Communicating: Just break that glass!

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”Albert Schweitzer

A cooperative becomes true to its name when it’s run by an inspired and involved team. Koronadal 1-A Director Myrna Clavesillas working with her group.

The Communications Workshop for 25 participants, an interesting mix from different departments of South Cotabato Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Socoteco-1) did not disappoint. I made it a point it was not my workshop but theirs. This was often easier said than done, but in this case it was a breeze. Making it great or not, it is in their hands, not mine (well, a big chunk will also be from me, not passing the buck). They did it! The 3-day activity aimed to uncover many opportunities that will make service better for its over 100,000 consumers from 10 municipalities of the province of South Cotabato located in the southern part of the Philippines.

The first day was quite gloomy. Few people came early. An uncertain thought crossed my mind. Will this work? Maybe? As I settled with the materials I bought, I assured myself that in my years of doing a communications workshop, I never went home empty-handed. The house was always brought down. But there could be a first, right?

A frontrunner in the country’s electrification program alongside 120 electric cooperatives in the country, Socoteco-1 has seen many awards roll up its sleeved through the years. How do you keep up with the reputation and service reliability in the social media, and generally the digital communications age? Service includes prompt and effective information sharing with consumers, many of whom are now the milennials – young income-earners who pay the bills.

A leader is often one who is very much part of the team’s work, from the trivial to the most critical, sleeves rolled-up and making decisions. All eyes on Socoteco-1’s new (OIC) General Manager Edsel Epistola (3rd from left) as he takes the coop to new heights in rural electrification.

What have we learned together?

  • Everyone is genuinely interested to be part of change for the better. Looking at internal communications, it was acknowledged that change has to keep on – and going digital is the future that needs to start soon. While printing documents is still valuable, use of emails and online messaging cuts all the tedious bureaucracy that makes the flow of information slower, and thus, often missing its consumer service targets.
  • Planning isn’t always boring. There are many ways to do it, and involving as much people means many great and exciting ideas can come out of the table. Of course there should be someone to take the lead and ensure the best ideas get to the chopping board and into the cooking wheel. But having those ideas out is a good – even great – start. As we did this, it was fun and amazing to see how the groups came up with fantastic media plans for major coop events (think annual meetings, district elections, etc.) deemed boring because they’re done every year on same process.

  • Go for macro and get their minds up and running. While learning activities such as grammar review, how to do an online publications (and so many how-to’s) or specific skills building are critical, making them contribute to the big goals can help them see what are the skills they need to build to make the big one happen. They become part of if and they know where the organisation wants to go. How will you exactly know the parts to fix if you don’t know where you want to be? Decide on the goal and work next on the small ones that will run it.
  • It’s fun to talk about the issues. Get them out sun-dried on the table! What are they? Before getting that group activity to the participants, I was quite curious how open, daring and courageous they are in sharing the challenges and issues that slow down service, and even their own enthusiasm to do things. They did! This time they did not talk about them in the hallway but also came out with very practical easy-to-do solutions. Audience considered, creative activities and resources (fun, I must add), minimal budget and a lot more. Let’s wait for them to make it happen!

  • Social media is the way to go. It’s cheap, it’s in and it’s where everyone goes for the latest news. There are risks, yes. But as everyone has realised quite loudly, there’s no way ignoring it. When people need information, they hardly buy a newspaper (sadly) anymore. They open their phones and browse to find it. While a printed newsletter or report is still much valued, how do we get them online so more consumers can read them? Looking forward to the electronic version of Socoteco-1 Today very soon. At least we’d live to see the day it is available online.
  • Being a service utility means preparedness. To put is clearly, is the coop ready for an emergency? Apparently, resources-wise, they are! A response team is in place and a rough plan and how it will be managed. Does everyone knows about it? Not really. Then this is an opportunity to get this organised while there is time. How do you ensure protection of the coop’s electricity distribution and its services going when there is a disaster? It also has a community responsibility to assist when it can. Reviewing the plan and it’s roll out turned out to be a great time for everyone!

Often, all we need is to sit down and listen to each other’s ideas. That’s what teamwork and serving is all about.

What did I personally learn in the process?

