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If each of us takes part in caring and sharing, the overwhelming challenge of poverty can be addressed. Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.

Changing Things

[Date Created: June 26, 2012]

by Conrado de Quiros

Toronto, Canada

(also published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 12, 2012)

Today is the day we toast another Filipino champion, a more impressive one that has been with us for some time now but has not gotten the same adulation as Manny Pacquiao. That champion has fought a foe far more fearsome than Floyd Mayweather, one that has never been beaten, one in fact that has TKO-ed every champion we’ve put up against it. That foe is poverty. And the one champion we’ve got that has locked horns with it, and will probably win against it, is Gawad Kalinga.

Let me start from far afield to explain why. Let me start with a brilliant experiment in education.

In 2009, Efren Peñaflorida became CNN Hero of the Year. He became so by bringing the light of learning to the darkest regions of the minds, or the most benighted parts of Metro Manila. Specifically, he and his friends pushed a pushcart filled with books, pen and paper and other school materials and turned it into an improvised classroom in narrow alleys, dumpsites, and even cemeteries. They taught children reading and writing.

Peñaflorida himself had come from the ranks of the poor. Unlike most poor, he did not take to a life of crime or to a career of getting rich. Unlike most poor, he took to making his fellow poor less poor.

His experiment became known as the “kariton classroom.” It was a stroke of genius, though Peñaflorida himself would say he just did what seemed the right thing to do. But that is how strokes of genius begin, by just doing what seems the right thing to do. Since then, I’ve wondered why the Department of Education doesn’t open up an entire Kariton Classroom Bureau.

At the very least, it should help push back a perennial problem every school year opening, which is an epic lack of classrooms. We saw that again only last Monday; the newspapers carried all sorts of horror stories about the kids trekking back to improvised classrooms under the mango tree. Which is not an idyllic picture in unpredictable global-warming weather.

At the very most, it strikes at the heart of the problem like slicing the Gordian Knot. Every administration in the Philippines has striven to come up with ways to lure impoverished kids to school, or since it’s really not the kids’ fault that they are not in school, to persuade or force their parents to make them do so. P-Noy’s administration has done so through the CCT, a requirement for obtaining a dole being that the parents send the kids to school.

The “kariton classroom” attacks the problem from the opposite end, a completely logical and natural way of looking at things which makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before. It brings the classroom itself to the kids. It brings school itself to the kids. It is far simpler, far surer, and far more direct.

If you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammad.

Gawad Kalinga shares that same spirit. A couple of months ago, Tony Meloto became one of the recipients of the Skoll Award for social entrepreneurship. He became so by bringing the light of living to the darkest regions of death, or to the most benighted parts of the country. Specifically, he and other members of GK, which he himself founded, spent the last decade putting a roof over the heads of thousands of their roofless compatriots. Indeed, more than that, they have put hope in the hearts of their despairing compatriots.

>>> Read more in Tony Meloto's "Skoll Award to  Gawad Kalinga: Freedom to Serve"

GK hasn’t just built houses, it has built communities. GK hasn’t just allowed the unsettled to settle for the first time in new homes, it has allowed the unsettling—many of them former toughies, drug addicts, and petty and not-so-petty criminals—to create for the first time new lives.

Meloto himself came from the ranks of the poor. I know this because we served as porters at night in a dorm in the Ateneo to pay back in part our free tuition and board and lodging. Unlike most poor who studied at an exclusive school, he did not take to making himself rich, or worse, corrupt. He took to making his fellow poor less poor.

If putting a roof over the heads of the roofless, or building homes for the homeless, were all Gawad Kalinga has done, it would be marvelous enough. But it has done something even more marvelous. Over the last few years, it has also blazed trails in social entrepreneurship with Human Nature in particular, a company making organic products that is giving the competition, namely foreign-based companies, a run for their money. That is so because Human Nature products are relatively inexpensive while being world-class.

Its impact on the country, quite apart from the consumers, is monumental. At the very least, that is so because it uses completely local materials. Tony himself is astonished that we need to buy foreign products when we can produce them locally. He cites the example of a foreign fragrance that is sold locally at prices that stink when its active ingredient is sap from the pili tree. Human Nature reverses that trend. It uses local materials and in the process gives its villages a whole slew of livelihood opportunities.

Its impact goes beyond economic. Way beyond. By using local materials, local labor, and local ingenuity, all of which have lurked like a gigantic but largely untapped mother lode among us, this brand of social entrepreneurship is unleashing an equally gigantic but largely untapped wellspring of self-respect, self-confidence, and faith in ourselves. You look at something like this, and your heart swells with pride.

You get to be proud to be a Filipino. You get to be grateful to be a Filipino. You get to be privileged to be a Filipino. (To be concluded)



by Conrado de Quiros

Toronto, Canada

(also published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 14, 2012)

It’s a far cry from the days when each time you left the country, you were tempted to identify yourself as Thai or Vietnamese or Malaysian, out of shame to be Filipino. Which not a few overseas Filipino workers and foreign-bound Filipinos actually did in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s time.

