Revisiting Yolanda, Revisiting Volunteerism: A Personal Account

By: Larah Vinda Del Mundo

The past week has been one of the most meaningful I had so far. I had the good fortune of joining a bus-load of volunteers who went back to the Yolanda-hit areas to find out how local government units and families are recovering a year after the historic typhoon devastated the area.

The truth is, I am not part of the group of volunteers who responded a year ago because I was somewhere far trying to finish my college education. I went on this trip as part of my current job. Nevertheless, I am more than glad to have come and be surrounded by such passionate and fun-loving bunch of volunteers. I must say that I could not possibly chronicle everything that transpired during our trip, because even with that, I would be doing my new-found friends injustice.

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The trip was not an easy one. We had to travel by land and by sea because of meager resources. We slept on the bus 30% of the time and in the remaining ones, we were at the mercy of good-natured comrades we visited along the way. There’s Nay Vergie who literally served as our nanay while in Cabalawan; Ate Ruffa who helped us spread the news of volunteerism and disaster preparedness in Albay; Ate Veron and Ka David who were very patient with receiving an army of volunteers at their humble office quarters in Palo; Mommy Marlene whose home served as an oasis for all thirty-nine of us in Legazpi; and our dearly loved Ka Damian who became everything at once for us while we were in the Leyte and Samar leg. Even our colleagues from Sambisig-WEMS (Wilderness Emergency and Medical Services) went beyond being mere participants and ensured that everybody was safe at all times. 

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I experienced a lot of “firsts” during this trip. It was my first time to do volunteer construction work, first time to plant tree seedlings along the coastline, first time to witness how solar panels are installed, first time to witness an actual medical mission (I have been living in caves for years), and even my first time to belt out Titanium by David Guetta, but well, in my case, first time to belt out any song in front of actual human beings during our solidarity night. Not bad indeed, for my first job. 

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Along the trip, Ate Paeng, the overall bus commander, gave everybody the important task of knowing the community. I have never heard such stories of compassion and strength before going on this trip. Among the stories is that of Ate Grace, a community health worker from Brgy. Batang, Hernani, Eastern Samar, who lost her home during the typhoon and had no roof to shelter her children for months. When she became fortunate enough to be able to purchase a small portion of land for her home, she decided to put the needs of the community before her own. She donated the land to the barangay so that Akbayanihan Foundation can erect a humble health center that can service not only Brgy. Batang but numerous other barangays in the area. Saludo ako sayo, Ate Grace, at sa lahat ng taong kasing buti at tatag mo!

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Just a few hundred meters from Brgy. Batang is one of the most hardly-hit barangays in Western Visayas, Brgy. 3.  But I would not have known this because when we arrived, the people were happily greeting and smiling at us. They were the most cheerful bunch we met and their sense of community was remarkable.  As was said in the novel The Great Gatsby, these people, indeed, had an “extraordinary gift of hope”. In San Jose, Dulag, is another success story of organic farmers who are now innovating farming strategies. It is difficult to imagine that the thriving organic farm we saw started just after Typhoon Yolanda hit with no more than a jar of worms and some seedlings.

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During the eve of typhoon Yolanda’s anniversary, we visited a mass grave located amid one of the major roads in Tacloban City. Hundreds of victims were buried in this rather small patch of land. The volunteers and I were given a candle each and were instructed to choose a tombstone to dedicate it to. As I scanned the entire mass grave looking for a stone marker to light a candle for, a friend drew my attention towards this tiny stuffed animal positioned across a tomb marker. When I looked closer, this dilapidated wooden tomb marker was actually devoted not to a single person, but nine. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief of carving nine of your loved ones’ names into a piece of wood. Unlike others whose full names were carved in marble and embellished with intricate curves and lines, this one only had the dead’s first names in them – Glenn, Art and Abigail are some of the names I remember. 

10401417_741105009270058_940812319336037389_nWhat struck me about this particular marker is that it is unadorned but full of heart and tenderness. There was no need for an epitaph, no need for their birthdays, not even a need for others in the community to recognize who these buried people were. The one thing that mattered to the person who carved nine of his or her loved ones’ names in a piece of wood and left a tiny stuffed animal was that he or she remembers them and honors their memories. Perhaps, what was important to this person was that he or she may continue to tell the stories of how they lived, not only of how they died.