It didn’t take a while to pick up the pieces. Working for 12 years in Socoteco-1 isn’t an easy thing to forget, I wasn’t even trying. It was also my first job in conducting trainings, publishing newsletters (changing it’s name to Socoteco-1 Today) and annual reports, writing its creed (that, fancy, they still use as a pledge until today), running a medical mission in cooperation with South Cotabato Provincial Health Office and more. In short, it became my foundation for the next phase of my career and jumpstarted my love for humanitarian work that took me to different countries. It felt good to be back sharing what I built up after I left 16 years ago. What I learned is that you always have that chance to go back and share. Then and only then can you say you’ve come full circle.

We’re not hanging gloves with this statement. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“The 3-day workshop was very enriching and fun-filled. It made me realise how important well-planned activities through the use of communications tools and multi-media channels can effectively convey information and influence the stakeholders and public’s behaviour and support. I am happy to be part of this workshop and grateful to have witnessed how talented the Socoteco-1 staff members are! I believe it was able to unleash the potentials. Kudos to Socoteco-1 and thank you Cecil for facilitating the activity.” – Myrna Clavesillas, Director of Koronadal 1-A, Socoteco-1 Board

I should say the future of rural electrification in the country is bright if we make use of these excited and inspired minds to run it! It was more of a pleasure than work – thanks to Socoteco-1 especially to the ISD team led by ISD Manager Shean Roxanne Munar for making it happen!

“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

-o0o-

Happy to hear comments, feedback or interest. Please email me at cblaguardia@yahoo.com or mobile at +639399262669. Better yet, follow the blog by ticking the box up or in FB @istoryya. Thanks for the visit and share.

Moving to Argentina from Indonesia, I found my groove as a woman and a housewife

By Enda Balina

From a humanitarian to full-time housewife in a new country, Enda found a new and worthy challenge to scale.

Many women have to choose between their career or their family at some points of their life. My time to choose came right after I just completed my advanced study abroad. I joined my then-new husband who was deployed to Argentina.

Switching my life from a humanitarian worker to become a housewife was not as easy as I initially thought. I imagined it would not be hard to adapt to a new city. After all, I have been living in different places over the few years and I survived. I was wrong.

Not only that the Latin’s culture is very different from Indonesian, my being unemployed often pierced my self esteem & confidence. I think one of my hardest challenge at that time was transitioning to not having work and become dependent to my husband. I have never out of job in my life, it took me a while to make peace with my new status as ama de casa (housewife).

She found a family away from home – and more. Learning a new language and navigating through a new culture were tough but enriching.

Wherever I go, “What do you do for a living?” is often the third question being asked by the people I meet after my name & where I came from. Before moving, I completed my Masters in Development Studies where the main focus was on gender issues. I also worked for eight years in the humanitarian industry that embraced gender equality. When I made this move, some people that I know questioned my decision to give up my job and independence.

Isn’t it strange that the society does not appreciate someone who is choosing a family over work? People often belittle the important role of a mother and a wife, stereotyping a housewife as a domestic task even if it is a full-time job. Often people ask me what I do everyday to make myself busy.

I took this as a challenge to change some mindsets, conscious that even I myself used to have it. I took Spanish courses to enable me to speak faster. I got involved in various social charity activities to support our embassy leading an Indonesian women’s association and joined the diplomatic spouses’ group enabling me to meet new friends from different countries. I also signed up in many random courses like free Spanish conversation clubs, pottery class, yoga and even French class!

Being a housewife has more than pluses than minuses. “I can travel as much and anytime I want.”

Still, I often found it difficult when I had to introduce myself to new acquaintances. Answering questions where I work was the toughest of all. Indeed we live in a world where a job determines your identity and are judged by work and professional engagement. I found this harsh.

In reality, being a housewife brought me lots of wonderful experiences and opportunities to meet people, something that I would probably have missed out if I moved to Buenos Aires for a job.

I met lots of people from around the world with amazing stories. I have time to listen! Some of them are refugees from Syria, Americans who left their life back home for their love of tango and lots of western women who settled in Argentina in the name of love. Since I managed my own schedule, I was able to invest more time in people and building relations. An anthropologist by heart, I love listening to people’s stories and learn the social and cultural contexts. Casual encounters turned into friendships who became our family away from home.

