Dionisia Sira-Chiu: A beautiful life rich with 90-year journey of faith and courage

Dionisia Sira-Chiu’s life story is the story of every woman. Rising, falling and rising again. She has the courage to challenge the status quo of her time and led the way how things can be done by women if they have persistence. Now she tells us her story heading Maya Angelou’s call, ““There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

“Even before you were born, the community is already waiting for you to do something” – Chiu Bun Gim

A woman inspiring fellow women

In her time, women’s struggle to be empowered took roots rising from motherhood to inspiring the family’s thriving business to flourish. Her candle shines forever for women to follow.

What makes a woman’s life different? In particular, what made this one story special?

I have interviewed and written about many women from all over the world and there are few who stood out among those I met. One is Dionisia Sira Chiu, the woman behind the well-respected Chiu families whose businesses are based in Koronadal City, the capital of South Cotabato Province, but spans the whole Mindanao island.

Dionisia’s journey is a wealth of wisdom about family, relationships, faith, courage, trust and yes, compassion towards others. What struck me most was her tenacity as she went through life’s bumps and hurdles. Did she cry and spent sleepless nights over them? I am sure she did and imagine what lessons I found. Did she, at a point, waver through the challenges? I am sure she did, just like you and me. This one many women would share in common.

Indeed, what makes a woman rise above the rest is that effort to do something for her own community; to spread kindness and to do things that matter to other human beings, especially those in need. Often, our life’s inspiration is driven by the passion of people around us. In her case, it was her late husband Chiu Bun Gim, a migrant from mainland China whose business foresight led him to venture in the Philippines. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Childhood at the time of war and peace

She was born from parents who valued education at a time when going to school was a tough challenge. “My father used his rusty bicycle to take us to school which was 7 kilometers away from our barrio (village) named Balabag to the town of Santa Barbara”, she recalls. She became among the first batch of students who graduated from grade VI together with those from grade VII.

Born on May 8, 1929, Dionisia Sira grew up in a deeply religious family who never missed praying the Angelus every 6pm every day followed by the Holy Rosary. “I was always sleepy during the prayers but I managed to complete them”, she says. Somehow, these seemingly tedious traditions helped build her patience and inner strength. She eventually became the prayer lead during important religious celebrations.

Santa Barbara, a town in Iloilo Province is located 16 kilometers from Iloilo City. Though few people may know at present time, it is part of the country’s important independence history. The Revolutionary Government was inaugurated in its town plaza in October 1898 led by Roque Lopez as president. The revolutionary forces successfully launched the campaign to liberate the province from the Spaniards. Then the Japanese came and occupied many municipalities in Iloilo province.

Driven and determined. She witnessed the violence of war but it did not diminish her desire to reach her goals.

Dionisia, fondly nicknamed Nising to family, friends and acquaintances, was old enough to witness the atrocities. She says, “Many people fled outside Balabag for fear of violence. We have heard of rumours of people being beheaded. It was terrifying that I saw myself how a beheaded guerrilla being kicked by a Japanese soldier.”

“There were times when we have to put off the fire in the kitchen hastily, carrying the uncooked rice in the pot straight from the wood stove and run for safety in our air-raid shelter”, she adds. Every grain of rice is considered sacred in the Philippines and should never be wasted even at war time.

From Visayas to Mindanao

After her first two years studying a degree in Pharmacy from Colegio de San Agustin in Iloilo City in 1951, Nising moved to complete the remaining two years of the degree in the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, graduating on 1953. By then, the family moved to Mindanao taking advantage of the government’s program, the National Land Settlement Association (NLSA). Majority of those who made the move came from the Visayas region.

Immediately after graduation, she took the boat from Cebu City to General Santos City in Mindanao. In that journey, Nising met a Chinese guy named Chiu Bun Gim, who was quiet but was fond of going around in the boat. He brought us and some boat officers together to play games. That fateful meeting, almost uneventful, actually became the start of their long journey together in 1957.

Persistence personified. Her parents instilled in them the value of education and this challenge was not easy in the 50s. But she prevailed pursuing what she wanted.

She spent her early days in Koronadal City taking care of her siblings who were still studying. “I was cooking and keeping the house for them”, she shares. She established her small pharmacy in nearby Kipalbig, Tampakan that she named Sira’s Medicinas Caceres in 1955 specializing in household remedies. With the health clinics and hospitals inaccessible in the 50s and transportation difficult, her pharmacy became the refuge of people in need of immediate treatment.