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It was in that moment when I realized that I may be losing sight of more important things. After weeks of helping arrange the logistics of this trip, observing how there has been a shift in the nature of local industries after Yolanda, looking into how families have gradually regained their ground, and how government efforts have been significant but insufficient, I truly have lost track. I was an outsider looking in. Unconsciously, I might have joined this trip so I can tell myself afterwards that I have done my part and therefore I should feel better. 

During the entire week, various government officials, civil society groups, humanitarian workers and members of the media were looking back at what happened to the Yolanda-hit areas and “checking” how these families have been recovering or not recovering as if they were specimens under a microscope. And I admit that I am guilty of this. In one of the debriefing sessions we did, Ate Paeng told us that if we are in Tacloban to do anything at all, it would be to be really present for all the survivors we would meet. I thought I understood what she meant, only be slapped in the face the day after while staring at that humble wooden tomb marker.

I came to Tacloban looking for an adventure, searching for stories of grief and success that can inspire me, and seeking to tell myself afterwards that I did a good job. Unfortunately, I came to Tacloban for all the wrong reasons. However, I don’t regret having to come because I realized that if ever I would go back, or if the time comes that I will have to volunteer again, I will do so with the attempt to understand and find out not what disasters mean to me, but what calamities like these mean to the victims. I realized that one can only begin to help if one truly empathizes and identifies with the plight of the people one is seeking to help. Most importantly, I have come to recognize that in any effort to extend a helping hand, we should do so not “as outsiders looking in” because, in the end, we are all victims in one way or another.

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Larah

Larah Del Mundo graduated from the University of the Philippines Baguio and is a new staff member of ACF, Inc. It is her first time to visit Tacloban City and Eastern Samar.

Akbayanihan and Miss Earth Foundations commemorate Yolanda, call for more assistance and protection for affected women

Last November 8, the Akbayanihan Foundation together with twenty-seven Miss Earth 2014 candidates from different parts of the globe called for more protection and assistance to women affected by Typhoon Yolanda, one year after the super-typhoon ravaged parts of Visayas.

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The group noted that women are one of the most vulnerable sectors during disasters. The Akbayanihan spokesperson related that when their volunteers went to the areas hit hard by the typhoon, they reported cases of rape and other forms of violence against women. There were also reports of increased sex-trafficking in the affected communities and even in evacuation centers as a form of alternative “livelihood” to provide for the basic necessities for their families.

Equal access to post-Yolanda services    

Even as the government continues with its post-disaster rehabilitation efforts, it must ensure that women have equal access to much needed services and programs. While a lot has already been achieved with regards to relief and recovery efforts despite the massive and unparalleled devastation, still, much more needs to be done, especially in transforming the condition of women in the affected areas.

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The government’s continuing endeavor to build better communities must include tearing down pre-existing discrimination and other inequalities suffered by women, many of which were magnified and aggravated by the Yolanda disaster. The concept of ‘building back better’ should embrace the positive transformation of women’s lives.

Women as first-responders, post-disaster rehab leaders 

Princess Manzon of the Miss Earth Foundation lauded the bravery and heroism of the women first-responders who took action to provide immediate relief to many storm-hit areas. “Even as women continue to be one of the most vulnerable sectors during disasters, the significant roles they also play in responding to these calamities as brave and selfless first-responders is simply awe-inspiring,” Manzon said.

Women also provide leadership in the many stages of the reconstruction effort, ensuring that relief and recovery efforts are sensitive to the needs of women and children.

At a time when the women dimension of the rehabilitation work can easily be overlooked in the interest of immediately responding to the overwhelming demands of a post-disaster environment, we praise the women leaders in the government, private sector and NGOs who never got tired of ensuring that gender-based issues and concerns are included in all the stages of the relief and recovery effort. Their stories of hope and selflessness motivate us to contribute meaningfully to changing the stories of our fellow women who suffered greatly under Typhoon Yolanda,” Manzon said.