I fell in love with the warmth of the Latino’s culture: one kiss on the right cheek every time you meet people and another one when you leave them – the warm and sincere hugs from friends. An old lady called me amor when I helped her got off from a bus. All these were a bit awkward to me at the first time (coming from a culture that is more reserved and conservative) but at the end, I appreciated the genuine connection.

Apart from learning new things and exploring a new environment, Enda became a mom!

One of the best benefits of being a housewife is that I could travel a lot. Anytime. I love traveling and going to new places. During our time there, my husband and I were able to tick some places in our bucket list: trekking in Macchu Picchu in Peru, climbing the glaciers in Calafate, exploring the northern salt desert of Argentina and exploring the beauty of Patagonia. On our last year, we were blessed with a beautiful baby boy.

At the end of our journey in Argentina, it was difficult to say goodbye. The place has taught me many things, the biggest lesson of which was self-acceptance of who I truly was and not letting anything determine my identity. I realized they are all superficial and temporary. Becoming a housewife was my personal independent choice. Choosing a family more than a career is something that every woman should not be ashamed of.

It became my campaign for women to stop putting label on ourselves. Often, the stereotyping even came from women who were supposed to understand and support this. A lady once asked me why I bothered to take a Masters degree when I would end up in the kitchen as a housewife. It is sad to hear but it is totally untrue! Having the best education is a great qualification for raising a family.

Are you ‘standing at the intersection’ of your life as a woman and are about to make a drastic swift? You are not alone. I’ve been there and I am sharing my tips so we can walk together.

1. Do not be afraid to take a leap! Going to an unknown land and leaving our comfort zone can be scary. Brace yourself and take the risk! We can always learn something from the experience. It is way better than to sit still and not give ourselves a chance to take up the challenge.

2. Close your ears to everything negative. Or even better, use them to motivate you in a positive way. People always have opinions about others, but so little about themselves. Don’t let all the negativity defines who you are and what you want to do.

3. Prepare yourself in advance. My biggest mistake was not preparing myself adequately before moving to Argentina. If I learned Spanish and the culture prior to moving to Buenos Aires, my early days in the city would be much easier. But then it was part of the journey and I learned from what I did not do.

4. Be flexible and ready to adapt. According to a survey, physically getting ourselves out of our comfort zone will widen our horizon and self-confidence. This is very true to me. If I did not move out of my comfort zone, I would never learn new things, a new language, cooking and organising skills, entrepreneurship or even the art of diplomacy.

Living in Argentina has definitely improved my cooking skills & creativity. Since good Asian restaurants were limited in Buenos Aires, I often had to cook my own food from scratch.

Learning new language for me was tough. The first three months were the most difficult as there were not many Argentinians who can habla Ingles (speak English). At first, I could only communicate with the lady cleaner at our apartment using Google translate from my Ipad. We literally had to type every words in order to communicate!

It has been a year that we are back in Jakarta and I love being closer to my family. But I also miss Argentina and the friends we left behind. Two months after we arrived, I went back to work making a career switch from Disaster Management to Grants. The new job is now giving me a lot of windows to learn.

Life is, indeed, a wheel. Our experiences are precious – if we give ourselves the chance to learn and explore.

Now back in Indonesia and again a working woman, Enda is happy to have her family close by. But her journey in Argentina still remains close to her heart.

Enda Balina is back as a humanitarian worker but stronger and prouder as a mom and wife. She lives with her family in Jakarta.

Growing Up at No.195: Embracing my roots as a Rojak Malaysian

By Joanne Tay

There is a stereotype that the Chinese must have their soup daily, master the art of eating rice in a bowl with chopsticks and naturally, speak Mandarin. I was anything but those.

The girl from No. 195. Bubbly Joanne sure knows how to treasure her roots and the rich Malaysian culture along with it.

Give me Sambal Belacan anytime of the day and I’ll gladly have them with anything just like how the Westerners like their cheese. While I master the art of eating rice with chopsticks, I equally excel eating rice on a plate flooded with curry with my bare hands. This way of eating is usually more common amongst the Indians and Malays but as a child, it never crossed my mind as uncommon for a Chinese family. It was just a familiar way of life in my household. This goes to show that a child is not coloured by stereotypes.