“I have sewn the wounds of a farmer with abaca fiber who got into an accident. I assisted several child births. One night, I was summoned to help a man who was knifed and was profusely bleeding. Faced with these challenges that could mean life-and-death, I have no choice but to use what I have learned and help save lives. Fortunately, most of these patients survived and I was happy I was able to do my share”, Nising added.

Finding love and the future

They next time she met when Chiu Bun Gim was when she remembered offering her services as an interpreter. She ended up working as secretary doing their admin work ensuring that their communications with clients were done promptly. On the side, she taught them proper verbal and written English.

Their relationship gradually blossomed and they faced together the changes in the business industry as they started a family that grew into six children now leaders in the real estate and trading industry with growing families. Valentin now owns Chiu Kim Enterprises. Joseph owns Viajero and other businesses. The four women Maria Victoria and Maria Veronica, Maria Rosario and Maria Henrietta are main incorporators of Marbel Universal Trading, Inc.

“What I really admired in him was his being soft-spoken and thrifty. Imagine that with his P120 monthly salary from La Perla Cigar & Cigarette Company owned by Lucio Tan, he sent P100 to support his family in Xiamen, mainland China and saved the remaining P20 which later were invested into his business ventures assisted by close friends”, she adds.

During Chiu Bun Gim’s death in 1996, whose tombstone was engraved with his favorite saying, “Be like a candle which burns itself to give light to others”, it devastated her but she said she was prepared. Way back in 1980, he was already having a prostate problem and high blood pressure. This led a surgery administered in Chinese General Hospital in Manila and was followed by a diagnosis of colon cancer in 1992.

He went home to Koronadal City after his surgery where he was cared for by his family. Unable to travel anymore, his family from Xiamen came to visit him and the two families met. This part of her life will need a longer sharing time.

Raising a family of business leaders, Dionisia and Chiu Bun Gim with children. From left: Henriette, Rose, Val, Joseph and twins Vicky and Vernie.

Together with Chiu Bun Gim, they worked hard building a business. Every cent and effort counted. This trait they were able to inculcate in their children’s lives.

A campaign to give back to the elderly

At 90, Nising found her calling to take care of people her age. “One instance that really struck me was when a frail, old woman, probably my age, was begging and went to our store. I asked her why she was alone and nobody accompanied her. She shared with me that her children have no time for her and she had to find food for her needs. It broke my heart. The elderly took care of their children while growing up and now that they are old, nobody can return that love to them”, she laments.

That encounter gave birth to her dream of establishing a home for the aged in Koronadal City. There were a lot of hurdles but with the support of her family and various support groups, the dream is gradually unfolding. The groundbreaking event of the one-hectare site donated by the family was a triumph of compassion over the odds. After a careful selection, the Board of Trustees of Anawim Koronadal Home for the Elderly was set-up composed of respected members of the community.

Dionisia Sira Chiu’s 90-year journey is not over yet. It is just taking a good turn to the more fulfilling phase of giving back.

I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.” – Maya Angelou

Age is just a number. At 90, Dionisia still travels the world, now exploring it with her grandchildren. A life well lived and full of adventure.

An early celebration of her birthday in Hong Kong witnessed by families from the Philippines and China. Everyday is a celebration.

Before his death, Chiu Bun Gim had reunified his family in Xiamen, China and Koronadal City, Philippines. The tradition of annual family reunion started alternating locations in both countries.

Dionisia’s life is inspired by many beautiful quotes and poems among them Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. Note: Copy of the prose poem photo grabbed from www.sacredart-murals.co.uk.

Love letters and memories: Marriage so good it’s absolutely made in heaven

Finding your perfect match and sharing a journey to ‘forever’ still exists. “Getting married is fate. It just brought us together.”

She was a lovely village lass teaching in a public school in Tantangan, a small town in Mindanao, while he was a rising hotshot lawyer from Manila. The backdrop was the in 60s and the only way to travel was by ship that took weeks. It was amazing how their worlds were brought together with such distance and barrrier between them.

But fate intervened, their two paths crossed and they found each other. We all love stories like these, but double that giddy feeling when you know them well.

Paulo Coelho wrote, “So, I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.” This is what exactly happened to Pio and Minda.

