Geraldine Bernardo proves sports can help communities heal

By Nicole Blades, espnW September 29, 2014

When Geraldine Bernardo became a serious athlete, she wasn’t thinking about how it might help her community or how sports, in general, could bring about social change. She was 37, and just trying to find her way out of a rut.

It started with her wedding gown. The dress was over budget and causing a little tension between Bernardo and her fiancé, Jay. She reassured him, half-jokingly, that the dress would be worth it in the end because she would wear it again on their 25th wedding anniversary. This would mean staying in shape so she could fit into it decades later. The two got married in 1994, finished graduate school and went into business together, launching two manufacturing companies and a third-party quality assurance company. The couple soon hit some rough patches with the businesses — layoffs and a corporate lawsuit — and they started to feel burned out.

“We both tried to find ourselves again,” Bernardo says.

“I’ve always told Geraldine: No matter what you set out to do, you have to do it at your best level,” Jay, 49, says. “We try to motivate each other to bring out the best in one another.”

As a child studying in Chinese school, Bernardo was enchanted by the history and patriotic themes behind dragon boat racing. The supersized canoe-like watercraft, the large team of people paddling like mad to move the slim vessel with sheer might — all of it was spectacular to her back then. And watching Hong Kong dragon boat competitions on TV, she was dazzled by the brawn and effort and synchronicity involved in the sport.

“It was the ultimate example of teamwork,” Bernardo says. Here she was decades later, a woman in her late thirties searching for something to keep her spirits afloat. She decided to give her childhood wonder a shot and joined her local club’s team in Manila. Something about the sport came naturally to her, and the club’s coach took notice. On her third session, he asked if she would compete with the team the next week.

“I used to be a swimmer and a karate enthusiast, and I think that upper-body strength stayed with me,” she says. “Plus I have long limbs — that helps!” Before she knew it, Bernardo was trying out for the national team as a dragon boat paddler. She was 10 years past the age criteria, but persisted and ended up being one of the team’s top rookies. The same coach rallied for her, refusing to let her age be an issue for anyone, especially Bernardo.

After disasters — natural or manmade — the tendency of people is to constrict, physically and mentally. And sports can cross these barriers and promote healing in the community. We’ve found that it actually helps people learn to cope and recover faster.
Geraldine Bernardo

The coach wasn’t the only one spurring Bernardo on. Her husband was right there pushing her along, too. “She was getting older, and I told her if she’s going to get involved with dragon boat racing, then she really had to join the sport, not just a club,” Jay says. “I encouraged her to go for the national team — despite her age.”

Bernardo went on to be captain of the Philippine National Dragon Boat Women’s Team and won her first gold medal in Traditional Boat Race at the Southeast Asian Games at the age of 39, as well as several other medals at the China Circuit Dragon Boat Races. The long hours of training — cardio, strength training, cardio and paddling four hours a day, at least five days a week — and working with the team brought her peace, mental balance, and calm. She also netted a new level of respect for athletes.

“They’re not given much, yet they are propelled by pure passion for the sport and love of country,” she says. Bernardo was impressed with sports’ unifying factor, too — how empowering they could be to an entire community — and she grew interested in the psychosocial aspects as well. She went on to volunteer with the Olympic Committee as the chairperson for the Athletes Commission  in the Philippines.

She was assigned to lead promising youths from her country on an ambassador program for 53 days aboard a ship. During that journey, word spread of the Maguindanao massacre — the killing of nearly 60 civilians and journalists who were supporters of a local politician in November 2009. “It was shocking and horrendous and scary to see how innocent lives could be snuffed out over political fighting,” Bernardo says. Working as closely as she had been with sports, advocacy and social action, the tragedy moved her to think more deeply about how she could help communities in need of peace, using what she knew best. Sport had now become her calling, giving her life new purpose.

“I started to see sports as the pebble you drop in the middle of the pond,” Bernardo says. For her, sport was a way to relieve stress in a healthy way. She started thinking about how she might use sports to promote peace in her town as well.

In 2012, her work with the Philippine Olympic Committee and Athlete Welfare and Advocacy Committee earned her a nomination to join the Global Sports Mentoring Program, and she became a member of the inaugural class. Bernardo used what she learned in the U.S. to develop action plans for projects back home, including a workshop for physical education teachers at the Maharlika Elementary School, a Muslim girls’ school in Taguig City.

Then November 8, 2013, happened. The devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, virtually destroying the city of Tacloban. Close to 200,000 people saw their homes flattened and washed away, and 6,300 people were confirmed dead — with another thousand still missing — in the wake of the storm, one of the strongest ever recorded.

One hundred days after the typhoon, Bernardo collaborated with a team of people from the University of Philippines College of Human Kinetics, local sports psychologists, the International Emergency and Development Aid, and American trainers and mentors from the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace and Society to launch RePLAY, ReLIVE, ReNEW, or R3, a seminar workshop and organized sports activities group to help heal communities shattered by disaster using sports intervention. So far, she’s worked with about 100 teachers, coaches and trainers, giving them the tools they need to work with such communities.

Through R3, Bernardo has helped provide about 150 children and their families a safe setting after the disaster, giving them a structured timeframe to play, along with relief and a sense of normalcy as they try to recover. “I never get tired of seeing the joy in the faces of my countrymen while they’re playing sports,” Bernardo says.

Bernardo and her team wanted to avoid a dole-out after the typhoon. Clearly, financial aid helps to a certain point, she says, but what about after that money runs out? Instead, the group’s aim is to get the communities that were affected by the typhoon involved in sports (basketball, indoor football, table tennis, Frisbee, T-ball, etc.) so they can have fun, move beyond their hardship and loss, and find a moment’s peace, feeling unified under a single, simple goal: play ball.

Dr. Marissa Adviento, a sports psychologist who worked with R3 on Tacloban relief, praises Bernardo’s dedication to the work and to her Filipino countrymen. “She’s very much a humanitarian, and her heart is in the right place,” Adviento says. “For [Geraldine] the work is paramount. Even if she doesn’t have the support or financial backing, she’s going to find a way to do it, because it’s about reaching out and helping those in need.”

“After disasters — natural or manmade — the tendency of people is to constrict, physically and mentally,” Bernardo says. “And sports can cross these barriers and promote healing in the community. We’ve found that it actually helps people learn to cope and recover faster.”

Bernardo’s team is prepping to launch a new project this year, called 118 Courts, to commemorate the date of the typhoon, but also to celebrate the “basketball-crazy” country’s devotion to the game. The initiative will resurface and refurbish 118 basketball courts — there’s one in every township — and make them multi-purpose, for things like volleyball games and town festivals.

“Basketball courts in the Philippines are places where people naturally congregate,” Bernardo says, “and by rehabilitating these spaces, we hope we can encourage people to gather together and feel hopeful.”

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