Recognizing exemplary people power

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Teresa S. Abesamis-125

Grassroots & Governance

THE Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc. (RAFI) which was founded 51 years ago by the late Don Ramon Aboitiz, has evolved from the charitable institution it was at the outset into a multi-dimensional NGO that is largely funded by personal assets of the late Don Ramon Aboitiz and his only son, the late Eduardo Aboitiz. From supporting orphanages and hospitals, to providing scholarships to the poor, it is now engaged in multiple developmental concerns, including leadership and citizenship, integrated development, education, microfinance and entrepreneurship, and culture and heritage. Except for the fact that descendants of Don Ramon Aboitiz sit on its board of trustees, RAFI operates independently of the Aboitiz businesses which have their own Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm, the Aboitiz Foundation, Inc.

Today, day-to-day work of RAFI is led by its new President and COO, Dominica B. Chua, and Vice-President for Governance and Linkages Evelyn N. Castro. Both of these operating officers came up through the ranks.

One of RAFI’s traditions is its Triennial Awards for Exemplary Institutions and Individuals in the Visayas and Mindanao, where the Aboitiz business has its roots. The search process is complex and tedious and the process takes months. Nominees are screened by validators who actually go to the field to verify the statements provided in the nominations. The nominees are further refined to a shorter list, which again is revalidated. From this list, finalists are selected and these are further reviewed by a Search Committee comprised of representatives from the business and government sectors, as well as previous winners of the Triennial Awards. This year, the Search Committee was led by Melanie Ng, former president of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Efren Carreon, regional director of NEDA.

This year, five institutions and five individuals made it to the finalists list. The search committee then selected the top awardee for each category.

The top institutional awardee this year is the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). PEF, founded in 1987, defines its mission as to save the unique Philippine Eagle, an endangered species, from extinction, to actually propagate the species through natural breeding, and, when necessary, through artificial insemination. It has set up the Philippine Eagle Center as a venue for propagation and for environmental education of communities to protect and nurture the forests that are the habitat of the eagles. It has mobilized domestic and international funding support for indigenous people who serve as forest guards to protect the forests and the eagles against hunters in the wild. It has also provided medical care, including surgery for eagles that have suffered gunshot wounds. Its campaign to protect the forests encompasses several provinces where eagles tend to fly and forage for food. Other finalists include Process-Bohol, Inc., Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation, Inc., Community-Based Health Program of the Archdiocese of Ipil, Zamboanga.

The top award for exemplary individual was given to Dr. Benedict Edward P. Valdez, a surgeon who organized medical missions and personally provided surgical services to the poor and those in isolated areas. He defines his mission as “bringing hospitals to the people.” He organized Davao’s 911 Emergency Medical System and serves as its consultant for training. One of his key accomplishments is having mobilized volunteers and resources locally and overseas to perform surgery on 1,500 children with cleft palates, which has enabled them to live normal lives, including having careers and families. .

It must have been difficult for the Search Committee to make their choices. There are so many other finalists who are truly exemplary and outstanding.

Norlan Pagal, 48, of San Remigio, Cebu, a fisherman since the age of nine, has made protecting the seas his life mission. He mobilized his fellow fishermen to establish and protect marine sanctuaries totaling hundreds of hectares. He organized seminars for retraining his fisher colleagues away from dynamite and other illegal fishing methods. And as Bantay Dagat leader, he also fought illegal fishing boats from depleting the marine resources around their communities.

With the support of San Remigio’s enlightened Mayor Mariano Martinez, the Bantay Dagat fishers became more committed to their dangerous and demanding work. Norlan Pagal became so unpopular with illegal fishers that he paid for his commitment dearly. One day, he was shot in the back so that today, he is paralyzed from the waist down. This has not deterred him from his commitment to protecting the marine resources, and he still goes around in a wheelchair. He says he has an idea of who the shooter was; but the culprit has left the area. “It is all right,” he says, “he may not answer for his crime here on earth; but he will have to, in the next life.” Other finalists for the individual awards include Mateo Quilas, 59, “the Sightless Visionary.”

Sarah Cubar, 55, of Kapalong, Davao del Norte had to struggle to get an education. She had to drop out of school several times because her parents could not afford to support both her and her sister through school. So, they had to take turns. She and her sister had to work to help make ends meet. She finally got her college degree at the age of 28, when she was already married and the mother of four children. She finally became a classroom teacher in 1990, and today, she is district supervisor of Davao del Norte. Her passion to help children go to school has been so powerful that she crossed rivers and climbed mountains and risked threats from NPA and other rebels to reach communities which had no schools. In time, she was able to mobilize support from the LGU, other government agencies, and even the military to build classrooms, which have now reached a total of 15 schools in once isolated areas.

The Tuburan for Rural Women Development and Empowerment in Dumaguete City has organized 17 women’s organizations and three municipal federations. It has worked with LGUs to create and institutionalize the Multi-Disciplinary Quick Response Team which is an active responder in cases of domestic violence against women and children. One of its success stories is bringing about spring-sourced water systems to free the women from the laborious work of fetching water day in and day out from distant water sources. Their sense of empowerment enables them to get their husbands to help in building the water systems. Their freedom from the work of fetching water from distant sources has saved their physical energy and helped give them a sense of empowerment.

Dr. Roel Cagape, 55, could have chosen to become a wealthy medical practitioner. Instead, he chose to serve the B’laan tribe up in the mountains of Sarangani. He provided horses which could bring down patients who needed to be hospitalized. He also set up a system of “coding” so he could diagnose through telecommunications and come up with first-aid instructions and emergency relief where necessary. He would travel up and down the mountains to serve the B’laan people in the mountains.

There is not enough space in this column tor many other deserving exemplary achievers. Perhaps they can be the subject for future columns.

In closing, let me quote some lines from a prayer read by Amaya Aboitiz Fansler, daughter of the late RAFI CEO Roberto “Bobby” Aboitiz. It is attributed to Bishop Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, who read it at the memorial for the late, assassinated Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. It probably expresses RAFI’s spirit.

“We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.”

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. . .This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.