Pio Marinas, a lawyer by profession, hails from Natividad, Pangasinan. After finishing his law degree from Manuel L. Quezon University and passing the bar exams, he worked in an insurance company in Manila. His nephew, then the mayor of Tantangan, encouraged him to move to Mindanao. He thought it was a good idea.

When a position in the Commission on Elections (Comelec) opened up, he took the opportunity and got assigned in its satellite office covering Tantangan town and Koronadal City. Imagine the ship sailing and you are on to your journey courtesy of (to borrow from a popular local movie) this thing called tadhana (fate)?

Luzminda Cueva’s family moved to Tantangan in the late 50s where she finished a 2-year Elementary Teaching Course and was offered a job in a private Catholic school in Koronadal. She took the job to complete a bachelor’s degree in Education from the Notre Dame of Marbel College (now a university).

She was 25 and he was 27. She is third in the family of five and he is the youngest in the family of nine.  

“I like her eyes. They’re beautiful”, Pio said of their first meeting. He added with a laugh, “Look at her. Even when we are old, it is still the same.” It was love at first sight for him. But she was not easily taken. Minda thought he was a palikero (ladies’ man) coming from Manila.

She even knew that he has eyes for other women in town. “I was skeptical”, she added with a laugh. Her parents also warned her to be wary of him. The lovers’ date weekends were often at Capitol Restaurant, then the most popular place in Koronadal, eating pancit canton.

Mayor Torres eventually stepped in and urged Pio to pursue Minda seriously. Upping the ante of his efforts, everyone got won over, including Minda’s parents. The courtship took eight months. Only then did she realise he was so different.

She recalled with a smile, “He sent me love letters everyday for the entire period he was wooing me.” No day was missed.

The carefully preserved love letters survived 50 years. Very much like their relationship that turned gold.

Handwritten, the letters expressed Pio’s passion and love for her. They were delivered to their house by a boy every 3:00 pm, rain or shine. The letters we lovingly kept for 50 years and still in good condition! Just like the love they have for each other. Pio also visited daily in the afternoons after work, prompting her parents to be slightly annoyed.

But Minda got impressed. Who can do such things with commitment and persistence? “He was there when we needed something done. He even helped us pump our Petromax at night”, she said. Without electricity, most of the houses in the 60s were lighted up with gas-fueled Petromax lamp.

Small efforts win big, remember that. In life and in winning the heart of your somebody special, it still works. Take it from Pio.

On 16 September 1967, the two got married in a simple ceremony attended by families and close friends. After the marriage, Pio became a revelation to Minda. “For one who grew up in the big city, he was unexpectedly hardworking and dedicated. He would clean the house when he got home early and would even prepare his own clothes, to lessen my burden”, she shared.

The courtship lasted for eight months. Quite a record in the conservative 60s. Their uncle, Mayor Torres, said why would they wait if they love each other.

He even took care of her family, especially her mother. “One time my father kept forgetting using his medicine for his allergy. Pio promptly took over and made sure he did not miss it three times a day. He also supported me in helping my siblings”, Minda shared. Those small acts built their relationship’s strong foundation.

Used to a frugal life, Minda budgeted their income carefully. “I grew up from a poor but hardworking family so every centavo counts. I took care of our income well. With our savings, I started investing in mortgaged lands and together, we started to learn about farming. Pio would be sunburned biking to our farms everyday and he never minded”, she continued.

At one point, they were able to acquire 20 hectares of rice farms mortgaged to them. “I realised I never had any issue with him. It was a very easy relationship. We understood each other and thrived on the journey as husband and wife. There was balance and we supported each other’s plans.” 

She added, “I cannot remember us fighting that much. Pio would always be the patient one to wait until I calm down. We always settled our differences right away.” Some girls have all the luck.

Pio said in reflection, “This once more proves that a woman can make or unmake a man. We were having good income but she knows how to take care and make it grow. She is very responsible. We did really well financially because she knows how to manage what we have.”

They bought their very first car, a Volkswagen Brazilia, with their hard-earned income. Minda found it funny now that she was too shy to ride the car. It was among the few ones in town. After three years, they started seeking medical advise to start having children. Lillian came first on 1970 followed by Marlowe on 1972.

From left: Marlowe, Minda and Pio, Lillian and Charlene. “We are blessed. We cannot ask for more. God is so good.”

