It’s the start of another year! But before we jump headlong into 2020, let’s take another look at the past year.

2019 proved to be a very busy and challenging year for all of us, Team Pilipinas volunteers. The following are its highlights.

During the first five months, we became occupied with campaigning for Otso Diretso. All sorts of campaign activities, you name it, we had tried it – flyering, stickering, postering, saturation drives, Project Makinig, voters’ ed, fund-raising, caravans, Trompa project, Honesty runs, etc.



After the elections, when we experienced a painfully dismal loss, we threw a party. Our Otso Diretso candidates, not yet done licking their own wounds, attended the Thanksgiving party and put up a brave front for all of us.



We held regular General Assemblies to update our volunteers on all TP’s activities and projects. We also used those gatherings to discuss and exchange opinions and ideas on various socio-political issues hounding the country. I think, I’ve counted a total of 5 post-election GAs if I’m not mistaken.



In July, we had our first fundraising activities called Sagwan ng Pag-asa and Salamat Pho. Both were for the benefit of the Recto Bank 22, the fishermen whose boat was rammed, sunk and abandoned at sea by a Chinese vessel.



Also in July, we launched an online petition for the dismissal of the sedition and other charges filed against the opposition leaders led by VP Leni. We submitted that petition to the DOJ. Today, close to 68,000 people have already signed the petition.



In August, we went to Occidental Mindoro to personally hand over to the fishermen of Gem-Ver 1 the cash donation that we managed to raise. We were there with VP Leni, who donated a substantial amount to the fishermen and listened to their stories of woes in the hands of the Chinese bullies.



In September, in line with our observance of National Teachers’ Month, we launched another online fundraising campaign to help the public school teachers in Calbayog, Samar who are assigned to far-flung communities. Some of those teachers have to travel for as long as 11 hours across rivers, mountains and rice fields just to get to their students. Some have to live through the horrors and the constant threat of armed conflicts among feuding politicians or between the military and insurgents. Some have to starve during the habagat season because food in the island becomes scarce and no boat would dare venture into the tempestuous waters. And some have to witness their 10-year-old female students being married off to any man who can afford to pay P30,000 (even by installment) just to rid the family of another mouth to feed.



By the end of September, we were in Samar for the turnover of the teacher’s kits. This project gave rise to another outreach initiative conducted by KAISA, a non-profit organization of some Tsinoy businessmen. So, two months after, we went back to Samar to distribute boxes and sacks of donations, not just for the teachers, but also for their students and communities.



Also in September, before the anniversary of Marcos’ Martial Law, we sponsored a forum called A Re-Membering of the Essential Truths About Martial Law. The afternoon became emotionally charged when one of the speakers, Mr. Haroun Al-Rashid Alonto Lucman, Jr., presented a lengthy, harrowing and gut-wrenching narrative of what his people in Mindanao were made to endure and suffer during those very dark years in our nation’s history.



In October, in time for the observance of the World Mental Health Day, we held another forum. Called Breaking Myths About Mental Health, the forum aimed to address three important concerns surrounding mental health: the grim statistics (1 in 5 Filipinos has a mental illness), the urgent need to break the stigma (mental illness is often suffered in silence due to the massive amount of stigma surrounding it), and the necessity for awareness (to be of better help to someone who may be showing signs and symptoms of mental illness).



Due to the crippling effects of the Rice Tariffication Law to our farmers, we decided to sponsor a fundraising concert in November for the benefit of our rice farmers in Talavera, Nueva Ecija. With a parallel online fundraising campaign with the same name, the Maagang Pamasko Para sa Magsasakang Pilipino (MP4MP), the project’s initial goal was simple: to provide a Noche Buena package for the families of 100 farmers in Talavera.



But when we managed to have our interview with one of the farmers published in Rappler and, we received an overwhelming support from you and our other kababayans. So, in December, we trooped to Talavera not just to deliver Noche Buena packages, but to surprise the farmers with a Christmas party!



Thanks to the Office of the Talavera Mayor, aside from the grocery items, blankets, canned goods, health kits, rice, and organic fertilizers that we brought for the farmers, they were also treated to a sumptuous boodle-fight lunch and raffle prizes and were given Christmas gifts. Mayor Vi also announced during the party the availability of rice seeds and cash assistance in her office.



During the last quarter of the year, we heeded the call for help of our kababayans from Cotabato who were adversely affected by the series of strong earthquakes that struck the province. We ordered bags of rice from Session Groceries, an online grocery store that allowed donors to help the earthquake victims by selling and distributing rice which they purchased directly from the farmers of Cotabato.



Finally, to celebrate the upcoming birthday of Jesus Christ, to welcome the holiday break, and to cap off the year, we held our Christmas Party in mid-December. And we decided to do it with no less than the happiest bee on earth, Jollibee!



We are hoping that, with your continued support, mga ka-TP, 2020 will be another productive year for Team Pilipinas. TP Core Group, let’s do this!

Maraming salamat at Manigong Bagong Taon sa ating lahat!



I and another colleague went to Calbayog City in Samar last weekend ready to turn over the teacher’s kits to the 250 public school teachers that our group, Team Pilipinas, had managed to raise a sufficient fund for. (The recipients were mostly assigned in the remote and far-flung schools either in the islands or the uplands of the province.) We were ready to serve as the bridge between our generous donors and our chosen recipients. We were ready to have a personal encounter with our teachers who are largely overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. We were ready to celebrate with them the National Teachers’ Month and the upcoming International Teacher’ Day on October 5.

What we were not ready for were the stories that they generously shared with us – stories that tugged at our heartstrings and made us realize anew why our teachers should, indeed, be put on a pedestal as our country’s modern-day heroes.

