Palawan. But I would definitely slow down and start focusing on my personal life and my art, which I had set aside. I will still help children with cancer as the director ofStepJuan and initiate new projects to raise awareness and funds for indigent patients. StepJuan will no longer be about walking, it would be an initiator of creative first steps of step “ones” to help the Filipino children, and to spread the value of giving and the message of hope.
AMS: In your walks, did you have any interesting stories that you would like to share that keep you more inspired?
Tomas Leonor: I have a lot of stories to tell, but one is back in January 9, 2010, when me and 3 of my friends arrived in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte 2 days before I start walking. We were driving around looking for a place to stay when we came to a small resort and we ordered lunch. While waiting for lunch we took out our laptops and a map of the route, we started talking about the journey ahead and our plans for the next 2 days. Suddenly the owner of the resort came to talk to us, she was curious about our group, coz we didn’t look like an ordinary bunch of tourists. She kindly asked if we are bikers and what’s our mission. While telling her about StepJuan and the journey that was about to start, tears started falling from her eyes, turns out she is a cancer survivor (throat) and to make the story short, she called up the mayor, the vice mayor, and everyone who can help us and join us on the first day of StepJuan. They were the witnesses of the first steps of StepJuan, and gave me the first sign that I am on the right track. We became good friends since and I visit them twice a year.
AMS: What is your philosophy in making a difference in the lives of people? Has this philosophy changed over the years especially when you started STEP JUAN?
Tomas Leonor: Back in college I was a political activist, doing protests and progressive art. I was one of those who made and burned effigies on the streets. I thought that change will come if we toppled the current president. Now, a decade, 3 presidents after and a thousand of lives lost in the struggle for political change and social justice, nothing has changed and I hate to admit this but things may have worsened.
Change will not come in this life time. Change is slow but it always starts with a single brave, determined, honest and stubborn step. All I can do is start something that will jump-start the heart and minds of young people after me. StepJuan is not the answer, but I am confident enough that this project will be forever serve as a reminder that a simple man doing a simple deed such as walking can make a difference for others. That wealth and fame is not essential to influence others, all you need is to do what you think is right and what will benefit others. I am the same guy before I started StepJuan, but I am also different from that guy. My experiences made me a better person, a stronger individual but at the same time also made me weaker and more compassionate towards the plight of others, sometimes ending with nothing in order to help.
AMS: Do you have any advice to artists who would like to become successful in their given field? What do you think is the recipe for success
Tomas Leonor: Success is a product of hard work, faith, love, prayer, determination, honesty, loyalty, patience and the mixture of everything positive in this world, cooked in the right temperature and sometimes with a pinch of luck. You have to know yourself first, to know your limits, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and your hopes. Then give your whole being and everything else you’ve got and maybe some more in order to reach that goal. I always say that the only time you will feel alive is when you are in danger of death.
AMS: Finally, what is your definition of success.
Tomas Leonor: Real success is when you know in your heart that you have given it all your best and you have not used or stepped on anyone in order to reach that goal. Success is, when at the end of the day you feel safe and go to sleep without any worries because you know you’ve done well and your conscience is clean. Its when you feel that you deserve a pat on the back from your own hand.