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Presidential recognition for an “unlikely hero” in the Philippines

Posted by Caroline Gluck Humanitarian Press Officer

24th Feb 2014

When the storm surges brought flood waters to nearly six-foot high, Oxfam volunteer Wendell Corregidor, didn't hesitate over what to do next.Caroline Gluck reports.

Wendell and about 50 other people had earlier taken refugee at the hall and health centre, in Barangay (village) Baras, in Palo, Leyte province, after it became clear that a fierce typhoon was approaching. 

Wendell, 36, contracted polio during childhood and walks with the aid of crutches, had been broadcasting some of the early warning messages over a loudspeaker, urging the community to move to the evacuation centre.   But it was clear that what was to come was far worse than had been anticipated and that the single-storey buildings in families had sought safety were no protection from the fast-rising waters.

Wendell, who has won gold medals in paralympic swimming competitions, swam up to the roof of one of the buildings which was filling up with water, attached some loose wiring to steel bars for support, and began plucking people from the rising waters to safety.

"I rescued seven children, two mothers and my aunt", recalled Wendell, who was an Oxfam volunteer shortly after the typhoon, helping in a cash-for-work programme involving community members in a clean-up of rubbish and debris left in the wake of the typhoon's devastation.

"At the time, all I thought was: what can I do to help?   I wanted to help the children and I was determined they wouldn't drown, because not everyone could swim", said Wendell.  

"I'm comfortable in water…but it was very, very cold at the time.   The cold, together with the physical exertion of lifting people to safety left my left hand paralysed for a week after the typhoon", he recalled.

People in the coastal village of Baras have hailed him as a local hero.  The story of his bravery, despite his disability, was recently reported in a national newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer.  

The news coverage has now led to an invitation to fly to Bohol province and meet the President at a town hall event on Monday 24 February.  

"People say I'm a hero, but if so, I'm an unlikely hero.   I'm a person with disability, which makes me different from others who are able to help"  "I'm excited but a bit nervous", confided Wendell.   "People say I'm a hero, but if so, I'm an unlikely hero.   I'm a person with disability, which makes me different from others who are able to help.

"But for me, it was natural to help my neighbours.  And I felt I could help.  I feel I've proven something to other people by showing I could help, even if I had polio."

Brought up by his grandmother after his father died and his mother left for Manila, then placed in a series of foster homes, Wendell now yearns for a family of his own.  "I'm 36 years old and I want to find a girlfriend and someone to marry", he said.  His new-found fame might help him in that quest.  

"I'm more popular and known now", he said, smiling.  "People come up to me and shake my hand.   Maybe it will improve my marriage potential", he laughed.   "But I'm just a normal person, not a celebrity."

Find out more about Oxfam's Philippines Typhoon response

Blog post written by Caroline Gluck

Humanitarian Press Officer

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Caroline Gluck