For many, we can wash the mud off of our houses, have our cars repaired in shops, buy clothes to replace the ones drowned by the muck. For others, though, fate has dealt a terrible hand and recovery from the havoc wreaked by Ondoy is almost close to impossible.
Almost, being the operative word.
A huge deal of what I teach now to medical students in the University of the Philippines came from my year and a half work in Gawad Kalinga (GK), an integrated area development program started by the Catholic charismatic group Couples For Christ. In not so many words, GK aims to restore the dignity of the poor by engaging the latter through holistic endeavors involving shelter, health, education, environment, livelihood, child and youth development, and values formation. GK is the epitome of NOT merely giving people fish, but teaching them how to fish- if fishing is indeed what they want to learn.
View of GK Brookside from the second floor of the nearby Stella Maris school (2006).
The hallmark that an area has a Gawad Kalinga village is its rows of multicolored homes. But if you look closer, the real markers that GK is in the area are the shared positive outlook in life, desire to be of service to one another and unwavering faith in God of both the villages’ residents and the partners and volunteers from all walks of life who come to put this faith into action. One such village is GK Brookside in Barangay Bagong Silangan in Quezon City.
The Visitors Center of GK Brookside, which housed photos and records chronicling the history of the village. Most of the materials were destroyed during the floods, which reached just the base of the triangular feature of the center's roof.
GK Brookside is home to some 300 families, majority of which were informal settlers in New Manila who have been constantly evicted from one piece of property to another until they were able to plant their roots here in 2003. The land the village sits on now was formerly a dumpsite that was eventually cleared, cleaned, and readied for a new life for these wandering families, with the help of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. The then would-be-residents of GK Brookside rendered hundreds of hours of sweat equity- building homes for each other without knowing which home would be theirs- and underwent hours of values formation classes, among other activities, to help enhance their capacity to be stewards of the forthcoming blessings. Couples For Christ volunteers worked hand in hand with the residents to develop leaders among the homeowners who will steer the community through times of lack and plenty.
And the blessings did pour in. During the course of the last five years, partners and friends have contributed to make GK Brookside not merely a relocation site but a real, livable community. A local Lions Club built and outfitted a two-storey library. A private Catholic congregation built an annex of the school they run inside the GK village and rendered quality private school education with the fee of just P50 per student per month. MERALCO built a pre-school building for GK’s SIBOL program. A clinic, a simple water filtration system, a chapel were built with the help of volunteers and friends within the village to further enhance the lives of the residents.
Bulk of my work then as implementor of Gawad Kalinga’s health program was organizing and mobilizing community health volunteers. It was a great experience, all of my encounters with them. Their spirit of voluntarism, willingness to put in long hours in trainings and lectures, and ability to motivate their neighbors to work together for health was- is- utterly amazing. At the end of our sessions, I would like to believe that we’ve transcended the “teacher-student” relationship and we’d really become friends, if not family.
One of the community health volunteers in GK Brookside during the training for vital signs (blood-pressure) taking (2006).
Tropical Storm Ondoy, however, did not discriminate with regard to the communities its intense downpour will ravage.
The benign creek meandering beside GK Brookside swelled swiftly and heavily; in a matter of minutes, the whole village was deep in flood waters, so much so that only the cross atop the chapel was visible.
The village residents worked together to transfer their neighbors to the much higher multipurpose hall as the flood waters rose quickly and steadily. In their rush, many of them left with no more than the shirts on their back. They broke through windows or through their ceilings and roofs when the doors were jammed shut by the floods. That the homes were built adjacent to each other proved to be a blessing: they were able to get to higher, safer areas of the village by walking on the interconnected roofs of their homes.
Many of the GK Brookside families were also taken in by residents of the subdivisions surrounding the GK village. Many also took temporary shelter in the clubhouse of adjacent subdivisions. Thankfully, no one perished because of the floods.
It took 16 hours for the flood waters to recede. It is a blessing by most standards given the fact that many areas are still inundated as of October 26th. Nevertheless, the waters left a trail of destruction that broke my heart when I first visited them 72 hours after Ondoy struck and two years after I last stepped foot in GK Brookside. A thick layer of mud covered the streets. There was a pile of wet household items in front of each house. They could not proceed with cleaning their homes because there was no water nor electricity. The people I met as I drove into the village seemed a little… dazed. (Above: This jeepney was completely submerged in flood waters, hence the mud atop its roof.)
As I eased into the village, I just parked in the first available space I found. A lady began to incessantly knock on the driver’s side window. I did not mind her at first, thinking she’s probably begging for coins and I am not a fan of that brand of helping. It was only when I alighted from the car that I fully understood what she was asking for: she was asking me to move the car to the other side of the street so that there will be an orderly flow of traffic. I then heeded her request, was politely guided into the correct parking slot by another GK resident, and received profuse thanks for my cooperation after. It was at this point that I knew GK Brookside is alright, Ondoy notwithstanding. I was afraid that Ondoy broke their spirit. I was glad to be proven wrong.
