A HERO COMES ALONG
From the ashes of war and tragedy, their stories and voices rise above the ruins
THERE ARE MANY modern day heroes among us, and then there are heroes who also rise higher above the rest. They are not recognized because of their wealth or reputation, but by their unparalleled devotion to their chosen profession.
These are the heroes who conquered the odds – poverty, war, social discrimination – all to show dedication in what they believe in, and to serve as humble servants of society where they belong. Groups like the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), a business-led NGO which contributes to sustainable development and poverty reduction, and social welfare group Virlanie Foundation, share with us some inspiring stories of real ‘superheroes’ that walk among us:
Education in a time of war
When the war in Marawi broke out, the devastating effect of the government’s all-out war against the terrorist was evident not only in the ravaged structures, but also in the sudden disruption of normalcy in the lives of the people. Education was one of those that was seriously affected.
A total of 45,000 students suddenly lost their schools, while 1,600 teachers lost their jobs. But the war did not hinder Anna Zenaida Unte Alonto, the Assistant Schools Division Superintendent (ASDS) of the Department of Education (DepEd) Division in Marawi, to make sure that learning still has a place in the future of the displaced students.
At the height of the war, Alonto, known among her peers as Ma’am Chikee, braved passing through the battle zone of Basak Malutlut Highway. She risked her life as she could get hit by a stray bullet, just to attend the first general teacher’s meeting since the war broke out.
Alonto wanted to know how the teachers were doing, and she was shocked when most of them arrived at the meeting wearing torn clothes and slippers. It was obvious that the war caught up with them. Alonto spent most of the meeting crying, and she went home to gather clothes and shoes that she could give the teachers.
It was then that she realized that she had a bigger role to fulfill, and that’s to attend to the displaced teachers and students of Marawi. She was eventually assigned to become the Deputy Focal Person of the DepEd Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Communication and OpCen. Her main task? To track students and teachers affected by the war.
With the help of partner organizations like PBSP, Alonto was not only able to track the educators (out of the 1,600, 1,300 have been found, and the remaining 300 are now all accounted for) and the students (38,000 students so far have been tracked), they were also able to jumpstart a new school year. The partner organizations donated food, and non-food items like bags, family packs and hygiene kits, and school supplies to help the schools get back on their feet.
Alonto said that her experience taught her to be a ‘selfless person.’
“The harrowing experience humbled me in the sense that I view everyone now as important. I could not do this job alone if not for my staff. I am not a born leader, but I have learned to become one and the Marawi experience served like a practical application of the trainings I have attended,” she said.
Farmers for the river
Before Typhoon Ondoy ravaged most of Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces in 2009, Ricardo Francisco, a farmer from Brgy. Mascap, Rodriguez, Rizal, used to worry only about wildfires that could destroy the crops which he planted during the day.
“The wildfires enveloped the mountain yearly because of the heat and lack of trees. Even during the night, we couldn’t sleep because if there was a fire, we must immediately go to that area and stop it from spreading to our plantations,” Francisco said.
When Ondoy happened however, he realized that there are much bigger, and worse problems than just wildfires. Francisco never expected a tragic disaster to happen caused by the lack of trees in the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape, or the Marikina Watershed.
Ondoy left Francisco and most of his relatives homeless. “My mother’s house was washed out by the flood, including all their things. We have no money, so they can’t afford to build another one. Almost all my relatives also lost their houses,” Francisco said.
When he found out what caused the floods around the Marikina Watershed, Francisco became determined to do something about it so the disaster will not happen again. Along with other farmers from Mascap, Francisco formed the Ayaas-Kayrofa Farmers Association (AKFA).
The goal of the association is to rehabilitate the denuded forests in the Marikina Watershed because healthy watersheds provide ecosystem services such as flood control. But as good as their intention was, they had little knowledge on what trees to plant. Through the help of NGOs such as PBSP, they were given the proper training and knowledge of what trees to grow around the watershed.
Francisco did not stop there. He also attended various seminars about agriculture. He learned about organic farming and composting which he would also then teach to other members of AKFA.
The farmers’ involvement in the Marikina Watershed Program greatly improved their lives. Everyone was able to earn extra income through the sale of seedlings. These seedlings are bought from AKFA for use of various CSR projects that allow employee-volunteers from different companies to participate in tree-planting activities. The association is also the one who ensures that the seedlings will grow into trees.
“Life became easier because we now have extra income. We can now see our dream of having the old forests back, come true. I’m proud to say that the trees planted over three years ago have grown. The animals and birds are also coming back now. We don’t experience wildfires anymore. I am also confident that my relatives won’t suffer from another tragedy like Ondoy,” Francisco beamed.
Volunteerism at its best
Salic Ibrahim and his wife Sinab Datu were enjoying the boom of their tile business in Lanao del Sur when the couple discovered the beauty of development work.
They discovered a new passion doing community work -- a mission which they hope could help bring peace, gender equality, education, and livelihood in Mindanao.
Back in 1998, they volunteered during the national elections and saw how cheating influenced the results in their area. That incident awakened in them a sense of patriotism, which eventually led them to start the Maranao People Development Center (MARADECA), along with relatives, friends, teachers and students who believed in their cause.
But it was two years later when the turning point of their work happened during their volunteer work helping internally displaced persons (IDPs) affected by the all-out war against the MILF during then President Joseph Estrada’s term. It was also during this time when they felt the real challenges of running their group.
“We were volunteers then so we didn’t have a salary but we were able to do many programs for the IDPs. In 2002, our resources were depleted. So it came to the point when we had to choose between our business and the NGO. And since getting rich was never our goal, we chose the NGO despite having only very little pooled money from our friends and family, to sustain it,” said Ibrahim, head of MARADECA.