Climate change

The groups also underscored the need to fight climate change. They said they were adding their voices to the shared responsibility to safeguard the environment so as to prevent future disasters caused by climate change. We must all be part of the cause of asking our respective governments to cut their emissions, push for renewable energy and implement mitigation and adaptation policies to respond to this new environmental reality.

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Laws to build “disaster-resilient communities”

Finally, the group called on Congress to pass two legislative initiatives that are critical to rebuilding disaster-resilient communities – the Internally-Displaced Persons (IDP) Bill and the National Land Use Act (NLUA). Both are urgent measures to ensure the “disaster-proofing” of communities in terms of ensuring human rights and dignity, and improving proper usage and management of land and natural resources to mitigate the destruction caused by wild variations in weather patterns.

Lawmakers must take the necessary steps to provide policies that will lay down the groundwork to protect and secure the rights and dignity of individuals displaced during disasters and for a responsible land use planning to help communities better face calamities. The IDP and NLUA bills are important policy measures to rebuild hope in a post-Yolanda environment.

One year after: Yolanda volunteers reunite, call for more volunteerism in Visayas

A group of volunteers who went to areas ravaged by Super Typhoon Yolanda has again banded together to return to the communities they worked with and underscore the need for more volunteerism, one year after the catastrophic storm hit the country. “Akbayanihan Volunteer Bus Mission” CDN_8694 Via the “Akbayanihan Volunteer Bus Mission, an 8-day journey on the road to ground zero”, volunteers will “retrace their steps” back to the communities they served a year ago, and draw attention to the need for more volunteers in Yolanda-hit areas. According to Dr. Dondon Chan, Akbayanihan Volunteers Coordinator, a year has passed since Typhoon Yolanda hit the country, yet more volunteers are needed to help in rebuilding the damaged communities. “It has been one year after Typhoon Yolanda ravaged many parts of the Visayas, yet the call for volunteerism has never been louder. The number of volunteers working as of the moment in the different rehabilitation efforts in the Central Visayas Region is unprecedented. However, the devastation caused by the storm is simply so massive that the number of volunteers needed cannot be overestimated,” Chan said. “Typhoon Yolanda shocked the nation. That time, we immediately volunteered to deliver relief goods and provide medical care, understanding the urgency of the situation. Today, we may have recovered from the initial shock of the catastrophe, but the people living in the Yolanda-affected areas still need our help. And this is precisely why we are going back to those areas, to see what else we may contribute, and where else we may be of service,” Chan added. CDN_8714CDN_8654“Ambassadors of Hope” Local supporters and donors joined Akbayanihan representatives in sending off the Volunteer Bus, lauding the efforts of the volunteers and calling them “Ambassadors of Hope.” The volunteers likewise welcomed the government’s recent unveiling of its Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan (CRRP) for Yolanda-hit areas and hoped that the plan will hasten the rehabilitation efforts in the affected areas and create better, sustainable and more equitable communities. The volunteers, however, pointed to several glaring problems that the government’s rehabilitation efforts still has to resolve:

  • Housing and livelihood backlogs that the government must provide to displaced families.
  • Repair of health facilities and provision of quality health services, where only a third of health facilities have been repaired, with most health services being provided in tents and make-shift health centers still being roofed by tarpaulin sheets.
  • The affected provinces’ current inability to respond to the peoples need during times of disaster, where most evacuation centers remain ill-equipped to accommodate the rush of evacuees during emergencies
  • The alarming number of people suffering from depression and grief who need medical and psychological support
  • Rising teenage pregnancy, according to preliminary reports by the WHO, wherein around 15,000 babies were born every month since the typhoon.

The Akbayanihan Volunteer Bus Mission will organize “mobile forums” in several pit stops to discuss issues such as climate change and disaster preparedness. The volunteers will also be going to Tacloban, Leyte and Hernani and Guian in Eastern Samar. Stay tuned for more updates!

Infrastructure Projects: Daycare Centers and Barangay Health Stations for the “Yolanda Belt”

With the continued support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), ACF, through the Akbayanihan Foundation, has implemented several infrastructure projects in the “Yolanda Belt.” In particular, these are Daycare Centers and Barangay Health Centers in several municipalities from Eastern Samar all the way to Iloilo.

