March 25, 2011: I woke up this morning all ready to buckle down to build a home. I recently signed up for a Gawad Kalinga outreach activity in Alapan, Imus Cavite (Philippines), for house construction and house painting. It has long been a dream of mine to participate in volunteer house construction. I’ve been asking my friends for years to include me in such projects should they get involved in the planning (some of my college buddies are active in social work). So finally, after joining the academe, I got the chance to fulfill my dream. I (along with the rest of DLSU-D employees) was invited to contribute my time to help build a community. And I accepted. And for the first time, I prepared the stuff that I needed the night before (which I usually put off until the last minute), and didn’t need an alarm clock to wake me up. I was excited, to say the least.
The rest of the volunteers and I met bright and early in school. I wasn’t surprised to see that there were a lot. I didn’t know a lot of the people but when we got moving, but the excitement was infectious and affected all of us. Pretty soon we were chatting it up and cracking jokes, all of us wanting to fly to the site to start working. We were psyched. Scorching heat be darned!
So, we traveled for roughly 45 minutes to the site (it was far) and found ourselves in a small patchwork village with roughly 100 residents. I was a bit disappointed to find most of the houses already painted, leaving my team with nothing to do except join the other groups (teaching children or gardening). I was prepared to sweat it out so I chose to plant trees instead, even if I didn’t know the first thing about weeding or growing a garden.
One thing about planting — its tough work and I salute the people who break their backs to tend to gardens the whole day, to farmers who stay in the fields all day under the scorching sun. The biggest challenge I experienced involved distance to the water pump and the difficulty of lugging buckets of water to the planting site. Do I sound like I’m complaining? Sorry, but I’m not, really. I actually wanted to do it, and I really wanted to do it. I figured that helping plant seeds and saplings in the garden that would eventually bear fruits and vegetables for the residents is all worth it. I actually wanted to do more, but we were only scheduled to do our outreach for half a day. Bitin!
Part of the afternoon was spent for sharing and evaluating our experience at the GK Village. I felt fulfilled for having done a little to help build their community, and that was what I shared with my group. In truth, I wasn’t being completely honest. I felt like a fraud for saying that I felt accomplished, because really, what did I do? I planted a couple of trees, and then what? Did it make a difference? I don’t know. I knew that these people needed help, and all I could do was plant one friggin’ tree. Big deal.
I at first thought that the sharing part was a waste of time. Why are we spending this much time talking when we could very well use the time to work? But when it came time for the village leaders to speak, that was when it hit me, how off target I was, and talking really did have its merits.
One of the village leaders said, and this struck me: “Alam namin na pumunta kayo dito para maranasan ninyo kung pano maging mahirap. Pero nagpapasalamat kami sa inyo (We know that you came here to experience how it is like to be poor like us, but still, we thank you very much). I think that Aling Marie did not mean it negatively. Perhaps, she thought that the reason that we came — I came, was because I simply wanted to know how it was like on the other side of the fence — for kicks, for bragging rights, who knows what was going through her head? And yet, fighting back tears, she still thanked us profusely for sharing our time with them. There was no bitterness in her voice. Simply by listening, one could easily tell how genuinely touched she was of the hours we spent to develop their community, albeit in a limited way.
It spoke a lot of her character, if that was what she perceived, to have the magnanimity to accept scraps of time from people who were more well off than they are, if that was the case. It also spoke of the reality of their condition. Perhaps, in their old lives, they felt helpless to uplift their lives and depended on the kindness of others to survive. I can understand, being a person how difficult that felt.
At one point in our lives, we also experienced how it was like to be desperate. We also experienced how it felt like to be evicted from our home. We also knew how it was like to budget a kilo of chicken and stretch it to one week. My brother and I had to work part time, scrub the floor and clean up toilets to help augment our parents’ income. And it was a credit to our parents that they did not give up during those times, it was a credit to every member of our family that we stood together and came through that period stronger. And I wish one day that they too, could uplift their lives in the same way.
I am thankful that we did not experience the level of poverty that Aling Marie and the rest of the Gawad Kalinga residents experienced. But what she said stuck a nerve. I understand where she was coming from, to have to depend on others to rebuild one’s life. It made me respect her all the more, to have the strength of character to remain humble and accepting of her fate, having the openness in her heart to accept God’s blessings in the form of volunteers who want to make their lives better. And I respect them (all of them) all the more for trying to change their lives, conforming to the rules of the village to be able to remain there and stay in their homes. I salute them for their discipline and their dedication to the program, and their general kindness and perseverance. The experience also gave me a new respect for the people whom I have worked with. People who spend their desks behind desks on an 8-5 basis. I felt that in our bunch, all of us genuinely wanted to help and share our time with the folks at the GK Village, all of us would have stayed the whole day to work, had the option been open.
I expected to come home yesterday with my grungy clothes splattered in paint, dead tired. (March 25, this is a delayed blog) But what I got was muddy jeans, darker skin, a bit more wisdom and faith in the resilience of humankind and awe at the openheartedness of all of whom I spent the day with. I am so looking forward to other outreach activities like this one. Yesterday, when I gave Aling Marie a hug, I wanted to cry, and when she said I should come back, I didn’t need to think about my reply. I have resolved to come back one way or another even before she spoke. So, GK peeps, see you again in the summer 🙂 Thank you for an experience I will never forget.
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