by Jon Joaquin
I spent the first two weeks of March traveling around Mindanao for a coffee table book project a friend and I have for an NGO. We were both excited about the prospect of going to places we have mostly never been to, especially since the areas we were to visit were not tourist attractions but communities that are being serviced by our client. We were “warned” at first that some places were very remote and that getting there would take many hours on rough roads. A few places were also rebel-infested – a cause for concern since the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) had just been terminated. It also didn’t help that at the time we were planning the trips the weather in Mindanao was really, really wet, with rain in the forecast for much of the time. But my friend and I were raring to go, and while I felt a little apprehension, I was excited not just to see the different places but also to talk to people about their lives.
Our first trip was the farthest: Surigao del Sur. It took us five hours to get to the municipality of Barobo, and from there, another hour to the barangay of Carpenito where a school was conducting a feeding program for children who were undernourished. The principal told us that the reason for the program was to make sure the students could focus on their studies. “How can you study if your stomach is empty?” she said. It also aimed to lessen the number of dropouts: if the children knew there was lunch waiting for them, they would be less likely to skip class.
What struck me was how committed the school’s officials and teachers were to their students. The feeding program coordinator said while the local government and some private groups shouldered the funds, the school made various contributions like growing a vegetable garden and planting fruit trees so that the meals would be augmented. In a place like this – far away from the eyes of social media denizens who could easily make a viral story out of the situation – the community works together to raise children who could lift the barangay out of poverty.
Another place that made an impression on me during our trips was also a school, this one an hour from Koronadal City in South Cotabato. Our client NGO had given some books to augment the ones the Department of Education (DepEd) provided for the children. Using these materials one student was able to bag first place in a regional academic contest. Now this school is remote, and half of its students come from even farther away, walking two kilometers each day just to get to class. On rainy days they either stay home or, if they are already in school, they are made to go home early because the river they have to cross gets flooded. Despite the difficulties, the children we saw worked hard at their education, obviously knowing that it was the key to a bright future for them.
We also discovered that the school taught not just academic excellence but personal development as well — or as we call it here, GMRC: good manners and right conduct. I had left my bag on a table during our interview with teachers, and when I went back for it afterward I saw a 20-peso bill beside it. I called one of the teachers to tell her that someone had left money on the table, but she said it had been found by the students and was being returned to me. I was really touched by that simple gesture. It was a small amount, but for these kids it could buy them quite a bit at the neighbourhood sari-sari. That they chose to return it showed how well they were being brought up. (The money, by the way, wasn’t mine, so I asked the teacher to find the rightful owner.)
Because of this it was easy for my friend and me to say yes, when the school principal asked us to help replace their computer printer. It had been with them for a few years already and now the thing won’t print yellow anymore. We saw how the teachers used the printer to create educational materials, laminating them with tape and hanging them up for the children to enjoy and learn from. Their commitment was more than enough to touch our hearts.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.