These Daycare Centers and Barangay Health Units were constructed as per the building standards specified by DSWD and DepEd. Posted below are photos of those buildings ready for inauguration and turn-over to the respective LGU-beneficiaries before the 1st Year Anniversary of Supertyphoon Yolanda this coming Nov. 8, 2014. The remaining infrastructure projects are already at their final stages of construction.

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Flashback: Financial Literacy Training for the Women of Daanbantayan

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Together with the Olof Palme International Center, the Active Citizenship Foundation and the Akbayanihan Volunteer Group held a Financial Literacy Seminar for Women last June 17, 2014 in Daanbantayan, Cebu.

Women in disaster areas are faced with multiple burdens. Aside from the task of rehabilitating their lives and their homes, at the same time usually playing the role of a psycho-social therapist for the members of the family, they also take charge of budgeting the family income. With Akbayanihan facilitating some livelihood projects with the fisherfolk families in the area, it is just proper that they are likewise equipped with the skills to effectively handle finances.

Mr. Mark Pardico, a financial literacy advocate and lecturer from the World Financial Marketing Alliance, presented several budgeting schemes to the 50 plus women who attended the seminar. The workshops were filled with exercises that highlighted real-life and local experiences.

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The goal of the entire seminar was to equip the women-beneficiaries with necessary skills towards preparing for emergencies, disasters and untoward incidents that usually place marginalized and indigent families in peril.

Much is still to be done in Daanbantayan, Cebu, especially for its women. But with one skills-training to another, slowly, we are staying true to the promise of being their partners in rehabilitation.

ACF believes that by empowering women, we empower communities.

ACF joins Rappler’s PH+Social Good Summit Manila: #2030Now

About a year ago, the aftermath of Super typhoon Yolanda brought to light a plethora of inadequacies in the country’s disaster risk reduction schemes.  It is also during this juncture wherein potentialities such as using social media platforms as avenues for collaboration before, during, and after natural disasters became more beneficial and therefore appreciated.

Last September, 16, 2014, Rappler, a social media network whose primary thrust is to foster community engagement using digital platforms convened humanitarian workers, community organizers, local government leaders, media practitioners and concerned citizens.  In the conference entitled PH+ Social Good Summit #2030Now, experts from different fields thrashed out the various dimensions of a disaster.  Four representatives from Akbayanihan and Active Citizenship Foundation participated in this event.  The summit’s hashtag (#2030Now) captures the spirit of the entire project.  The idea is that collaborative envisioning for new strategies for disaster risk reduction management as well as for mitigating climate change is the key towards a culture of safety and resilience.

At the center of the conversation during the summit is journalism as a developmental tool.  Crowd-sourcing, for instance, as a bourgeoning trend in investigative journalism, has been instrumental in rescue and relief efforts during the past natural disasters.  Rappler highlighted Project Agos, a media platform that “combines top down government action and bottom up civic engagement to help communities deal with climate change adaption and disaster risk reduction”.  As journalism continues to go to the direction of cooperation with the public, the Executive Director of Global Center for Journalism and Democracy Kelli Arena says, it should help build capacities among its consumers.

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Realizing that journalists serve as a vital link between state and civil society, Kris Van Ordsel, New York’s Director of Infrastructure and Local Government Program for Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery talks about the politics of natural disaster recovery.  He discussed the basic elements of planning and executing disaster risk reduction management schemes under the context of government institutions in the United States.  Sec. Lucille Sering, Vice Chairperson of the Climate Change Commission drove the issue home by talking about the Philippine government’s initiatives in mitigating climate change.  She synthesizes by saying that there is indeed a noticeable increase in willingness to augment climate action but commitment in terms of subsidy remains low.  Sec. Sering adds that the country should start showing some leadership globally in these climate change mitigation initiatives.  Asec. Jose Sixto “Dingdong” Dantes adjoins the National Youth Commission’s call to integrate the youth in disaster risk reduction programs and strategies.