This did not stop him and his staff to equip themselves with the right tools and knowledge to do development work. They were taught how to do proposals, organizational management and financial management. They also got the funding to build the Angelo King building in Marantao which serves as the office of their 200 employees to this day.
One work Ibrahim is proud of is helping a traditional community in Buadiposo Buntong practice gender equality. Without imposing on them, they made the people realize the different but equally significant roles of men and women.
“While the fathers are breadwinners, the mothers also work hard, even at night to care for their family. Through non-stop discussions, the people realized that men should work together with their spouses in improving the condition of their families. Eventually, we saw men doing household chores, while women are being allowed to make decisions, and families getting a TV set which is a sign of increased income,” he said.
Ibrahim said that eventually, people empowerment and peace-building initiatives became the main point of their group, and they devoted their time to train communities and LGUs in a province saddled with rido or clan feuds on conflict management. Their group also reached out to school administrators, guidance counsellors, Parent-Teacher Associations, and the youth to address issues in Mindanao such as extremism. They conducted consultations with communities on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and helped in lobbying it in Congress.
A teacher’s love
Melbourga “Meling” Corregidor is probably one of the most respected and loved NGO leaders in the country.
At 88 years young, she remains to be a steadfast volunteer, and is even the treasurer of the
Eastern Visayas Network of NGOs and POs (EVNET). She shares her time and knowledge on NGO and community development work by being a consistent guest speaker of other NGOs during national conventions.
Corregidor, the former Executive Director of both the Northern Samar Integrated Rural Development Foundation (NOSIRDEF) and Federation of Northern Samar NGOs (FENGO), was able to uplift the lives of various individuals she has met through her career as an NGO worker. A retired teacher at 60, she worked with PBSP to help reach out to individuals affected by various political and economic turmoil in Samar.
By reaching out to local leaders within a pool of officers from their assisted POs, Corregidor was able to put them all in one group and conducted trainings, and turned over several projects for communities to sustain. A firm believer of the line “help people help themselves,” she believes the solution for poverty reduction in Samar is to give farmers their own land to live in and plant.
Even with an advanced age, Corregidor was able to build two mini-communities that directly address poverty in Samar. One is in Brgy. Old Rizal in Catarman where she helped provide permanent homes for informal settlers who used to live along the coastlines. She organized the residents into a multi-purpose cooperative, and taught them how to grow and sell crops, and linked them to possible markets. Now, the community owns 3.5 hectares of land and even donated 480 square meters for the construction of a multi-purpose building from the Angelo King Foundation.
She would also work with various government agencies to directly address the needs of communities she visited such as an NPA-identified community where she saw children using rafts to go to school.
Recognizing the safety risks, she collaborated with the Department of Education and Department of Public Works and Highways in building an elementary school for the kids.
“Sometimes, I would ask myself why I continue to do this. But immediately, I would say, ‘You are still here because your mission is not over,” she said.
Virlanie Foundation, on the other hand, would help impoverished children have a better future by nurturing them to be better citizens or heroes that serve the community. One of their stories is that of Paul’s (not his real name), who was taken in by the Virlanie Foundation after Paul’s grandmother could no longer take care of him.
Paul arrived at Virlanie when he was only 12 years old. At his first week, he was already making friends with the other kids and the staff. He was shy and avoids eye contact but when given a task, he follows through. He is a person who knows what accountability and responsibility meant at a very young age. He was very different in his new environment — different from what the street brought out in him.
Now 18 years old, Paul has already received a vocational skill training from Technical Educational and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) - DOLE. He started working in a massage clinic on October 2015 and now holds a job as a cashier for a convenience store.
Another story is that of Julio, a former street child who used to roam around the streets of Metro Manila. At 11, he had never been to school. But his dream of finishing his studies never faded. When he lost his parents, and his grandmother was no longer capable of taking care of him, he was welcomed at Virlanie. This was the only time he was able to go to school.
He proved to be a very good student; however, as relayed by his adviser, he is quiet in class and sometimes gives way to younger students during recitations although he knows the answer. He gets perfect scores in his examinations.
Being much older than his classmates, Julio gets discouraged to go to school. Virlanie social workers suggested letting him take the Philippine Educational Placement Test to be accelerated to a higher grade level.
It is because of cases like Julio that Virlanie partnered with the Department of Education (DepEd) - Bureau of Alternative Learning System through the Director’s Office led by Dr. Felicimo Trongco, to forge ALS for the Foundation. ALS serves as a substitute and practical option for Filipinos who do not have or cannot access formal education in schools.
Today, children like Julio now have a good fighting chance to get a good education, and become the heroes / helpful citizens their community deserves.
"I AM NOT A BORN LEADER, BUT I HAVE LEARNED TO BECOME ONE AND THE MARAWI EXPERIENCE SERVED LIKE A PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF THE TRAININGS I HAVE ATTENDED"
"WE CAN NOW SEE OUR DREAM OF HAVING THE OLD FORESTS BACK, COME TRUE."
“WHILE THE FATHERS ARE BREADWINNERS, THE MOTHERS ALSO WORK HARD, EVEN AT NIGHT TO CARE FOR THEIR FAMILY. THROUGH NON-STOP DISCUSSIONS, THE PEOPLE REALIZED THAT MEN SHOULD WORK TOGETHER WITH THEIR SPOUSES IN IMPROVING THE CONDITION OF THEIR FAMILIES."
“SOMETIMES, I WOULD ASK MYSELF WHY I CONTINUE TO DO THIS. BUT IMMEDIATELY, I WOULD SAY, ‘YOU ARE STILL HERE BECAUSE YOUR MISSION IS NOT OVER,”