Growing up, my father sent me to a public missionary school. Penang, where I grew up, was a former British colony and I was Mandarin illiterate. The vernacular Malaysian education system means Chinese was not taught as a subject in some public schools. I learned the Malay language (my national language) and English, while I spoke a dialect known as Hokkien at home like most Penangites.

The beauty of having Rojak roots

But, Hokkien with my late amah (grandmother) was a little different.

[Hokkien mixed with broken Malay] “Ini kasi lu sambal belacan gua yang buat. Lu bawak balik makan.”

[Hokkien] “Wa ka-ki cho eh sambal. Hoh lu gia tui ki chiak”

Meaning: “Here, this is my homemade sambal belacan for you to bring home and eat.”

Hokkien’s ability to switch, mix and match languages and made them her own never ceased to amaze me as a child. When speaking with the Indian uncle who rented a corner of our pre-war house to operate his little his tuck shop or the Malay couple who sold sheaved coconuts by the side of our house during the morning market, amah would pepper it with broken Malay slangs. Then almost at an instant, she would completely switched to a full-on Hokkien with the Chinese uncle who rented the front of our house for his tailoring business.

The streets of No. 195 saw Joanne’s growing up years – and that also include her dreams and challenges overcome. (Photo-grab from Google)

Claiming that she was a nyonya (Straits-born Chinese who are the descendants of Chinese immigrants in the olden Malay archipelago, now Malaysia and Singapore), she embraced the peranakan way of life – food preferences, language, attire of baju kebaya, sarung and kasut manik (beaded shoes) with her hair dolled up into a bun with decorated pins.

Little did I know then, those formative 18 years of my life growing up with amah would eventually shape a big part of my identity and heritage. Often robust with spices and intertwined with a myriad of cultures, my Taosist family who also adopted Indian gods worship during annual festivities like the Thaipusam, made us such a rojak (a local fruit and vegetable salad dish, which also means “eclectic mix” in colloquial Malay) bunch! I could never quite settle for an identity.

The crammed space at No.195 with cracked walls and crackling wooden flooring was constantly buzzing with people as relatives live together. Situated along one of Penang’s major roads in town, traffic was always a little too loud and the house even shook a little when heavy vehicles passed by. But the aroma of amah’s cooking filled the kitchen (and our stomachs) daily and I always look forward to what’s cooking!

What’s cooking? This delicious rojak is very much a part of the Malaysian culture where food always takes the centerstage. (Photo from The Star Online)

By the time I started school, I had multiracial classmates and was welcomed into their homes. Because of my love for spices and eating with hands, my Malay friends’ families were intrigued by my upbringing. And yet, I was puzzled why can’t they eat at my home?

School had me learn, unlearn and relearn a lot. Sometimes, when your home isn’t as what the school taught it to be, things can be a little confusing. I didn’t understand why race, language or the colour of our skins would be barriers in defining who we are. Because where I grew up, it was multiracial with my neighbours, food and language.

Joanne as a baby in her gangstah-look; one of the few rare photos with her dad while growing up.

Education propels me to search for an identity to call my own. And like all beginnings, I started to question my Malaysian identity and what it means.

“I can’t speak, read or write Chinese (but I’m supposed to be Chinese!). Neither am I Malay (but I eat with hands!). Neither am I Indian (but my family pays respects to the Indian gods!). So how should I call myself? Should I even categorise who I am?”

“Are we so different by our race?”

Malaysian at heart and a global citizen of this world

In the later years of my life, I had the privilege to see the world a little more and worked with international friends. These made me realised that humanity in itself is one global race. We are not so different after all despite where we come from, the language we speak or the stereotypes the society puts on us.

Remembering my late amah and her way of life taught me that despite what are seemingly stark differences, we can live in harmony if we choose to adapt and adopt the cultures that surround us and welcome them as our way of life.

We are who we choose to embrace. I am Malaysian without a doubt because it’s the only home I know. But I am also a global citizen who choose to think beyond the labels of races.

So what if there is a certain perception how a Chinese should eat their rice? Well, I  choose to eat it differently. So what if people say you’re not Chinese enough because you can’t speak Mandarin? I choose to embrace that part about me because as a Malaysian, I can effortlessly string three languages into a sentence!

