The simple meetinghouse on Manila’s Buendia Avenue seems a little out of place next to its not-so-simple neighbors. Doubling as the Makati Philippines Stake center, it is surrounded by some of Manila’s highest skyscrapers, built on what was once considered worthless swampland.

But on its basketball court, ordinary activities like the stake youth sports festival can become extraordinary. For example, watch the Mandaluyong Third Ward basketball team. Suddenly your eyes focus on a young man wobbling and limping his way down the hard court.

A knee injury, perhaps?

A sprained wrist?

Not so, you find out. The young man is partially paralyzed.

From Swamps to Skyscrapers

For Alvin Martinez, rising against the odds is just like turning swampland into skyscrapers. Alvin was born healthy, and like other newborn Filipino babies he was given polio shots. But somehow, the vaccine attacked his nerves. His right leg and arm started turning immobile. The polio vaccine rendered his entire right side paralyzed.

Alvin was often the subject of jokes in school when classmates would see him limping his way to class.

“Hey, it’s Alvin,” somebody would shout.

“The way is straight,” another would jeer, “so how come you walk crooked?”

“Alvin, Alvin pilay!Pilay means “cripple.” It was a jeer his straight-walking classmates loved to bestow on him.

But teasing wasn’t Alvin’s only trial. His father suddenly died of a stroke. Struggling with his family’s loss and his classmates’ snide comments, Alvin drifted from school and church activity and found another barkada, or group of buddies.

In Manila, a barkada can consist either of friends who build you up or of those who let you down. Alvin’s barkada was of the negative variety. Still, Alvin tried to maintain his LDS standards. “My friends would invite me to smoke,” he remembers, “but I told them I was a Mormon.”

Like David and Goliath

Finally, Alvin resolved to rise up despite his limitations and, like David of old, conquer his personal Goliaths. He made a firm resolve to continue his schooling. His widowed mother, who now works as a seamstress, was delighted. She had patiently reminded him that his future would be brighter if he had a good education.

At school, Alvin found a new barkada, classmates who treated him with respect. “All my classmates are so kind and friendly,” he beams.

A little bit shy at first, but actually fun-loving and witty, Alvin also began to find church to be a home away from home. “I enjoyed being in church,” Alvin says, “and I liked being with my fellow young men.” Because of the influence of good Church friends and priesthood quorum members, Alvin’s testimony was strengthened and he found himself, with the help of his youth leaders, back in church. In visiting Alvin, they would often tell him not to be ashamed of his disability. “We wanted him to know that he was valued,” one youth leader recalls, “and he did feel appreciated eventually.” Alvin is grateful for the missionaries who taught his family, and he’s even more grateful for the youth leaders who helped him come back to church after going through some real struggles.

He’ll Be There

Today, Alvin is one of the most active young men in his ward. Being with his church friends is something he relishes. “They are not ashamed to be with me,” he says happily. “They don’t even joke about me.” Instead, it’s Alvin who cracks jokes with them.

And his dedication is exemplary. One Sunday, he was in a lively conversation with other young men.

“We’ve been asked to clean up the meetinghouse grounds this Saturday,” said one.

“But we have a better activity than that,” another replied.

“But let’s do what we’ve been told to do first,” Alvin said.

Well, Saturday came, and while the other young men were yet to arrive, Alvin was already there in his work clothes. And he brought his nonmember cousin, too.

Seeing this, you can’t help but make the connection between Alvin and his favorite scripture: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Ne. 3:7).

Recently Alvin received a special award for perfect attendance at seminary. Seminary for Manila’s LDS youth is usually held during the afternoon or early evening when Manila’s heavy traffic congestion is at its peak. But Alvin comes right on time. “When it comes to actual application of the lesson, Alvin tries his best,” remarks Brother Nolan Caceres, his seminary teacher.

That same attitude spills into his other activities. The ward basketball team he plays on garnered second place in the stake sports festival. And in activity nights at the meetinghouse, “he doesn’t fail us,” Brother Caceres says. “He’ll be there.”

Towering Dreams

Just like the towers hovering over the stake center, Alvin’s hopes are high. He dreams of having his own business. But his number-one goal right now is to serve a mission. In school, Alvin has already, in his own unique way, attracted others to the Church because of his simple yet dedicated example.

When asked who his favorite scripture personality is, Alvin thinks for a moment, then answers, “I think Moses.” It seems to be an appropriate choice. Before Moses accepted the Lord’s call, he felt he couldn’t do it because he was “slow of speech.” (See Ex. 4:10.) But despite personal inadequacies, he did what the Lord expected of him, an example Alvin is following.

Many Filipinos with disabilities end up in institutions; some become social outcasts. Alvin is an exception. “He has learned to do useful things, even though other people thought he couldn’t,” Brother Caceres adds.

Yes, useful things like playing basketball, going to school, and sharing the gospel. Alvin Martinez knows you can rise up and, like the tall buildings in Manila, touch the sky.

Photography by Miles Tuason

Overcoming shyness caused by his physical disabilities, Alvin Martinez enjoys church involvement. Being with church friends, he says, is something he relishes.

Alvin is one of the most active young men in his ward, whether it comes to playing basketball, being involved in a service project, or regularly attending seminary.