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In Volunteerism, Hope Springs Eternal (Part 2 of Volunteerism in These Trying Times)

Studies show that it is during crises that volunteers heroically leap to the rescue of their needy countrymen. They easily adjust and are quick to adapt to serve and help. Volunteers are always around, no matter the risk.

In this circumstance, in 2016, people who may not know each other well just got motivated to help convene and organize into Tabang Bikol Movement (TBM). On Christmas day that year, Super Typhoon Niña swept across Bicol, dampening the holiday glee of many families. One would think that the “first responder” to a disaster in one’s locality typically refers to the DSWD, the LGU, or the barangay assistance workers. But in most instances, ordinary citizens and NGOs can also be the first responders. Thousands of homes were wholly damaged leaving families homeless, without work, and hungry.

By impulse, mainly through electronic messaging, many citizens who were at home came to the rescue. I did not realize that a simple text for help sent to one, then to a hundred others, would quickly result in a fund-raising campaign. With slow government response, many volunteers hit the ground, raising money for “Yero Pako” from Bikolanos and non-Bicolanos from far and wide – including OFWs, Mariners alumni, friends, and relatives from the private sectors. A national daily published free of charge a half-page appeal for help, and volunteers sought donations by email and letters from various individuals and groups. We approached radio stations for free public pleas for help. In about a month, the fund drive raised a significant amount of money to buy roofing at discount prices courtesy of friendly hardware in Naga City. There was coordination with the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD) Region V, which gave out food packs to the first 200 households. TBM, true to its name, came to the rescue to help. Indeed, this show of solidarity around a cause was very heartening.

I remember this same spirit of volunteerism back on Nov. 8, 2013 when Super cyclone Yolanda struck and caused extensive damage to our neighboring Visayan provinces of Samar-Leyte. Being a maritime school, Mariners mobilized ocean-going vessels – ferry boats and ships-- for urgent disaster response across the sea. I contacted the Norwegian Maritime Foundation of the Philippines and the Norwegian Embassy to avail a ship for truckloads of relief coming from different parts of Luzon awaiting transport for Tacloban, Leyte. Support from the Public Safety College, the Mariners offices in Manila, and Bicolanos from other parts of the country and abroad poured in. Through this volunteer campaign, I established contacts with the former (now deceased) Bicolano Senators Eddie Ilarde of Iriga City and Victor Ziga of Albay, who continued support even after. After several coordinative meetings, T/S Kapitan Oca led by its Norwegian ship captain, sailed off on Nov. 23 from South Harbor, Manila, as “one of the first ships to bring tons of relief packs to Leyte” after Yolanda struck. In Tacloban, TBM mobilized local volunteers led by the Ugpong Samar-Leyte for coordination.

On the same spirit of volunteerism the newly organized TBM responded to the alarming incidence of dengue in Camarines Sur in 2017. With the valuable partnership with the Region 5 agriculture department, the dengue relief operation involved hundreds of volunteers giving away 300,000 citronella tubers to 100 communities all over Camarines Sur and Albay. Studies have shown the Citronella plant is an effective natural mosquito repellent. Thus, it became TBM’s weapon, and later its advocacy to address the dengue outbreak.

In addition, by organizing the People’s Organization of Disaster Survivors (PODIS) and Ilaw ng Kababaihan from typhoon-displaced families in Canaman, TBM trained the members themselves into community movers and warriors for resiliency projects like this high-impact intervention. PODIS members and other households began posting pictures of themselves growing high-value crops and vegetables for food and livelihood on their group chats. In addition, ILAW women trained and started their citronella scented homemade candles as an income-generating project. At one community meeting, ILAW members told me they felt a sense of responsibility to get involved because they want to be part of the solution to improve their lives.

True, volunteerism aims for solutions and change. For example, the citronella solution to fight dengue generated a great deal of interest among many people on the efficacy of this weed-like plant. In time, this single act of many dedicated and purpose-driven volunteers helped stem the rise of dengue cases in their communities. At the same time, TBM popularized the growing of vegetables and medicinal plants with its community-based Gulayan sa Bakuran at Tahanan (GBT). Distribution of free seeds and high-value crops for food, medicine, and livelihood became a regular TBM program called Pagheras (Bicol word for sharing) made most significant every year on October 16, World Food Day. Today, citronella and vegetable growing thrive on a once idle one-hectare land that the Archdiocese of Caceres lent to the disaster survivors whom TBM organized for health and alternative livelihood.

Indeed, positive outcomes can arise from a crisis. One of these is the rise in the number of volunteers willing to share time and skills to solve problems and initiate change, especially in poor communities. Who would ever think that the rewards of volunteerism would be in the form of a Citronella Distillation Mini Plant-Livelihood Center for the displaced farming families of the 2016 disaster soon to rise on another borrowed land? After almost four years of struggle, the project that began planting and growing citronella plants to fight dengue would now develop into Agripreneurship (Agri-based entrepreneurship), a livelihood of producing essential oils from the plants to address the long-term health and environmental needs of households. Amazingly, the partnership with the regional Department of Agriculture and other stakeholders is bearing fruit!

Since last year, with the many challenges of increasing poverty, isolation, need for social connectivity, care, and alleviation, the Covid 19 is providing another platform for meaningful volunteerism, whether in providing food, shelter, water, mental health counseling, clothes, medical supplies, or other essential services. Everywhere around the globe, people started stepping up efforts to help their communities by volunteering—despite the personal risks. For me, the first year of the Pandemic was one of the busiest and challenging times where volunteers became the primary workforce behind many essential community services. Often, virtual volunteerism took over from the traditional face-to-face services, allowing volunteers to share causes they feel passionate about to help.

So, going back to the earlier question as to why the Volunteer Act would “compel” government people who are paid monthly by working in their offices to join programs within and among government offices to render free service to the communities? Then, I saw a link to Bayanihang Bayan Volunteer Program for Government Service, also known as BBP, which aims to build a strong partnership between the government and the private sector in implementing development programs and projects. I call it a partnership forged for the wise, efficient and beneficial use of government resources for meaningful people-centered projects with the employees of NGAs, LGUs, and other government offices bound by shared goals.

If the goal is to promote the participation of the various sectors of the Filipino society, then strengthening the practice of volunteerism as a strategy to attain national development and international understanding, must therefore start with an enabled and conducive atmosphere of volunteers working freely effectively, and happily with the government.


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