What Gawad Kalinga in effect has done, and continues to do, is not just to give the roofless a roof over his head, it is to give the country-less a country to live in. It is not just to give the wretched of the earth a crack at a new life, it is to give the rootless of this earth an old and vaguely remembered haven to go back to. It is not just to finally give a home to the homeless, it is to make of the country in every possible sense home to Filipinos.

If you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammad.

But GK shares the spirit of “kariton classroom” in still other, deeper, ways.

It shares, first off, its spirit of simplicity. Kariton classroom lugs education around in a kariton, GK lugs hope around in, well, a traveling circus. I’ve always known that philanthropy is big business, but I never knew exactly how big until Tony Meloto gave me to glimpse it. In 1988, a US child-sponsorship charity practiced this: For every $26 that they got, they spent $6 for their target beneficiaries and $20 for them. Laws have gotten stricter since then, but the upkeep of the philanthropic organization still accounts for a great deal of the money. That is philanthropy of a sort that gives whole new meanings to the saying “Charity begins at home.”

I don’t know what the exact ratio is for GK, but I do know it practices lean-and-mean to lengths that would qualify it to extreme sports. I know it firsthand because we just spent more than 30 hours flying to New York last week: We took a cheap flight that had several stops, one of which got us epically delayed. That is how scrupulously GK tends to its finances. Its staff makes up for high-mindedness what they lack in high finance.

Its staff makes up for personal commitment what they lack in financial emolument. The Oquiñena brothers in particular have gotten positively psychic from getting a lot of psychic income in lieu of a physic one.

The money instead goes to the communities, which remains paltry in the face of the enormous need, and demand, for more GK villages. And in the face of ever increasing tasks that go with an ever expanding dream.

GK shares, second off, a kariton classroom’s spirit of empathy with its beneficiaries. GK does not hire an army of foot soldiers to deal with the masa, or poorest of the poor, or the bereft of the bereft, its officers do it themselves. It reminds me of the activism of my time, when we went to places God and government forgot to immerse ourselves in the lives of the deathly desperate. An awesome word, “immerse,” and an almost literally apt one: You get to realize what you mean when you say “Serve the people.” You get to be one with those you propose to serve.

GK has spawned a new activism, one driven by the same history-making force of idealism, commitment, and self-sacrifice. Tony himself lives it. He now spends most of his time in the Enchanted Farm, a laboratory for social entrepreneurship that he recently launched, in a hilly part of Bulacan. Though I myself cannot imagine how anyone can be excessively deprived to be flung in a far-flung place in the company of vibrant, dedicated, and completely charming volunteers. But that’s another story.

Finally, GK shares a kariton classroom’s spirit of humility. The best teachers are the best learners, the best preachers are the best listeners, the best transformers are those most willing to be transformed.

The Philippines being a country where a culture of patronage runs riot, organizations that try to do something for the poor, or profess to, are always in danger in falling into the trap of thinking, or baldly posturing, that they are a source of beneficence before whom the recipient ought to show eternal gratitude. You see that in TV shows that shower audiences with gifts or in programs that give relief goods to the victims of storms and floods. The recipient is reduced to a spectacle of prostrate and sniveling thankfulness.

There is none of that in GK. There is instead an attitude of respect, a willingness to listen, an eagerness to learn from those it is trying to help. I remember in this respect a movie I saw recently, called “The Blind Side.” For those who have not seen it, it tells the story of a white woman who takes pity on a homeless black kid and gives him shelter. Eventually, she begins to treat him like a son, along with her own biological son and daughter. The black kid goes on to excel in football in his school, and to get a lot of attention from talent scouts.

At one point, during a tête-à-tête with friends, she gets asked a lot of questions by her friends about how her own kids feel about having a black member of the family. Offended, she tells them that she never thought they’d ask a question like that, it reeks of narrow-mindedness. They are apologetic but continue to take a patronizing tone. The things you’ve done for that kid, they say, that’s pretty heroic, that’s pretty self-sacrificing. Surely, they say, you’ve had a huge impact on him, surely you’ve changed his life. The woman, suddenly realizing how the kid had shown her the power of caring, the beauty of love, the infinite mystery of life, retorts:  “No, he has had a huge impact on me. He has changed my life.”

Givers, like Gawad Kalinga, have been known to be blind-sided by the receiver.

That is the miracle of changing things.



The Gawad Kalinga Global Summit 2012 took place in Toronto, Canada on June 8-9, 2012. Dedicated to the eradication of poverty through the restoration of human dignity and a culture of caring and sharing, the event hopes to share the GK community development template and engage like-minded individuals and institutions to help end poverty, the GK way. Through the Summit, we hope to share the GK way with global citizens to reach out to poor communities and help end poverty where it exists.

You too can be part of the Gawad Kalinga family. Like Conrado de Quiros, you can raise awareness about the work of GK and influence your network to take part in this mission of ending poverty. To promote the 'GK Way' and other ways to partner with us, click here.

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