Become a family of heroes

TEACHABLE MOMENTS - Jose Claro (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2013 - 12:00am

When I was about six years old, I distinctly remember how confused I was when I woke up during my sister’s birthday. There were no balloons, no spaghetti, no party hats, no hotdog sticks on pineapples. Instead, endless jars of cookies and some other items in loot bags were being brought inside our car. My mom explained that as a wish, my sister wanted to celebrate her birthday in Elsie Gaches Village. Elsie Gaches is a special care facility for abandoned children with special needs such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, mental retardation, autism, and other related illnesses. Back then, I didn’t know what that meant and I was a bit scared when children who didn’t act like regular people started approaching me. But then, my parents and sisters started interacting with them and when my family handed out the loot bags of goodies, they were all smiles as they hugged my sister one by one. It was then that I knew my family was special. I learned my family was not the type that looked down on people. I belonged to a family who was sensitive to the feelings and needs of every person, especially the poor. I’m sure many of you who get to read this may have a similar experience. What this proves is that character is best learned through the family.

I thought about this when I had the chance to observe the volunteers of the annual volunteerism event known as Bayani Challenge. This event involves teams of people signing up for service activities that include the building of houses, painting of national road signs and markers, tree-planting and coastal cleanup, school refurbishment, medical mission activities, and education sessions for children.

A total of 80,000 volunteers signed up for Bayani Challenge last March 23-27 in 33 provinces throughout the Philippines. The massive number of participants and the multiple locations they serve probably make Bayani Challenge the biggest volunteer movement in the history of the Philippines. For the volunteers of this admirable endeavor, bayanihan is the weapon of choice in their struggle against poverty.

The structure of Bayani Challenge is very interesting. Everyone is encouraged to organize his/her own team of 15 members. The quickest way to reach the magic number would be to encourage your family and other relatives to join you in this noble project. Once completed, your family will most likely be assigned to a lot where all of you will start building an 80-square-meter concrete house for the poor residents of the locality. All of you will feel slightly pressured as you will be placed side by side with other teams. This means your family must try its best to keep up with the pace of other teams. That’s hard to do when your team gets to work behind team AFP or team PNP who are skilled and expert builders.

Your family may always opt to stay in a nearby hotel or pension house for comfort and convenience. But I’ve seen adventurous families who decide to stay and camp out in the build site. While it may sound fun, the reality of residing in the site is tantamount to sleeping in bare concrete houses with almost no appliances. There is no running water. One of you would have to get it from the nearest poso (water pump) and carry the heavy pails back to your house. When I remarked how surprised I was that some families choose this option, a volunteer replied, “That’s the point of Bayani Challenge. It entails a lot of sacrifice and challenges before one becomes a hero.”

While I continued to tour the place for documentation purposes, I chanced upon an English-speaking Filipino family. I stopped for a while and tried to get their story. They were actually a family of American citizens. But the parents decided to mandate their children to visit their country of origin and do some volunteer work there. I could just imagine how these children must have objected to the thought of flying thousands of miles away from their comfort zones not even to go on vacation but to do hard labor. But the parents certainly brought up their children well because by the time they were on the site, the kids were working no matter how hot it was or how dirty their clothes were because of the nature of the job. At the end of the event, I saw how the children were proud of what they had accomplished and would certainly never be able to forget the experience of going back to one’s roots in order to fulfill their duty to a motherland they only heard before from the stories of their parents.

Perhaps one reason why children soon get to cherish the experience is that they get to see young people like themselves enjoying Bayani Challenge. They must have wondered why many youths enjoy carrying cement blocks and sacks of soil under the blistering heat of the summer sun. I asked Jing of Bulacan and she replied, “The level or degree of happiness is radically different here. In Bayani Challenge, we not only get to travel and bond with our friends but help those in need at the same time.” Similarly, I read from a news report the answer of Voutschel Gonzaga: “This is bonding for a cause.”

Children learn best the values of kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion not through sermons or school lessons but by witnessing how these values are embodied by their parents and older siblings, and modeled during shared family experiences. My admiration goes out to the many families who encouraged, dared, forced, and cajoled their children to join Bayani Challenge. I’m sure it was all worth it. Not only did they build houses for the poor, they also laid the foundation for their children’s growth and maturity as heroic citizens.

I hope to see your family next year for Bayani Challenge 2014!

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