MANILA, Philippines -- "It is very easy to give what you have in excess, but can you give what you need and what you want?"
This is the question one has to answer before one does volunteer work. At first I thought that it was easy to answer with a yes, but when supertyphoon "Reming" struck the Bicol region and left us in darkness, literally and figuratively, I had second thoughts. However, when I thought of my responsibility, I joined the relief and rehabilitation operations of our university, called "Anduyog AQ: Tabang sa Tugang."
Anduyog AQ endeavored to help the victims of Reming by distributing relief goods, providing psychosocial therapy like stress debriefing and other services. I felt out of place in our group of volunteers because more than half of us were nursing students (nursing is the most popular course in our school). I kept asking myself, what is a political science student doing here? I did not know how to dress a wound; I actually hated to see the wounds of other people.
The first night that I had to sleep in the relief center, I felt very uncomfortable. There were no lights, no beddings, not even a good bed. The food we had was a foretaste of what we would be eating for the next few weeks: mostly overcooked rice and "karninas" a combination of "karne" (meat) and "sardinas" (sardines). That time, I thought of only one word: "agony." But when I remembered what I had seen when we went around Albay province right after the typhoon, I stopped complaining. At least I have food to eat, I told myself. Having to walk under the blistering sun, to work until I was exhausted, to eat the kind of food I would not normally eat and to sleep without comfort hardly mattered anymore.
The days passed very quickly. Everything became routine: pack relief goods at night, then sleep. Wake up earlier than usual and eat instant noodles for breakfast. Distribute relief goods, take a bit of rest, take part in the feeding program. Eat dinner and jam with fellow volunteers.
Because we were together 24/7, I was unconsciously beginning to connect with the other volunteers. We developed our own vocabulary: "paksit" (a meaningless expression), "needles" ("noodles" mispronounced), "bip stick" (beef steak), tuna (sardines). To entertain ourselves, we spoofed some television shows, such as "Goin' Bulilit" and "Mr. Bean." One time we had some kind of cultural night with Father Mendez, O.P., our rector and president, and everyone had to showcase his talent. I felt like I belonged to the group.
When we went to Malinao town in Albay, I met an old lady who came to get some relief goods. We were distributing five kilos of rice to every person. I knew the old lady could not carry her share. I asked her if she had a companion and she said she didn't have anyone with her. I then asked if she had money so she could take a ride home. She again answered with a no. I gave her some money for her fare.
All of a sudden, tears were rolling down her cheeks. "Makasupog man. Ako na ngani an naghagad ki bagas, tinawan mo pa ako ki pamasahe" ["I am so ashamed. Your group already gave me relief and still you gave me fare"], she told me.
A man who heard our exchange said it was nice of me to give the old lady some money because she lived several kilometers away from the relief center. He then asked, "Wasn't Aquinas battered by 'Reming'?"
I smiled and said, "Yes, Aquinas was battered, but not in spirit."
He then said, "Your school molds students into the best person that he can possibly be. Too bad I didn't finish my studies there because of poverty. I hope and I pray that many children can go there. But I guess it will only be a dream. We barely have enough money for food. We don't have some extra money for education."
I felt as if cold water had been splashed on my face. I had been wondering what a political science student was doing in a relief operation and I had found the answer: to see the depressing condition of our country.
Now I am frightened. Four months have passed since Reming devastated our region and the rehabilitation work is far from complete. And another supertyphoon threatens to devastate us once again. This time it's no longer natural. It's man-made and it's called elections.
Relief operations are still going on in Albay, and it's all because national and local politicians want to promote their own selfish ambitions. They distribute goods on board trucks covered with their pictures on tarpaulins. They claim to be the messiah who will deliver the people from their misery. They promise to attend to their needs for food and clothing and teach them to be dependent on them.
Some of them are actually the same politicians who had promised to provide education to the man I met in Malinao, and maybe thousands of others. Perhaps they have forgotten it or they have no time for it because they are too busy helping themselves. They would never give anything without pictures being taken as they embrace the poor victims, their very own victims. They will do anything and say anything just so people will write their names on the ballot.
Albay only needs time to be rehabilitated physically. On the other hand, our country needs more than just time. What our country needs in order to achieve peace and economic progress is a psychosocial, political and moral rehabilitation.
For this we do not need politicians. What we need are political volunteers.
Gideon V. Peña, 17, is an Anduyog AQ Volunteer and a second year Bachelor of Arts Major in Political Science student at the Aquinas University of Legazpi, Rawis, Legazpi City.
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