I hope in your own journey in discovering an identity, you will choose to embrace the cultures that uniquely shape you. Those are the stories that define you. As for me, No.195 was a little chaotic but it was the spices of my roots. And it will always be my truly rojak Malaysian chapter.

What’s a rojak? No other dish embodies the essence of being Malaysian more.

Building her goals one brick at a time, Joanne’s journey is as fascinating as her cultural heritage.

Joanne Tay is proud to hail from the little island of glorious sun and food haven of Penang, Malaysia. She was a humanitarian worker and loves a good conversation, especially with children. Joanne is venturing into the new grounds in the field of science education for her next adventure. She believes FUN is the essence to creativity!

Defining women’s beauty in Bangladesh: How my short hair defied the norm

By Arpona Ghosh

2016. Arpona defied tradition and stood up to her choice.

Towards the end of my education in Dhaka University in Bangladesh and while preparing for my first job, I tried a new comfortable look. I cut my long, bouncy and silky hair short. It was sassy and manageable.

At that time, I was also seeking for a soul mate I can tie the forever knot with. In other countries, it was just a haircut. In Bangladesh, it is not.

That was 17 years ago and it was not welcome change for my parents. In fact, they got seriously worried I might not find the best groom in town because the men in my country would usually prefer their women with long hair and fair complexion. You can roll your eyes from where you are, but in my country, these are critical priorities for many prospective bridegrooms.

With the short hairstyle, I looked odd to many of my peers and people around me who did not lose time expressing their dislike to me frankly. I was determined to keep my short hair. I want to set my own description of beauty.

1992. Her moms and aunts found the time to nourish her hair to make it look nice to people.

In Bangladesh, just like many Asian countries I should say, long hair and fair complexion are two major indicators for beautiful women. In thousands of literary works poets, novelists and artists praise women by describing their long and black hair like clouds or fair complexion like milk white.

When it is time to choosing brides especially in arranged marriages (mostly decided by parents end elders), these two things automatically come in their checklist. The bridegroom’s status, whether he is a student, a professional or unemployed, often do not matter.

This practice is gradually changing in urban areas but still many people are not ready to accept or welcome women with short hair (if I may add, dark complexion).

Just like the millions of Bangladeshi girls, I grew up amidst these socio-cultural perceptions. In my childhood, I observed, my mother and aunts have very little time even to comb their knee-long hair properly since they were busy with their children, running around for household chores and their day jobs. Many of the women in my family are schoolteachers.

2002. Defying the norm. Cutting her hair short caused a lot of alarm and arguments in her family and even at work.

However, they would all take time to nourish my hair, keep it longer and silky. All it aims is to attract people’s attention. This alongside making sure I go to a good school for quality education.

Cutting my hair, therefore, is challenging an age-old tradition. I chose comfort than what is fashionably acceptable.

When I started working with this ‘unusual’ hairdo, many of my colleagues remarked negatively, some even regarded me indecently. To them, I was trying to be younger or I am hiding my real age. Yes, I get that with my hair short.

By just looking at me, some concluded I was a very rude, unfriendly and a cruel woman. In 2004, in one formal gender training session, one of my feminist friends wrote an appreciation note for me. She said, “She is a wonderful lady but she looks like a boy due to her short hair.”

Even today, when I am in public, I can sense there is still a raging debate around me speculating if I am a boy or a transgender. When I stand up to my decision or choice, I often heard, “Oh, she is behaving like this because she is a man.”

1996. In the country, a beautiful woman is defined as someone with long hair and fair-complexion.

Despite all the odds up against me, I kept my hairstyle because I believe it suits me well and shows my personality perfectly.

My story represents the challenge many women from different cultures are faced with – if we choose what we want that goes against common socio-cultural norms, we must be ready to stand up to it. In Bangladesh, pulling tussles of hair is a common form of violence against girls and women.

During the International Women’s Day celebration this year, one renowned local branded hair oil has advertised one woman who went to the parlor and had a short haircut to protect her from domestic violence.

However, cutting hair to prevent a form of violence might create hundreds of different forms of violence by the husbands, in-laws or other perpetrators. It is not a solution to the problem. This sort of advertisement also teaches women to adjust and to remain silent against violence committed often. This is also a provocation for continuing the culture of silence and accepting violence as normal.