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David Refuncion teaches in Mabini I Elementary School, a school situated in one of Calbayog’s farthest mountains. His first assignment, he has been teaching there for three years now.

David, along with seven other teachers from their clustered school, has to travel for eleven hours just to get to his students – two to three hours aboard a multicab, then a habal-habal and, finally, a boat, before he would have to walk across rivers, rice fields and hills for another six to eight hours. Their travel becomes longer, riskier and more challenging when they do it under the pouring rain because the water in the river rises and its current becomes strong, and the mountains and rice fields they navigate become murky and slippery. Armed conflict between members of the NPA and the private armies also poses a serious challenge to them and the entire community.

Adrian Benecario, from Calilihan Elementary School, has to regularly contend with landslides during his 5-6 hours of travel on foot just to reach his students.

Both young teachers are witness to how their students are living in abject poverty.

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The supplies that Sir David brings with him from the city to the barrio.

They have students who walk miles barefoot and are used to attending classes on empty stomachs. There are those who can’t afford to buy something as basic as paper and pencil, and just have to rely on the generosity of their classmates. There are those who use plastic grocery bags for their school bags. (There was this one time when the teacher was cleaning up after his last class. He saw a crumpled plastic bag and, thinking that is was trash, he put it in the trash bin. A few moments later, one of his students went back and asked in their local dialect, “Sir, have you seen my bag?” to which the teacher replied, “I didn’t see any bag here. What does it look like anyway?” “A plastic bag, Sir.”) There are those who have to skip classes because their parents need an extra hand in the farm. And when someone in the village gets sick, the parents automatically turn to the teachers for medicines because the nearest health center is miles away.

There’s also no electricity in their place so the teachers have to use flashlight or kerosene lamp when they are working on their Daily Lesson Log (DLL).

However, the worst and most heartrending story that they shared is that of some of their female students, the youngest of which are in Grade 3, who have to quit school altogether because their parents are forced to marry them off. They do it for two reasons: to rid themselves of the burden of feeding another mouth, and for the “payment” that they will receive from the man who will be their daughter’s husband. For P30,000 (which is usually given to them in installments) and a small pig or goat, these little girls are given away to any man who has the capacity to pay.

As a mother myself, that is the story that really broke my heart.

The call in the wake of Typhoon Usman that nearly wiped out the barrio where Ma’am Mary Jane and Ma’am Mariah Kim teach.

Meanwhile, Mary Jane Ebardone and Mariah Kim Oite are co-teachers in Cag-Anahaw Elementary School. Previously, they would reach their school by bamboo rafting for four hours, climbing four mountains, and crossing a treacherous river that snakes around those mountains. But since the river has gotten shallow due to landslides, they now have to walk all the way to the barrio where they teach. They have to be extremely careful, though, as paths can be steep and slippery, and one misstep can cause them to stumble down cliffs.

Cell signal is weak and unpredictable in the village so they attach a string to their mobile phones and hang them to anything that is high enough for them to get a signal.

Last December 28, 2018, the barrio was wiped out by Typhoon Usman.

Their school, that sits atop a plateau, is one of the few structures that survived the catastrophe. The floodwater, though, still managed to reach the roof of the covered court. It was only through the bayanihan of the neighboring communities that Barangay Cag-Anahaw was able to slowly rise back up.

Although it was hard for the two young teachers to accept that their students could not go to school because they had to be with their families in picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, they fully understood the situation. After all, given the choice between education and survival, any one of us will certainly choose the latter hands down.

The church that also serves as the school for Sir Ricky’s students

Another two teachers that we talked to, Ricky Balat and Rhio Amor both teach in an island where illiteracy rate is among the highest in Calbayog. Their barangays also belong to the poorest.

Between the months of August and February, when the most intense monsoon winds blow, the islands get more isolated from the rest of the city because no boat dares to head to the open sea. During that season, there is scarcely any food. People have to make do with wild grass and any available root crops.

Fried camote, Sir Ricky’s lunch during the habagat season when no boats dare leave the island.

Aggravating the teachers’ situation in the islands is the seeming lack of support that they get from the government. They do not have a school so they teach their students inside the church. They do not receive any books, too.

The students’ houses are a long walk from the “school” and the unpaved roads that they tread are typically rough and muddy. Sometimes, there are even snakes slithering about.

My fellow Filipinos, the monthly salary of our entry-level teachers is only Php20,000. Some of them, like Sir Ricky and Rhio, do not receive regular hazard pays or hardship allowances despite the risks that they are made to face on a daily basis just to do their job. They are even required to make cash contribution for unit meets, competitions and other events. And they buy their supplies from their own pockets.

After all the deductions for taxes, GSIS, Pagibig, and all sorts of loans that they have previously availed, the teachers are left with a meager take-home pay. Yet, they still try to help their students in any way that they can.

Asked what they would request for should there be generous souls who would be ready to grant their wish, none of them expressed a desire for themselves.

School supplies for the students.

Slippers for the students.

Playground for the students.

Classrooms for the students.

Books for the students.

Asked why they continue to do what they do, they have a ready answer. They love teaching, they love their students, they love the community.

For them, it is enough that their students greet them with happy faces and toothy grins whenever they reach the village after a very long trek. The fruits and vegetables generously given to them in exchange for the medicines and other supplies that they provide for the parents are more loaded with sincere gratitude than the automatic thank yous that they are used to receiving. But, most of all, it is the realization that, in their own ways, they are making a difference in the lives of the children and their families, that keep them going. Day after day after day.

If that is not heroism, I don’t know what is.