Five years later Charlene was born. With all of the children leading successful family lives and career, both Pio and Minda claim this as the highest point in their marriage. Lillian, married to Rhodel who is an Anesthesiologist, is a successful businesswoman taking the reigns of the investments they acquired through the years. Marlowe, married to Kaye, is a Primary Care and Geriatrics Practitioner in the US and Charlene is a bank executive based in the United Kingdom.

Sharing a laugh with grandson Boris.

“We were often overwhelmed how God just made things fall into place in our life – from the very start how we met to how we started our life together in Tantangan until we moved in Koronadal City when he became the general manager of South Cotabato 1 Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Socoteco-1). God has impeccable timing in our lives”, Pio added.

So, a perfect marriage is possible. They both quipped they had their challenges, too, but they were both mature to face them, “There were a lot of ups and downs just like any other couple. But we have more petty arguments now that we are older than when we were younger. Maybe because we have time for each other’s differences. But nothing really serious. We always laugh at the incidents. They were actually silly lovers’ quarrels.”

Their most heart-wrenching challenge was when Pio underwent a heart by-pass surgery in 2010. People who loved, from different parts of the world, them joined them in prayers for his speedy recovery. He did. “I appreciated more that Lillian and her family never left the country and lived close by. God really plans well and took care of us”, he said.

On 2017, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Koronadal City attended by family and friends. “I never even imagined we would come this far. We even celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary when my mother was still alive. That alone was an unforgettable blessing”, she added.

Do they still have a dream for themselves? “We’re more than fulfilled, we cannot ask for more. God gave us beyond what we prayed for.”

Yes, marriage made in heaven still exists. It may not be for everyone, but ‘forever’ and everlasting love do exist.

The brood has grown through the years with four grandchildren.

The nuggets of wisdom they learned from their journey together:

  1. Marrying the right person is fate. You just find each other. When you find that person, treasure him or her as a blessing in your life.
  2. Marry only for love. Never get married if you do not love the person. If you love him or her, the rest of the journey will be easy. The challenges will be bearable because you share it together.
  3. Never hurt a woman. If you hurt the woman you love, you also suffer. Men might not accept it but if they look into themselves inwardly, the pain is deeper.
  4. Expect marriage as hard work shared together. Even small chores at home that are shared becomes precious memories. They strengthen the bond.
  5. Be thankful. Having a beautiful marriage and a wonderful family are a privilege given by God. Material things are just secondary.

This part of their their vow to each other during their 25th wedding anniversary still rings true until their golden years, “May you remember today the promise we made, to be faithful to each other regardless of our age.”

The Marinas family during their 50th wedding anniversary. They have four grandchildren, two boys from Lillian and two boys from Marlowe.

As the former general manager of Socoteco-1, all its staff became part of the family.

More of the author’s stories here: Cecil Laguardia @ Medium

Manic for organic: The Victor Neal Palarca success story

Victor Neal “Loloy” Palarca won as 2015 Best Presenter and Best Learning Site for his farm at the Mindanao Zonal Assessment of Learning Sites on Organic Agriculture by ATI Central Office.

By Vic Thor Palarca

Defying most conventional beliefs on agriculture and challenging traditional farming system, he dared to demonstrate that growing food and eating them fresh in one’s backyard can be done—regardless of location and circumstances.

Testing the Waters

Tagcatong, Carmen, Agusan del Norte – A businessman almost all of his life, Victor Neal Palarca, or “Loloy” as he is fondly called, envisioned being healthy and disease-free. When he ventured into farming, little did he know that his lifestyle and attitude towards mindful consumption of anything organic will change him and his family for the better.

Recalling his childhood days, Loloy says, “I remember the basics of gardening because in my elementary years, gardening has been a constant activity back then, next to going to school and playing. It makes sense to me now that I realized it was an integral part of my daily routine”.

At first, his challenge was not his hometown’s bleak agricultural scenario but the prevailing frame of mind among residents that their soil is highly acidic and is not suitable for farming. Most seasoned farmers ahead of his time have been steeped in traditional farming system using harmful chemicals like pesticides and insecticides.

Will he be able to convince his own neighbours and his community in general that going organic is the way to go? After all, his savvy entrepreneurial skills leave less to be desired now that he has stepped in to a venture which is relatively new to him.

Shattering expectations

His farm is now a Learning Site of ATI in the CARAGA Region in the Philippines. It is composed of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Dinagat Islands, Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur provinces.

