STAR’s Operation Damayan builds back better

Michael Rebuyas - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Palo, Ormoc and Marabut in Leyte and Samar once played host to simple yet thriving communities; here, people lived off the land they tilled and the seas they fished in, taking only what they need and giving to others what they don’t.

They were simple folk: Teachers, students and office workers worked and lived side by side with farmers and store owners and fishers, their lives straddling the fine divide between the traditional idylls of the province and the complicated modernity of the city.

That was their life. That is, until the terror of super typhoon Yolanda and its winds and rains and storm surges came along.

Ripping through the region with a fury described by environmentalist and climate change advocate Nadarev Sano as a “hellstorm”, super typhoon Yolanda spared no one in its wake, leaving an estimated 6,300 people dead.

Now, six months after the tragedy, the people of Palo, Ormoc and Marabut,  as well as scores of others from the neighboring towns and cities of Leyte, and Samar, are doing all they could, just to reclaim the stability their lives once had.

One thing they are looking to regainfor the sake of their children is education.

The Philippine STAR’s humanitarian arm, Operation Damayan, helmed by STAR president and CEO Miguel Belmonte, headed back to areas struck by super typhoon Yolanda in Central Visayas to provide further assistance to communities badly affected by the disaster, turning over three school buildings under the aegis of its adopt-a-school program to the delight of some 2,000 students and their parents.

Inaugurated in succession were Palo Central School in Palo, Leyte; Legaspi Elementary School in Marabut, Samar; and Valencia Central School in Ormoc, Leyte. The project, funded by donations from kind readers, benefactors and employeesof The Philippine Star Group of companies, is the biggest undertaken by Operation Damayan thus far.

Construction of the school buildings, which consist offive classrooms with toilets each and a library,commenced early last March with a symbolic bayanihan ceremony at Ormoc City’s Valencia Central Elementary School. In true bayanihan fashion that Operation Damayan espouses as a volunteer group, more than 100 parents helped clean the area in preparation for the construction.

Each of the rooms is supplied with school chairs and equipment, while the library is equipped with reference materials, a television set, a computer set, study tables and chairs as well as an Epson Gift of Brightness technology package consisting of printers, a projector, a document camera and a label printer.

Echoing a sentiment that was heard over and over again from grateful students, Legaspi Elementary School fifth grader Beverly Mae Estonio, a consistent honor student, said, “Maraming, maraming salamat sa ibinigay ninyong paaralan. Sana po marami pa kayong matulungan katulad namin.Rest assured we will take care of your donation at pagbubutihan namin ang aming pag-aaral.”

The students were each gifted with a pair of school uniforms, school bags with school supplies, apparel and socks, and a pair of slippers.

“Maraming salamat sa inyong lahat. Ito’y tunay na pag-asa ng muli naming pagbangon,” added Beverly’s schoolmate Felmar Miano.“Pangakong mas pagbubutihan pa namin ang aming pag-aaral. Kayo ang mga bayani namin,” he added.

Operation Damayan, led by Belmonte and wife Milette, inaugurated the three schools alongside representatives from the local government, the Department of Education, and the people of Ormoc, Palo and Marabut.

In a statement, Belmonte said Operation Damayan, instead of its usual practice of adopting only one school per year, decided to help to two more this year as a way of extending assistance to those who are in great need of it.

“As leaders of this generation, I consider it our responsibility to prepare the future generation, that’s why ‘adopting’ schools, especially those that have suffered from neglect, has become our advocacy. It is The STAR’s way of supporting education and giving the children a better future,” Belmonte said.

Parent Marlina Cabahug, whose daughter starts this schoolyear as an incoming sixth grader of Valencia Elementary School in Ormoc City, Leyte, said: “Para ito sa mga anak ko at bilang magulang, natutuwa kami at magkaroon sila ng bagongbuilding. Mainit angtemporary classrooms nila, nahihirapan ang mga bata pati na ang mga teachers.

For his part, San Joaquin Elementary School principal Liberato Cobacha said they are very grateful for Damayan’s help, noting that although they have enough supplies and relief goods and temporary classrooms from foreign organizations for the students, what they really need is a new school building not just for their students but for the teachers as well.

Summing up what students feel about their brand-new campus, Lourenz Nino Libres, 13, of Valencia Central School in Ormoc City, Leyte said: “Thank you, Philippine STAR, for your generosity, for giving us a chance to fulfill our dreams; for giving us more than just a school but a place we can call home.”

Now, having survived the whipping from the storm that took so many in its wake, the people of Palo, Ormoc and Marabut, as well as scores of others from the neighboring towns and cities of Leyte and Samar are slowly reclaiming the stability their lives once had.

With proper guidance and helping hands, indeed, they will.

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