Women need to be bold from our innermost hearts to respect ourselves and make a choice. We need to come together to stop violence against women. At the end of the day, it is our life and we must live it according to our own choice.

Arpona has stuck to her own decision; she is a mother of two boys and continues to advocate for the rights of women in Bangladesh.

Arpona Ghosh, a communications and media relations expert of Bangladesh works in a development organization. For more than 16 years, she promotes stories of successes and challenges in the communities focusing on women and children through NGOs and donor organizations. Apart from roof top gardening and reading, her great passion is to analyze electronic and print media advertisements and other media content. A mother of two growing sons, she also loves to listen and discuss issues on children.

A journey of faith: The day I met my best Guide in Jerusalem

By Echo Chow

From a very unlikely messenger, Echo received her first gift from above.

I received my first Holy Bible when I was traveling alone in Jerusalem.

One afternoon in a restaurant, a middle-aged man came and asked about my nationality. After leaving for a while, he then returned and passed to me a Chinese Bible.

“Thanks for the gift,” I said politely with no intention to read it for the rest of my life. “Not from me but a gift from above,” he pointed at the sky and disappeared in the crowd.

What an odd reply to a non-Christian like me at that time! Only after nine years that I realized the true meaning of the word “gift”.

When I got back in China, the design of a book called “Desert in the Streams” caught my eyes in a bookshop. I opened it and could not stop reading. I wondered why I can see religious books in China. I was so curious and phoned my Christian friend in Hong Kong, just to make sure that it was not heresy.

Later, another friend gave me a book entitled “The Purpose Driven Life”.  Again, I finished it with keen interest. One day, an idea emerged that what I had been reading was “second hand” information on Christianity.  Why not try to experience the original version?

Among the Bibles she received.

Yes, in between those years, I received six Bibles in different versions from different people.

The year 2008 was the turning point. On Christmas Eve, I shared my sleeping problems with my friend since childhood.  Among the many strange dreams I had, the one about the struggle between “good” and “evil” scared me most.  “Go home and read the Bible. Only Jesus Christ can save you,” she concluded.

That night before bedtime, I was reading Romans 7:22-25 “I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

These verses shocked me completely! It seems that the author from a thousand years ago understands me better than myself. I could not figure out why, but I felt a very deep fear in me. I could do nothing but pray for the first time accepting Jesus as my Savior.

The journey has its ups and downs, but Echo knows in her heart she found her best Guide.

There is no fear in love

Suddenly, the fear is gone. I felt like a baby sleeping in a cradle with someone comforting me. My hands were getting warm, and my heart was at ease. “It’s just an illusion.” I thought with disbelief. It was an instrumental prayer. I used Jesus Christ and denied him after that.

Two weeks later, I visited a museum in Singapore. Inside the museum was a church. Touring around alone, I felt a drop of cold water dripping on my left hand. I saw nothing on my hand but above my head was a huge painting of Jesus and his disciples. At the bottom of the painting was a sentence like “This wine is my blood”.  And I was just standing beneath the cup the disciple was holding.

Water … wine… blood…

I asked myself whether it was just an illusion again. But it would do me no harm to confess and follow Jesus. Why not have a try? The church people were happy to meet me. Yet I needed to answer them a few questions before attending classes.

“What is sin?” they asked. “Motivation,” an English word suddenly flashed into my mind. “It’s not just action and motivation matters, right?” I replied.

“Why do you trust the Bible?” They asked again. “Consistency,” another English word appeared in my mind, again. “I guess the book was written by many people living years apart, right? And the message is consistent even though some of these writers might not know each other,” I said.

Even a car she once saw on the road one day when she was upset reminded her that she should be thankful God too time to shepherd her.

With limited knowledge about the Bible, I could not understand why what came to my mind was English but not my mother tongue which is Chinese.  At that time, I could not even distinguish the Old and New Testament and misunderstood that the Bible had a “printing mistake”, for it repeated the story of Jesus Christ for four times!

That is not important, though. What matters most is that I have started a journey of love, faith and hope. There are always ups and downs in life, but I know with Jesus in the boat I can smile amidst the storm as we go sailing home.