Loloy’s integrated and diversified organic farm right in his own backyard silenced skeptics and cynics alike because of the farming technology he has learned in his involvement with the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) via the Department of Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture (OA) Program. As a training participant, he made sure that the principles and knowledge he has learned is put to practice. Testing those principles is highly imperative because he believes that what works for other farmers might not work for him.

One of the immediate steps he did to avert the soil problem was to apply Bio-Char, a pulverized charcoal which serves as an agent to neutralize the acidity of the soil. The application of carbonized rice hull and bokashi also greatly improved the condition of his soil since it functioned as soil conditioner to amend mineral deficiency.

He also put up a water pump in the middle of his demo farm to keep his leafy greens hydrated and for the convenience of watering his plots of vegetables and rows of root crops.

Meanwhile, aside from the trainings he gets to attend, he reads online materials and research findings to further enhance his knowledge on organic farming with US Department of Agriculture and Philippne Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (PCAARRD-DOST) as his frequently visited websites.

It was only in 2011 when Loloy started his organic farming operations since his demo farm was originally planned as a leisure farm on an experimental basis. He now produces vegetables and root crops such as carrots, squash, bitter gourd, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, okra, lettuce, malabar spinach, ginger, string beans, bell pepper and sweet potatoes.

He has a fully utilized 500 square-meters of sustainable integrated organic farm which is now also a sprawling breeding ground for his 60 native chickens, 10 organic-fed large whites and three Anglo Nubian goats as part of his livestock entourage. His cooped native chickens are bordered with madre de cacao trees which at the same time serve as forage for his Anglo-Nubian goats. The litter flooring of his piggery consists of rice hull mixed with salt and effective microorganisms (EM) to combat foul odor.

Acquiring a 3,000 square meter land for expansion, he plans to expand his demo farm by having a fruit orchard.

Loloy is about to forge a partnership with FeedPro, one of the leading commercial feeds in Mindanao which boasts of its natural feed ingredients for their “Baboyang Walang Amoy” campaign project. Perhaps, his efforts to make hog raisers adapt his prescribed technology for an odor-free community paid off.

A Social Message

He is working hard for the farm to become a full-pledge Agri-Tourism site in the Philippines.

Loloy’s drive and resolve to eat nothing but the best has rubbed off on to his family since his wife and kids (and a handful of nieces and nephews) help him tend and manage his garden. The value of organic farming have now secured a spotlight among his circle of farmer friends since he serves as Vice-President to the organized Tagcatong Diversified Organic Farmers (TADOFA) with 23 active members.

As part also of his civic responsibility, he shares his knowledge and expertise to anyone interested in OA through techno-transfers and on site lectures in his demo farm since Loloy happens to be a member of the Municipal Agriculture and Fisheries Council (MAFC).

He makes himself visible by regularly attending trade fairs and agri-business events nationwide as well as the Regional Organizational Meeting of Organic Farmers as organized by Department of Agriculture – Regional Field Office in Caraga (DA-RFO-XIII). He concurs that through family farming, the members of the family will be encouraged to promote farming as a key solution to food security.

Aside from the health and practical reasons, Loloy advocates OA because of the following reasons: it promotes sustainable use of natural resources; it is economical and cost-efficient; it helps reduce hunger incidence in the countryside and it protects the environment and all the farm produce is safe since it is 100% organic and is pesticide-free.

To date, Loloy markets his season’s harvest at a reasonable price in his community and to an expat who is a regular patron. Although he does not rely on his harvest to financially support his family since he has a thriving garments business, Loloy admits that his organic farming venture is for keeps. “I want to make a bold statement that organic farming is here to stay and that it is neither a fad nor a trend because it sustains our well-being as well as the situation of our environment. For me, that is worth investing in our time and efforts”, he adds.

The Farming Saga Continues

Loloy’s humble agricultural venture has grown into a haven for every farmer in the country.

So far, Loloy has already attended several workshops and training events relevant to his organic farming venture which was made possible by ATI’s intervention and support.

The technologies he apply on his demo farm were the very technologies he got from his trainings complemented by his research of the latest breakthroughs in organic farming on the internet.

I was motivated to show and convince my farmer colleagues that farming in your own yard is viable and can be done despite odds and unfavorable conditions”, he enthused. What made the difference were the diverse farming technologies he applied to suit and work well on his farming needs.

