Faith Builder
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - December 5, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Rey Constantino, a full-time disaster relief volunteer since Typhoon Reming hit the Bicol region, immediately made plans to go to Tacloban, Leyte just three days after Super Typhoon Yolanda wreaked havoc on the country two years ago.

Knowing that reaching the city directly would be difficult, he decided to fly to Cebu, then make his way to Leyte via ferry. But fate had other plans for him.

Upon coordinating with the regional disaster desk in Cebu, Constantino was told that it would be near impossible to make the trip to Leyte. Instead, they told him, there were many who still needed help in Cebu itself, and since most relief efforts were concentrated in Leyte and Samar, there were few who had reached out to those in Cebu.

Thus, Constantino found himself in Gibitngil Island, in Medellin, on the northernmost tip of Cebu. It faced the strength of the storm before Yolanda reached nearby Bantayan Island.

Constantino’s journey to Gibitngil Island has been even longer than the four hours on the road and further travel by boat that it takes to reach the island from the Cebu airport. Both fate and faith, it seems, have brought him to Gibitngil.

A civil engineer by profession, Constantino took to the mountains for 12 years  as a member of the New People’s Army. In 1988, he was captured and jailed, then was freed after two years. He then did church work as part of his community service. After a year, he was granted a scholarship to study Developmental Management at AIM. “Then I was a corporate animal for 12 years,” he says. But his passion for helping his community did not wane. “I was called again to serve the people.”

Constantino reflects, “It’s my passion to help transform communities… No longer as extreme as before, but still wanting to transform communities.”

He started as a full-time volunteer in Bicol after Typhoon Reming hit in 2006, where he and other volunteers built the Amore Purpose Driven Community with 130 houses in Daraga, Albay. The community is complete with livelihood programs, multipurpose and recreation centers as well as a day-care center.

“Kung nasaan ang bagyo (where there is a typhoon), that’s where you’ll find me,” Constantino says with a grin, but seriously. Through his volunteer work delivering donations in the wake of the typhoons, he saw clearly that “not just immediate relief is needed. We have to go beyond relief.”

Constantino himself stays with the communities that he helps build, overseeing not just the construction, but also the rebuilding of the community’s spirit. Today, he divides his time between Manila and Cebu as the residents of Gibitngil Island rebuild their lives.

Made up of some 500 families, the island had no fresh water source and no electricity even before Yolanda hit. The locals make a living out of marginal fishing and their cash crop, spring onions. The island itself is made of coral, Constantino explains, which makes it difficult for them to plant other crops.

When Constantino first got to the island in the wake of the typhoon, he looked for a faith organization to partner with. There he found the independent church, Balay Kahayag – which means “lighthouse.” Constantino remembers, “The church was devasted as well as their community, but they were the first to help other people.”

Together with the church and other volunteers, Constantino formed a group which they eventually called the Extra Grace Response Team, or EGRET. “When you are helping people, you need to extend extra grace,” he says. “Now they are not only building a new house, but a new life as well.”

EGRET’s first project was to construct what they call “pansamantagalan” houses, which Constantino describes as a bahay kubo of sorts, made of cement board, coco lumber and tin sheet roofing. Each house measures 20 square meters and has two bedrooms, which is even better than most residents’ houses before Yolanda. “Magbibigay ka na rin lang, give it with love. Itataas mo dapat ang dignity ng mga tao (If you are going to give anyway, you might as well give it with love. You should elevate the people’s dignity),” he says.

Now, Constantino’s group is working on building a community with semi-permanent housing. Once finished, the community will have the first complete houses in the Philippines – and maybe even the first in Asia, Constantino surmises – made of recycled waste materials.

Using his background in engineering, Constantino explains, tetra packs are made up of 70 percent carton and 30 percent plaster and aluminum. His former colleague, who now supplies equipment to Thailand to process the tetra pack waste, told Constantino that they are employing technology that can separate the carton portion from tetra packs, leaving them with the excess plaster and aluminum pressed into boards. “He told me that I might be able to make use of them,” says Constantino. Sure enough, this became the perfect material to use for the island’s new housing.

These boards resemble plywood, says Constantino, but are waterproof, shockproof and fireproof. They also will not rust like tin sheet roofing, making it ideal for the conditions on the island.

As they build the housing, Constantino envisions the new community as a model of the bayanihan spirit not only in building houses, but in the residents’ entire lifestyle as well.

For the community’s livelihood, Constantino says they will try to start a simple piggery, profits of which will be shared among members of the community.

He dreams of a sustainable livelihood for the residents of the island, whom he has come to know as good friends. “I hope that having three meals a day will no longer be a luxury for them,” he says.

Recalling how it was in the months after Yolanda, Constantino says the residents were aimless, going through life without purpose. Two years later, he says the change is evident. Having a new house gives them something to live for in the coming years. Constantino says many residents start moving into their new houses even if they have yet to finish construction. They put up curtains and decorations right away – a way of making the new building their own, claiming the space as their home.

As the Christmas season nears, the residents of Gibitngil Island can look forward to the future with hope. “I hope they will continue to thank God despite what they have been through,” says Constantino. “They do not only have a new house, but a new life.”

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