Power is perfected in weakness

My journey seems to be pre-destined long time ago yet heading to somewhere to my surprise though I have never been a well-planned person.

It is natural that most people would like to use their strength to perform and achieve. The more confident we are, the more we will succeed. In my entire study and career life so far, I see the Lord has been protecting me from my weaknesses and strengthening me in areas I was never even aware of.

At university, my major was Communications but I scored highest in Philosophy and Religion. My news sense was not sharp but I was elected the chief editor of the school newspaper simply because I could communicate better with the Taiwanese professor who supervised us on this project.  When I was still puzzling what to do after graduation, I was offered a job in a renowned international news magazine as a staff writer per recommendation by the professor.

That was how I jumped into the media field, in spite of the fact that I had very little understanding of international affairs.

The job came with immense pressure. I found myself totally inadequate to write in-depth analysis on topics like regional conflicts or economic crisis. I drank six cups of coffee a day to keep myself awoke, and slept only three hours a night.

The journey of faith continues …

We can make our plans, but …

Such hard times continued six months until I resigned because I wanted to gain more front-line experience as a local news journalist. Out of my expectations, though, the newspaper I just joined shifted its editorial policy to intentionally nurture journalists with global perspectives. I became one of the potentials, perhaps due to my previous background.

A golden opportunity arrived when I was 26. I was offered a post stationed in the US for two years as a correspondent. That was my dream for a long time! But my mom opposed so strongly that I gave it up. Several months later, my mom was diagnosed with cancer and she died two years later.

Lesson learnt – when the world values personal achievements and prestige, the Lord tells us that staying with our loved ones is more valuable than anything else.  And He loves me so much that even though I didn’t know Him at that time.

Frankly speaking, I was very nervous during those days. My English and common sense were far from satisfactory, but the job required me to deal with many unfamiliar technical topics from missile tests to human cloning, as well as natural disasters and international development conferences.  All these not only widened my perspectives significantly, but paved the way for my future career in the NGO sector.

Now I am working in an international non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in China, a place beyond my plan. I am not sure why and how long I will be here. But I know I am in God’s hands, for “we can make our plans , but the Lord determines our steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

Echo’s journey with God pursuing her is such an inspiring message that He is around watching and keeping us – an amazing message we can ponder on Easter celebration.

Echo is a graduate of Intercultural Studies and Public History and is now a communicator in an organization based in Hong Kong pursuing poverty alleviation. She loves traveling but often gets lost even in her own hometown. She is a curious life adventurer keen on learning new things and meeting people.

My father has cancer: How do I deal with a news like this?

By Maryann “Mai” Zamora

Mai recalls how her father felt guilty that she had to work in a fastfood shop to buy things she needed in school.

“Mai, your father has stage 3-colon cancer.”

I remembered how it went through my ears. Then I turned cold and endlessly sobbed in our couch. I was shattered.

It was my mother Mama Bebei who broke the news to me just after I got home from work in Cebu City.

It felt like spinning in a dark tunnel. Why him? I cannot fathom why it needed to be him. For a few months after my father Lando’s diagnosis, I hated the things that I used to love and the things that kept me sane.

I hated watching the sunset, the feeling of being surprised, all the traveling and the idea of uncertainty. I hated sunset because I was afraid that he will die when the sun rises; I hated surprises because I do not want to be caught off guard that he will go the next day; I hated traveling and uncertainty because I was afraid to lose him while I am away for work.

I thought I would feel guilty not seeing and taking care of him on his last days. I grieved in advance and lived in fear. I cannot lose the person who has been the reason why I do well in everything I do. There was a time that I gave in to these fears. I felt it was hopeless to fight the battle.

But my father’s words through the years gave me the courage to fight and survive. I cannot lose the battle without giving it a good fight. I can clearly recall when I told him I might not be able to go to college because he lost his job. He simply told me, “You will go to school.” No ifs and buts. I did.

That was five years ago this month – March 2012. I was then 25. Yes, my father went and rose through the 5-year relative survival rate for colon cancer patients. He survived! My family dealt with the pain gracefully. We survived the drama that cancer can inflict in a family. My father said earlier this week, “Mai, let us celebrate this victory when you get home”.