Some of his best farming practices include the use of Effective Microorganisms (EM), Indigenous Microorganisms (IMO) for his piggery, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), Oriental Herbal Nutrients (OHN), Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ), Fish Amino Acid with molasses as natural plant fertilizer, Inoculants to enhance and condition the soil and seaweeds as wonder plant food.

Meanwhile, Loloy takes pride in his practice of zero-waste farming which helps him and his family in disposing/recycling their waste products. He practices crop rotation and does not follow the traditional farming calendar.

There is no denying that Loloy’s venture to organic farming is a deliberate and decisive approach to support sustainable agriculture as well as promote family farming in his community.

With a new attitude and outlook to growing his food and eating them fresh too, Loloy is confident with the way things turned out and content with the very soil he have grown to cultivate.

“I want to make a bold statement that organic farming is here to stay and that it is neither a fad nor a trend because it sustains our well-being as well as the situation of our environment. For me, that is worth investing in our time and efforts”

Freshly-picked dragon fruits grown from the Palarca farm.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vic Thor A. Palarca is one of the content developers of ATI-Northern Mindanao. As their Media Production Specialist-II, he writes news articles, features, success stories regularly as well as video scripts as part of his annual targets. He is also involved in coming up with Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials, corporate newsletter, coffee table book and courseware development.

He is in-charge of the production and publication of BAHANDI, a coffee table book and collection of inspiring stories in farming in Region-X as well as contributed to the conceptualization and publication of e-Extension AGENDA, the official publication of the Agricultural Training Institute for e-Learning. He assists in the conduct of trainings by his peers and sometimes serves as a Resource Person. He was once an information services agent of the defunct Knowledge Products Management Division (now Information Services Division or ISD) and have brushed elbows with the Central Office peeps but decided to pursue the countryside to live the provincial life.

A self-confessed 90’s pop crusader, he is soulmates with Shannen Doherty and Tom Hardy. He is a full-time uncle and a part-time loon. He enjoys cafeteria conversations and deja vu. He is allergic to Mathematics. He ships regularly to the charming island of Camiguin. He can be predictable judging by his habitat and niche namely bookstores, libraries and book nook at home. His brain is pretty much scattered.

Did you share your blessings this Christmas? A village could be waiting for you.

Celebrating Christmas with the children of Lamtabong made December 2016 an amazing one!

Celebrating Christmas with the children of Lamtabong made December 2016 an amazing one! Photo by Loel Palma.

“We make a living by what we get; but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

A child's simple dream of a happy Christmas can be in your hands.

A child’s simple dream of a happy Christmas can be in your hands. Photo by Loel Palma.

I should challenge you – do it next Christmas. If you aren’t into it yet. Find the time. It could become your life’s best time ever.

A quiet revolution led by baby boomers and millennials is happening that does not get on the already-too-crowded headlines nowadays. A friend’s working children saved for a year from their salaries to sponsor a simple gift giving activity in a nearby orphanage. A family brings children from their poor neighborhood for a chicken and spaghetti meal in a popular fast food chain. A group of high school friends pooled their resources to buy goodies and a variety of food for children and their families – this one needs credit for their coordination efforts bringing their Christmas treat in a far-flung mountainous village.

We have been sponsoring the Christmas Party of my sister’s grade 5 pupils with small gifts and food for 10 years now. This year, the 44 children ate a simple party meal and went home smiling with school supplies as gifts. We encourage other relatives and friends to do the same in their own impoverished village schools. Sharing the event on social media does not mean you are flaunting your efforts of giving back but actually challenges and inspires others to share. Imagine the chain reaction if people respond to your call to action?

The boys enjoyed the snacks brought for them during their Christmas party. Even the simplest efforts can mean a lot to many children.

The boys enjoyed the snacks brought for them during their Christmas party. Even the simplest efforts can mean a lot to many children. Photo by Loel Palma.

Lamtabong Elementary School is located on the foot of a hill and is part of Barangay Lambingi in the municipality of Banga in South Cotabato in Mindanao, Philippines. With close to 300 schoolchildren studying in six classrooms, two are newly constructed and four are run-down, every class has at least 40 children. One of the classes is on morning and afternoon sessions. The school’s recently assigned principal Christopher Pelayo said the kindergarten class with 29 children has to hold their classes in a makeshift room in the middle of two rooms.

Next Christmas, don't leave a child sad and hungry. You can help in your own way.

Next Christmas, don’t leave a child sad and hungry. You can help in your own way.