Soon after, I met Sis. Helen Cifra, a member of Couple For Christ and Sis. Angie Jamola, a nun with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) who is her congregation’s point person for their work in GK Brookside. Later still, familiar faces popped into the multipurpose hall- the community health volunteers we trained many moons ago were still active in serving their neighbors, this time in their capacity as coordinators for the receipt of relief items.
The SIBOL School, venue for pre-school education in GK Brookside. Floods completely submerged this entire building as well.
They shared with me their harrowing Ondoy experiences, what I shared in the previous paragraphs. They also related the story of fathers attending a seminar in Antipolo City who walked, ran, swam home just to get to their families when news of the floods first reached them, since roads were either flooded or blocked by landslides. Yet the best stories of all involved their response to Ondoy.
Sis. Angie Jamola with the GK Brookside residents and block leaders in the central receiving and storage area of all relief goods they receive from partners and friends.
Unlike other areas where the flood survivors become rowdy and riotous when relief goods arrive, GK Brookside implemented a very simple system of goods distribution. The village is divided into seven blocks, each block led by a block leader. The block leader is the one who first receives the items and gets enough sets for each household in his/her block. Each family then gets its share from the block leader as the latter takes the goods to their area, ensuring order and equality. Also, they hold off distributing goods if there will not be enough for at least one pack per family. Their uncomplicated system emphasized fairness and dignity among its residents even in the face of a disaster.
Some GK residents with an income that is higher than the others’ even forego their share in the relief distribution.
Whenever possible, the leaders of GK Brookside include in their count the number of families OUTSIDE the village borders so that they, too, can benefit from the generosity of GK’s partners. While there are just 300 homes inside the village, the GK Brookside leaders would seek help and assistance for 1,132 families in the belief that nobody ought to be left behind.
The GK Brookside Library after Ondoy.
Help could not come in so easily into GK Brookside for various reasons. First, the village is nestled in a more interior part of the city where the roads are not the widest. Second, the areas preceding the village, the ones closer to the main roads, appear to be more in need; hence, assistance from government and the likes of ABS-CBN are directed to them more, all the time. Third, there is a mistaken notion that since it is a Gawad Kalinga site, it doesn’t need help anymore. But they did need help, especially immediately post-Ondoy.
Thankfully partners and friends did come to GK Brookside’s aid.
Delivery of the "showcases."
On a very personal note, much as I know they would shy away from publicity, I would like to pay special tribute to the Filipino-American community of South Carolina and the membership there of Couples For Christ led by Bro. Nanding and Sis. Merlita Carandang for promptly heeding the call to heroism and putting your faith into action. The funds you have raised, along with the resources shared by my very, very, very supportive family (Pop, Mom, Ate Chiqui, and Tita Vicky), helped give each of the 300 families in GK Brookside a fresh start by way of the following:
Sis. Angie Jamola and Mrs. Lydia Sumalinog (leftmost) the homeowners association president along with village residents show off their new dining room and kitchenwares.
1. A dining room showcase consisting of five plates, five drinking glasses, five pairs of spoons and forks, and five soup bowls
2. A kitchen showcase consisting of one frying pan, one cooking pot, one ladle, and one spatula
3. Plus a multipurpose plastic pail where both showcases were distributed in.
The GK Brookside residents with myself, Sis Angie, and Ms Beng Sy, a volunteer who helped purchase the items that made up the dining room and kitchen showcases which were still in the boxes around us
Each pail of these most basic and underrated necessities costs just around seven dollars. It seems like a very small amount but that is arguably the best seven-dollar investment we can ever make. It is an investment in their future. It is an assurance that people outside of GK care for them. It is an investment in hope. It is a tangible support to their indomitable spirit embodied by their battle cry BANGON BROOKSIDE.
With the Gawad Kalinga community organizer Tito Rabbi as he works with other volunteers doing the cleanup work in the basketball court and chapel area.
Four weeks since Ondoy, things are not yet back to normal; I doubt if they ever will. The library lost all its books, benches, and computers. The pre-schoolers still do not have their SIBOL school. The chapel has yet to be used since all contents of its altar and its sound system have been swept away and drowned. Some homes are still awaiting repair.
Yet in the face of all this tragedy, the residents remain hopeful, optimistic, grateful, humorous, united, and full of faith. When I ask them why or how come, they just give me knowing smiles and point to the sky, or answer with an equivocal “Ganun talaga, Doc.”
Parents of the children attending the Stella Maris school inside the village clean the classrooms in preparation for the resumption of classes.
I would like to think that a huge chunk of this upbeat outlook is due to the seeds planted in the community’s heart by way of Gawad Kalinga:
That there is nothing we cannot accomplish if we work together
That we are not alone in this struggle, thanks to partners, volunteers, and friends
That the Lord is always on top of things.