You must be wondering how we – as a family – survived?

Behind Mai’s smile is a superwoman’s spirit of flying through the storm to save her family from harm and pain.

You will never know how tough you are until the situation hits you. Having a loved one diagnosed with a serious illness does not compare to someone knocking and asking if he can come in. It is a long-winding road until you get to the point when the only choice is to face the situation. Your strength is weighed on the scale.

Two days after the diagnosis and before his operation, my father wanted to see. He requested from the doctor and nurse to wait for me before he gets inside the operating room. I ran fast to see him. I knew he wanted to have the assurance that I got his back; our family’s back. I acted tough to show him all is ok with us. I told him, “You need this, Pa. Or else you will suffer more and it would be more difficult for you and for us.”

That was my most heartbreaking sent off so far. I sobbed with his red rubber slippers in my hand. We all waited outside until the major operation was finished. The procedure remove portions of his large intestine and small intestine.

Be open to take it as an opportunity to know God on a personal level. It was on this moment when in everything I do and decide, I talked to God to make sure we are doing them right. I was very young back then. I am unsure. I needed God’s wisdom as guidance. I thought I cannot afford to fail because my father’s life is at stake.  It was the first time that I offered to pray for someone. As he was about to be wheeled inside the operating room, I approached the doctor and asked if we could pray for my father.

I held his hands and prayed. I cried, making the doctor’s hands wet with my tears. The doctor tapped my shoulder and said, “Pray and trust God. Everything will be all right, Mai. I will do my best.”

Her father surviving through cancer was a team effort. It was a bayanihan spirit at work from Mai’s family, relatives, friends and neighbors.

Saving for retirement early on. The experience taught me the value of saving and investing. When it happened, I have no savings. By the time we needed to pay the hospital bills, I have to find means and exhausted all the resources I have. I kept it a secret from my family that I was running out of money.

I remembered writing an email requesting our office if I can borrow from my salary. I cried shamelessly at the internet shop while doing it. It was humbling. The financial and emotional challenge did not stop there. Two weeks after my father’s operation, he complained of pain and asked if he can be brought back to the hospital. The insurance has been exhausted and will not cover his further treatment. It was difficult to say no but I have no means to pay the bills.

In the end, it is all about family. Do not be afraid to ask for help, I did. Having someone with cancer is not just a family thing. It needs the support of the entire community and the people around you.  I am blessed with the best support system possible. My aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors who never left us during those moments.

Whenever I am down to my last resource, my Aunt Chona, the sister of my father, would call me and just listen how my days went. My uncles and aunties were also around anytime we need them. My younger sister Sha, a Biology student, patiently explained to me the treatment processes.

Five years after the surgery, surviving cancer is her father’s best gift to the family.

The bayanihan spirit is very much alive in Filipino communities. Bayanihan is the Filipino trait of coming together to help a cause. While my parents were in the hospital, my neighbors would clean our house, bring food for my brother and for my parents at the hospital. They reminded people in our village not to talk to my father about having cancer. It was only after three months when my father learned he has colon cancer.

When I got back to work, I would ask my friends for help – such as my friend Crislyn Felisilda-Dacut paying the hospital bills for me. I do not want to burden my family to know how much it had cost us. I wanted to condition their mind that I am in charge and they need not worry.

Learn from the process, no matter how painful. It initially felt it was unfair for my father and all of us to suffer. In those darkest moments, my workmates would send me messages or put a note on my table, reminding me of Bible verse in Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know I have plans for you; plans to prosper and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and future.” True enough, after five years, He kept His promise.

I learned the hard way that major breakthroughs come from major heartaches. Looking back, I now understand why it needed to be him. Why my father? Why him? I realized God hits us in our weakest points to become the person He wanted us to be.

I am not used to showing my emotions. I was stonehearted and always wanted to be a superwoman. With what happened, I am kinder and learned to empathize. The journey gave me a big heart for others because I know how it feels to be broken and left empty-handed.

Mai continues to give back joining outreach initiatives of small organizations in Mindanao.

Mai is currently an aid worker sharing powerful stories from the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Philippines for eight years now. She has been deployed in major emergencies in the country and finds time to travel and learn from different cultures.