“We have to survive with the P14,000 (USD290) monthly operating expense budget provided to us”, Pelayo added. That budget he explained covers small maintenance and repair work, travel expenses of teachers on trainings and meetings, school supplies and other needs. With six teachers under him, they creatively find ways to address their school’s needs. The village is composed of a majority of B’laan tribe who eke out a living from working in nearby cornfields. They can hardly buy their children’s school supplies. Most of the farms were gone, the village is surrounded with banana plantations.

Rebelyn, a 29-year old mother of two said their meager income comes from doing farm labor such as weeding, planting, putting fertilizers or pesticides and harvesting at P100 ($2.5) per day. They usually are able to work for 10 days in a month, if they get lucky. Pelayo said a Christmas celebration is a luxury the villagers cannot afford. On the school’s Christmas Party last week, the teachers have to contribute for the children to share bread. Many did not attend he said because they have nothing to bring.

Rebelyn (far right), a 29-year old mother, is grateful of people coming to help the children. "We want our children to have better future than ours."

Rebelyn (far right), a 29-year old mother, is grateful of people coming to help the children. “We want our children to have better future than ours.”

Our visiting group, composed of cousins and nieces, brought biscuits and juice for the children. It was unforgettable how the children’s and parents’ faces lit up as they all lined-up for their share. Josie, 35-year old mother said it was the first time a group has come and made the children happy. “It is your coming here and sharing time with us that’s important”, she added. Many of the women marry as young as 12-16 years old for lack of opportunity to study further beyond elementary. Rebelyn said, “Marrying is the only option for us. What do you do? We want our children to do better than us.”

Kindergarten teacher Amalia Dizon, 43, said it is difficult to watch children come to school often without lunch. A mother of two, she said it is painful for her to think of the hunger these children endure. “My husband and I cook extra food on schooldays so I can share it with my pupils. It is not much but it gives me relief that we can eat together. The rest of the teachers here do that – even buy supplies for their class so they can use something”, Dizon added.

Kindergarten teacher Amalia, 43, shares one has to have a heart for children to endure the challenges. "We often bring extra food as many of them are hungry. How can they learn if their stomach is empty?"

Kindergarten teacher Amalia, 43, shares one has to have a heart for children to endure the challenges. “We often bring extra food as many of them are hungry. How can they learn if their stomach is empty?”

Pelayo’s Christmas wish is for additional classrooms to be built. He holds office in a thatched roofed hut that also serves as the feeding center and meeting room. He worries where to keep the computer equipment when they are able to avail of them. “We do not have electricity and internet yet but we are finding ways”, he shared and added, “But foremost in our priorities is the classrooms where children can study and learn well.” He is hoping that generous individuals will take notice and help improve the children’s learning facilities.

It is not too late to check in your neighborhood and find a way to share. Make a child happy. Talk to the public school teachers of the children’s needs. Our own humble gift giving started when my sister Nanette, a public school teacher, told me 10 years ago that she got moved when saw a girl help her gather the leftover after she cooked bihon (rice noodles), brought bread and juice packs for her pupils. Then she asked her if it was fine for her to bring home the leftovers. “For my sister”, she told Nanette.

This boy was born without his left arm but goes to his kindergarten class regularly.

This boy was born without his left arm but goes to his kindergarten class regularly. Photo by Loel Palma.

Just a tip when sharing, make sure the food and supplies you give are sensitive to children coming from different tribes and religious affiliations. The last thing we want in a classroom is to isolate or leave a child behind because the food or gifts are not acceptable for them. Can you imagine if we can bring children in the cities to share gifts to children in the villages? Both groups will surely learn from each other and kindness sown while they are still young. One thing is very certain though, the fulfillment that you will feel is priceless.

Note: If you want to donate to the school, please contact school principal Christopher Pelayo at mobile # +63-930-1855714 or email him at chris111175@gmail.com. You can also leave a message in the blog.

MORE TIPS when planning for a reach-out activity

Children in Lamtabong school eagerly wait for their gifts. More than the material gifts that you can share is making them feel that you truly care.

Children in Lamtabong school eagerly wait for their gifts. More than the material gifts that you can share is making them feel that you truly care.

