By: Justine Balane
When the Akbayanihan Akbay-Aral volunteer team went to the Daniel Z. Romualdez Memorial Elementary School in Tolosa town in Leyte (one of the hardest hit towns in Eastern Visayas during the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda), we were greeted with the sight of a huge yellow-painted two-storey classroom building.
The building was one of many casualties during the typhoon in November. I said to myself that it’s impossible for the kids to learn anything under this condition. The top floor was dilapidated; all that’s left standing were wooden posts, steel bars and debris. When it rained hard that morning, all the water flowed through the cracks and holes down to the bottom floor where more than 10 classes were sharing the little space. Some teachers and students had to make do with conducting classes in the lobby along with other sections because some classrooms were beyond repair.
My job that morning was to get the class lists for every grade level to make sure that every kid receives a backpack, pencils, notebooks and other things needed for school. I was to check the names of kids who were present that morning and mark those who were absent so the school can give them their bag and supplies when they come back.
The school’s Officer-in-Charge Mr. Norman Alcala volunteered to walk with me to the classrooms so we can both collect the class lists from the teachers. He walked me to the white tent/makeshift classroom packed with almost one hundred children and two teachers. “These are already two classes,” Mr. Alcala told me. “They have to share one tent because our tents are few.”
Mr. Alcala said that when the sun is high, the tent can get really hot. There were no electric fans in sight. One teacher was sitting on the table, fanning herself with one hand, the other clutching a cold water bottle to her forehead. She had already listed the activities of the day on the blackboard but the heat was already unbearable — and it was only 9 in the morning. She had to cool herself down with her paper fan before she could start teaching her class about fractions.
After we completed the class lists, Mr. Alcala showed me where the other classrooms used to be. “That white building on the left—,” he said, pointing to a white-painted mound of debris. “That was our library.” When I asked him if they were able to save a few books, he shook his head.
We went back to the yellow-painted classroom building where Mr. Gerald Paragas, an urban planner and TV journalist, was teaching a group of kids how to prepare themselves for the next storm. The kids were having fun with volunteers from University of the Philippines-Tacloban acting out scenarios of a house fire, a strong storm and other disasters.
I was busy watching the Disaster Risk Reduction training for kids when a little girl tugged at my shirt. She was about 10 years old, just 4 feet tall but when she asked me if her name was on my list, she had the confidence of someone taller and older.
Her name is Angelica. When I looked through the list and found her name, we became instant friends. She sat down with me and began to talk about her best friends Pearl and Ara and how she loves studying HEKASI (Heograpiya, Kasaysayan, Sibika) and doing the “Hokey-Pokey.”
When it was time to distribute the bags, she lined up excitedly and ran back to me when she received her gifts from us. Asked what she planed to do with her new bag, her face brightened up and a wide smile formed from her little lips. “I already have a bag for school,” she said. “This one is for my brother.”
As a volunteer, I like to think that we taught these kids an important lesson about giving. But here’s Angelica, 10 years old, whose love for her brother taught me more than I knew about sharing what we have for those who have none.
Volunteering for the Akbay-Aral School Caravan made me realize the value of bayanihan in times of need. Instead of just providing relief goods for the victims of Typhoon Yolanda, Akbayanihan taught me that help should extend until they are able to get back on their feet. The caravan helped children return to school by giving them bags and notebooks but it also empowered them by teaching the kids how to prepare for disaster on their own.
The situation in Leyte is proof that repair and rehabilitation in Eastern Visayas still has a long way to go to return everything to normal. It’s imperative for ordinary people like me to step up to the challenge and give sustainable change to comfort the afflicted.
The huge dilapidated yellow-painted two-storey classroom building might be unfit as a learning environment but it was there where a 10 year old girl taught me the real meaning of sharing. ###
Justine Balane is a student from the University of the Philippines-Cebu and was one of the Akbayanihan volunteers during the School Caravan in Leyte held last June 16-18, 2014.