Schoolgirl, 12, saved Philippine flag from raging floodwaters

By Jocelyn R. Uy

MANILA, Philippines- The tiny Philippine flag pinned on her left collar will be a constant reminder of her deed, which, in light of her young age, has been deemed an unprecedented selfless act of courage and patriotism in a time of adversity.

Janela Arcos Lelis, a 12-year-old sixth grader from Malinao town, Albay was formally honored Thursday by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines for saving the Philippine flag from raging floodwaters when Typhoon "Juaning hit her hometown and destroyed her house last month.

It was the first recognition ever to be bestowed on a Filipino child, according to officials of the NHCP, a government arm that promotes Philippine history and cultural heritage.

In a simple ceremony at the NHCP office in Manila, Lelis was awarded a plaque, a Philippine flag lapel pin, a Philippine flag and $569 for what the agency described as her "selfless act" of courage reflecting her love for the country.

"We thank and admire Janela [for her deed] and we hope that your classmates and all the other young people in the country will follow your wonderful example of giving tribute to our national flag," said NHCP president Dr. Maria Serena Diokno in Filipino at the ceremony on Thursday.

Thursday's awarding stemmed from a resolution approved by the NHCP Board on Aug. 18, giving honor to Lelis.

"This plaque of recognition is given to [Lelis] for her exemplary action, risking life and limb to save the Philippine national flag from the rising floodwaters … at the height of Typhoon Juaning in Malinao, Albay," said NHCP Executive Director Ludovico Badoy.

Lelis' deed was a "selfless act of courage, reflective of her love for country and a constant reverence to the national symbol," Badoy added.

In her crisp white and blue uniform and high-cut red sneakers, the shy pre-teen politely obliged to the never-ending photo ops requested of her with officials, employees and visitors at the NHCP during and on the sidelines of the ceremony.

She showed obedience when her brother, Edcel, on that stormy day on July 26, asked her to quickly return to their home, which by then was already submerged in floodwaters, to retrieve the Philippine flag entrusted to him by his school.

Lelis' 19-year-old brother, a color officer of the Citizen's Army Training in Malinao National High School, could not retrieve the flag himself as he was busy helping relatives evacuate at that time.

Lelis daringly negotiated the turbulent floodwaters, which by then was up to her chest.

"I just held on tight to a rope that our barangay captain had set up for the evacuation so I wasn't swept away by the floodwaters," said Lelis in the dialect as she shyly recounted her experience to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

But she felt no fear or apprehension, she added.

While she remembered what her teachers had taught had about respecting the flag and not allowing it to get dirty as she was retrieving it, Lelis said she was also concerned about her brother should something happen to it. "He will pay for it if he lost it," she said.

The flag was already dripping wet and partly covered in muck by the time she retrieved it from their home. "I immediately removed the mud and then returned to the shelter," she said.

The NHCP got wind of her story when her brave act was immortalized in a photograph taken by a Malinao resident, Frank Lurzano.

The photo circulated in social networking sites and later, was noticed by GMA-7, which featured the story last month.

Teodoro Atienza, NHCP's heraldry chief, said Lelis was worthy of adulation and emulation as she had done something that no adult or child her age has accomplished.

In his more than 30 years at NHCP, he has never encountered anyone who risked his or her life to save a national flag, said Atienza in an interview.

"She is a very good example to the youth … I hope people will learn from her in giving the right kind of respect to our flag," said the official.

Thinking about Lelis' bravery still gave her aunt, Edna Arcos Machete, goosebumps.

"It was really very stormy that day," said Machete, who has been Lelis' guardian since she was merely a year old.

Lelis and her brother, who lost their parents at a very young age, have been under the care of their maternal grandmother and aunt.

"May kasabihan po tayo na ang kabataan ay ang pag-asa ng bayan. Matapos po ang nangyaring baha sa aming lugar sa Malinao, Albay noong July 26, ang mga katagang ito ay nagkatotoo sa aking buhay [We have a saying that the youth is the hope of our nation. After the flooding in our area in Malinao, Albay last July 26, these words became true in my life]," Lelis said in her speech.

"Bata man po ako sa gulang na labing dalawa, hindi ko po akalain na may nagawa akong isang mabuting bagay para sa ating bansa. Iyan po ay ang pagsunod ko sa aking Kuya Edcel na ilikas ang ating watawat sa gitna ng rumaragasang baha [I may be young at the age of twelve, I didn't imagine that I could do something good for our country. This was because I followed what my older brother Edcel told me to save the flag in the midst of the gushing floods]," she added.

Thanking God for giving her the strength to hurdle the challenge given to her, Lelis also acknowledged the people who supported her, including Lurzano for capturing her bravery.

"Kung hindi po dahil sa kanya, hindi po ako nakatayo ngayon sa inyong harapan [If not because of Him, I wouldn't be here standing in front of you today]," she said, drawing applause from the audience.

When asked later about her feelings, Lelis said she was just plain happy.

Her aunt, who was teary-eyed during her speech, said it was the girl's first time to set foot in Manila. "So she's just happy to be here," said Machete.

The girl was also in high spirits when she met showbiz celebrities Sam Milby, Maja Salvador and Angelika dela Cruz early this week, she added.

Taking the long bus trip from home, Lelis arrived in Manila early Sunday morning with her brother, aunt, uncle and cousin. The group was extending their stay in the capital up to next week since there were still many invites coming from other personalities, the aunt said.