  • Ask your public school teachers where your need is most needed. It doesn’t have to be on Christmastime. Some people would collect for June and give school supplies at the start of the school year.
  • Be practical of what you give. Pooling resources together to renovate a classroom or provide a much-needed blackboard, sports equipment or teaching supplies would be for long-term.
  • Be conscious that children come from different tribes, beliefs or religious affiliations. Check if what you’re giving can isolate other children and make them feel that they are not included.
  • Brief your group before you arrive. Check if everyone is dressed appropriately. Let them know if there are some sensitive topics or actions they should not discuss. Do not come with any agenda except to share from your heart.
  • Check the security situation. Do not take it for granted that because you are from the neighboring place, everything is secure. You do not want to put your family into a risk and make it a traumatic incident for everyone.
  • Make sure everyone is in the mood for the activity. More than the gifts you are sharing is showing that you truly care and you respect everyone participating, including parents and the children themselves.
  • Do not assume you know better. The people in the village (or barangay) knows their situation and needs better. Do not impose on what you want. Respect on their situation is very important.

Is there any lesson you want to share in your reach-out activity? Please share with us!

More photos from Lamtabong below:

This school's makeshift building that serves as the principal's and teaching force's office, feeding center and meeting room.

This school’s makeshift building that serves as the principal’s and teaching force’s office, feeding center and meeting room.

School principal Chris Pelayo rides on his motorbike going to the school daily and crosses this hanging bridge.

School principal Chris Pelayo rides on his motorbike going to the school daily and crosses this hanging bridge.

Make it a family affair! Teaching your children to be generous can be done in many creative ways. They'll love it!

Make it a family affair! Teaching your children to be generous can be done in many creative ways. They’ll love it!

Chris (far right) tapped into his own family support group to help the children in his school. You'll be surprised how your family can rise up to the challenge and show they care.

Chris (far right) tapped into his own family support group to help the children in his school. You’ll be surprised how your family can rise up to the challenge and show they care.

A couple’s journey with Davao City’s Badjaos

Here’s a story about a couple’s amazing dedication to help the Badjaos in Davao City

Pastor Jun and Daisy: Can you help them build a dream school for the Badjaos in Kanaan?

Pastor Jun and Daisy: Can you help them build a dream school for the Badjaos in Kanaan?

MANILA, Philippines – “Is that all there is to it?” asks Pastor Felicisimo “Jun” Morales, 59, to himself.

An old Badjao beggar named Johari that he met in 1990 changed his life. Pastor Jun said this was his first reaction – pity, which led his family to give him food, clothes and basic things he needed.

But another question popped on his head with nagging frequency –“That’s all?”

What he did next, along with wife Daisy, 54, was an amazing journey of courage for this often-disparaged ethnic minority.

Reliving the 8 years they have spent in Kanaan.

Reliving the 8 years they have spent in Kanaan.

A couple’s journey

They lived with them for 8 years in Kanaan (Erratum on original story: Kanaan not Isla Verde), located near Davao City, to help understand their culture and find ways to help them.

“We came without conditions. We just lived with them, built our own house among their shanties and tried to do what they do daily,” Daisy says with a smile of the memory.

She says: “People might have thought we were crazy giving up the comfort of our home. But back then it was not. The coastline was pristine and the sea breeze was refreshing. There was no way we can help them without fully understanding what their culture is.”

Said to be mostly from Sulu, the Badjaos are known as sea gypsies – their lives depended mostly from the sea’s fishing resources. But with the growth of commercial fishing, many of them went out of work and resorted to peddling and begging in the city’s streets. There are over 500 of them in this area alone.

Day-to-day challenges

Daisy recalled that with the epidemic of head lice going around, she got busy helping the women remove them from children’s unkempt hair and learned to use an improvised comb for sweeping the parasites.

CHALLENGES. Daisy taught the Badjao community basics on hygiene

Daisy taught the Badjao community basics on hygiene

“We lived, ate, shared stories and shown our sincerity to be with them. Over time, we have won their trust and respect, which are the most important of all,” Pastor Jun adds.

Food was always a challenge in the community. The Badjaos prefer fish paired with grated cassava, and are the main staple. Rice is hardly affordable.

Pastor Jun and Daisy set-up free clinics with the help of friends, and assisted the families in sending their children to a nearby public school.

“Helping them intermingle with the bigger community was a challenge. Most of the time they were avoided and considered different,” Daisy recalls.

Keep reading in Rappler.

To help, please email Daisy Morales at daisyhmorales@yahoo.com.ph or send us a message here in istoryya.