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What can be taken home from this summit is that we should all be taking advantage of the increased connectivities and start taking an active role in mitigating our own vulnerabilities.  ACF sees this summit as an important step in creating a culture of safety and resilience because participants were able to have a glimpse at what other sectors have been doing in their fields of involvement.  At the end of the day, what will count is how these kinds of initiatives can jump-start a community of leaders from various sectors who are willing to collaborate in planning and moving for a safer living space for all.

 

 

Maribi School: Now on its final stages of construction

Never has the term “delayed gratification” been more applicable to any project than it is to the ongoing construction of the Malaya-Tala School in Maribi, Tanauan, Leyte.

Funded by money raised by the David sisters — Malaya and Tala — through the sale of “Haiyan Bracelets” that they made themselves and via other fund-raising activities, the Maribi School comprises four (4) rooms, one being an open learning area, and two (2) toilets. But what sets this particular school building apart from the dozens currently under construction in the “Yolanda Belt” is that this school has been expressly designed to become “Yolanda Resistant.”

For one, its roof design is rated to survive 200+kph winds. The entire building is also built elevated from the ground, to allow flood waters to pass beneath the structure instead of slamming against it. Particular attention was also given by the architects to the building’s alignment vis-a-vis the Sun to maximize natural lighting. Normal wind flow in the area was also factored in.

Details such as these make constructing the Maribi School take a bit longer than what is normal. So much so that school had already re-started three months ago and, yet, the Maribi School is still not finished.

But quality construction takes time. And if there’s something that the Principal, Teachers, Students and Parents don’t want their new school to be, its to be “built in the usual, way.” They have already seen so many buildings built in the “normal way” destroyed by Yolanda to accept more of the same. Not for Maribi.

In any case, judging from these latest photos from the site, they have only a few more weeks worth of waiting left before they finally get to enjoy Malaya’s and Tala’s wonderful gift to the children of Maribi. :-)

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Akbay-Aral in Tolosa: Lessons from a yellow school building

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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 - author 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. 

Rakrakan for a (very) Good Cause!

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The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) will be holding a special staging of Rak of Aegis, a musical that highlights the Filipino Spirit’s resiliency amid disasters and features celebrated songs of the band Aegis. The funds raised through this special showing will go towards the Daycare Centers being constructed by the Akbayanihan Foundation in the Yolanda-ravaged areas. Contact (0917-845-0408) for tickets.

Tanauan Rehab Updates: MTF’s Maribi School now under construction

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June 5, 2014: The construction crew begins building their temporary barracks made of coco lumber, which they will occupy throughout the construction period. Other skilled workers begin forming the steel bars into columns and bed bars. Behind the workers is the totally destroyed Millennium School Building, which will be replaced by The Malaya and Tala School Building. The previous school building was built during the Ramos administration in 2000 and renovated by Jollibee in 2007. Although it is by far the newest built school building at Maribi Elementary School, it is the only building to be deemed “totally destroyed”.The sign on the left of the first photo reads: “On this site will rise the one-unit, four-classroom Malaya and Tala School Building presented by The Malaya and Tala Fund and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).”

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June 6-10: After fabricating the tie-beams and excavating the footings of the school building, the columns were finally ready to receive the concrete mixture to create the foundation.

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June 13-14: Workers in the first photo are manually preparing the concrete mix (cement, gravel and sand). According to Engineer Eusebio Culas of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) — 2nd photo — manually mixing is less accurate than using a mixer machine. The mixer on site was not working because of a missing screw piece. Less accurate measurements and manual mixing can lead to compromised structural strength, thus we immediately stopped the manual mixing. The foreman only allowed workers to continue once the mixer was fixed, the next day.

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June 20: Excessive rains in Week 2 of the project flooded the construction site, causing workers to stop work to manually scoop out the rainwater from the excavations. Not having a water pump on site delayed construction, as a water pump would have immediately removed the water from the excavations without requiring significant manpower. Still, it will take more than torrential rains to stop this project from moving forward!

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As of June 30: The basic framework of the Maribi School has already been set-up. Next comes the pouring of the concrete for the flooring and columns. In a few weeks time, these structures will be transformed into the 4 classrooms envisioned by Malaya and Tala, the two sisters behind the dream.

Stay tuned for more updates!