First responders
HEART AND MIND - Paulynn Sicam (The Philippine Star) - February 12, 2019 - 12:00am

I am proud of people I know who are serving those who are most in need under the most difficult circumstances.

While we in Manila and elsewhere were ushering in the New Year, dampened somewhat by the rains that had already given us a wet Christmas, the Bicol Region was being pummeled by a storm called Usman. It was not deemed strong enough to be called a typhoon but it had such a devastating effect on the communities in its path. The province of Mindoro reported widespread flooding and Tiwi in Albay saw landslides swallow homes, killing more than 100 people, by official count.

Menchie Auste, a native of Albay, representing the Dios Mabalos Po Foundation run by her sister Mediatrix Vallejo Villanueva, was one of the first responders to get to Tiwi.  When she arrived with interfaith and intersectoral groups, bringing water, rice and other emergency supplies three days after the landslide, they were the first on the scene. 

She wrote on her FB page:  “The stories were heart wrenching:  waking up at 11 p.m. to loud rumbling noises, followed by huge boulders rolling down the mountains together with water and mud. Many considered themselves lucky enough to have run out of their houses in pitch darkness to safety. In the process, most had nothing but partial homes left — a wall, half a roof, everything was taken from them, including their sources of livelihood like motorcycles and sewing machines.

“Many families in Tiwi are caught in a struggle to survive typhoon Usman damage. There is no safe drinking water/no water at all. There was little food and an uncertain future, having lost most, if not all, of their belongings in the flash flood, boulder and mud surge. Dead bodies lay at road sides uncollected and simply covered by tarpaulin.”

But Menchie was impressed by the resiliency of Usman’s victims. She wrote about “a family who built a makeshift home, made of rice sacks, on the edge of a cliff right across the mountain where their nipa hut used to be, and another family that turned their pigpen into their temporary sleeping area. Despite that horrendous experience, seeing the first team of responders brought grateful, relieved smiles that they were not forgotten. The people said, ‘This morning we prayed really hard that we will be remembered, that someone would come, and Dios Mabalos came.’”

Meanwhile, in Los Baños, Laguna, photographer Alex Baluyut and his partner Precious Leaño were monitoring Usman as they have monitored the progress and effects of storms and other calamities, both natural and man-made, since November 2013.  When typhoon Yolanda devastated Tacloban and surrounding towns with storm surges that destroyed everything in its path and killed up to 10,000 people, Alex, acting mostly on instinct, sounded the call for volunteers and donations of ingredients and equipment for the hot meals he would cook at Nichols Airbase to welcome the traumatized evacuees from Tacloban who were being flown to Manila by the US and Philippine Air Forces for temporary shelter.

What is now known as the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen was founded on Nov. 15, 2013, a quick and timely reaction to Yolanda. It has since gone on more than 41 emergency feeding missions around the country, going wherever people need hot food during and after a calamity — from Benguet (landslide) to Surigao del Sur (storm) to Marawi (war) to Arakan Valley (drought) to Addition Hills in Mandaluyong  (fire), and lately to Tiwi (landslide), feeding thousands of Filipinos with culturally appropriate regional food, including halal for the residents of war-torn Marawi.

In Tiwi, ARMK with its local partners prepared 6,000 hot meals for 1,000 evacuees from landslide areas over three days.

I am awed and proud of people I know who are serving those who are most in need under the most difficult circumstances. Med Villanueva was a year behind me in St. Scholastica’s College and Alex Baluyut is a family friend. Precious was briefly a classmate in yoga until she and Alex moved to Los Baños.

Med and Alex are cut from the same cloth.  Med is a successful businesswoman, a native of Albay, whom her family calls, “salvador del mundo,” for “her obsession with saving the world.” Her Dios Mabalos Po Foundation established in 2007 is centered on serving her home province of Albay, and, by extension, the Bicol region, with “comprehensive, holistic, integrated and sustainable rehabilitation and redevelopment of disaster-affected and impoverished areas.”

Alex, a photographer by trade, was once described to me by someone who knew him well as kind of “messianic,” which if you look it up in the dictionary, refers to a “savior” or “liberator,” a characteristic “relating or belonging to an inspirational leader.” Alex wrote on his FB page, “Our service is emergency food aid when calamities or disasters happen. Rescue/water and food are the first responses.” ARMK has evolved with every mission it undertakes. “We are constantly trying to improve our cooking technics and our equipment (depending on our funding). We are always trying to shorten our response time. We track every storm and monitor every man-made or natural calamity and also gauge the dangers that may threaten our volunteers.”

As a means of empowering the communities they serve, besides feeding them, ARMK leaves behind burners and pots for the communities for their own kitchens. “We encourage them to use the equipment as much as possible not only for calamities but also for happy occasions like fiestas or weddings. They may even start their own catering business if they want.”
From its local chapters, in Surigao del Sur, Iligan City, Tacloban, Samar, and the headquarters in Los Baños, ARMK quickly moves its mobile kitchens into calamity areas where volunteer cooks, using giant woks and donated local ingredients, prepare hot comfort meals for thousands of evacuees.

Such caring and generous persons are the hope of humanity. May their tribe increase. Let us support them with our goodwill and our resources.

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