Message at the UP Alumni Association of Greater Los Angeles 2019 Installation Ceremony and Endowment Fund Raising Gala
L.A. Grand Hotel, Los Angeles, California

delivered on 7 September 2019

Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.

Our Consul General, Adel Cruz; Dr. Elena Pernia, the UP Vice President for Public Affairs; Ms. Ethel Rubio, President of the UPAAGLA and the rest of the UPAAGLA Executive Officers and Board of Directors present here today; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat! [applause]

From where we stand today, our UP days seem a lot more exciting, definitely much more nostalgic, minus the anxieties associated with our Blue Books and getting either a shock or a pleasant surprise when holding our class cards at the end of the semester. We remember ourselves when we were a lot slimmer, with less white hair and more carefree. The idea of hanging out with friends at the Sunken Garden, eating at the UP Shopping Center, staring up at the Carillon, doing all-nighters for a paper or exam—all now seem jumbled up in one happy jar of memories.

This gathering is an opportunity for all of us to look back at these wonderful memories—stories that are always worth telling and retelling. Ethel and I, and several others here tonight, including our newly-minted PAL president, Gilbert Santa Maria and his wife, Denise [applause], have many of those amusing memories, because we were dorm-mates at the Kalayaan and Molave Residence Halls when we were freshmen and sophomores. 

I was a shy, very quiet probinsyana from Naga who was taking up Economics. In Kalayaan, I shared a room with Amily Bisnar Griffin who was from Lipa and is now residing in Canada. We constantly talked about the pangs of homesickness and the pains of adjusting to city life, the challenges we faced in our classes, and the excitement of meeting new people. One of my roommates in Molave is here tonight, Jenny Mijares-Zimmerman. Where are you, Jenny? Ayan si Jenny. [applause] Jenny is a Medical Doctor and a very active community leader in Florida. She won the Democratic Primaries for a seat in Congress during the last elections and we are all very proud of her. [applause] Kumampanya kami. We campaigned for her online. 

But like all of you, UP opened my eyes to the realities that were happening beyond the halls and walls of our classrooms and our dormitories. There, our consciousness was awakened and we saw more clearly the suffering of others and the reality that our nation’s freedom was under threat. 

I was in my sophomore year when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. There was heightened security everywhere. Student leaders started disappearing or [were] sent to jail. Activists either fled to the mountains or were abducted, tortured, and killed, like Lean Alejandro, one of the notable leaders during our time. Fear was evident everywhere, from the media to the street corners to business establishments. 

That, to me, seemed to be a precursor of things to come. By February of 1986, the EDSA revolution broke out. Those of us who joined the protests were excused from classes, and there we saw, with our very own eyes, the Filipinos in their best hour, expressing their convictions peacefully and facing military tanks with prayers and flowers. That experience awakened a burning desire in many of us to help rebuild our nation. We were full of renewed hope then, inspired by the chance for a new beginning.

By then, UP has already shaped our world view and taught us that we must do our part in serving the Filipino people. That as Iskolars ng Bayan, to serve the people with honor and excellence is not only our duty, but our unique privilege. That our knowledge, skills, and talents should be used for a higher purpose, never just for amassing wealth, finding fame, or acquiring power.

This reunion is an opportune time to ask ourselves if we have done what UP has prepared us to do. Not just build a better nation, but more importantly a nation that is safe and empowering for all of its people. Generating wealth not just for progress’ sake, but creating opportunities for wealth even for those that are poor and marginalized. And most crucial of all: protecting the freedom and the rights of each man, woman, and child, not only those who have the means to buy justice.

These are continuing goals, of course, and many of you are already doing so much in the field of development and nation-building. But it is always good to have moments of regular introspection, no matter where we are or what we are involved in—because that is what UP has taught us to do.

So this is why, since day one, after I assumed office, we at the Office of the Vice President vowed to adhere to the commitment we made to the Filipino people: to serve those at the fringes of society—ang mga pamilyang nasa laylayan ng lipunan.  

We had one huge problem, however. The  Office of the Vice President in the Philippines is very much different from those in other parts of the world. The Philippine Constitution itself indicates that the only job of the Vice President is succession, just in case something happens to the President while in office. We do not have the mandate nor the resources to do programs. We, in fact, have one of the smallest budgets in the entire bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I was insistent that we cannot sit comfortably for six years and do ceremonial duties only, while so many of our people remain poor and marginalized.

So we decided to create Angat Buhay, a program dedicated to fight the more urgent war: the war against poverty. Trust became our most powerful ally, because those who needed help were looking for empowerment, not just aid. And those who approached us with resources were looking for partners, not just beneficiaries. So far, we have mobilized more than 351 million pesos worth of resources for programs and interventions, for more than 405,000 beneficiaries in 211 cities and municipalities nationwide. A total of 347 partner organizations and individuals have committed themselves to our program. 

To achieve this, we devote two or three days of every week to visit some of the most remote and poorest communities in the country—traversing mountain roads, crossing rivers, riding small bancas. We strive to focus on impact, not just activities, making sure that every peso we and our partners donate will have optimum results. That meant insisting on transformative results, sustainability, and empowerment. This was a more challenging journey for many communities, because truth be told, it is much easier to do one-time, big-time projects for feel-good events, compared with the complicated work of training a community to be self-sufficient.

Our work is not easy, especially with the current political environment, but despite the difficulties that come with the position, the hard and challenging work that we do is precisely what keeps me going. It allows us to see the world through the eyes of those who are suffering. Nevertheless, everywhere we go, in every community we reach, we also see greatness and resilience, and our resolve is this: That our people deserve so much more—and that begins by going to great lengths to let them feel that they are not invisible. 

Our vision is simple: For every family we help, an entire community can break free from poverty. For each child that gets an education, one family can rise from suffering. For each parent that can earn a living, an entire community can live [better]. 

In Sumilao, Bukidnon, in Mindanao, where students are mostly sons and daughters of farmers, access to quality education has remained an elusive dream despite the efforts of the local government. At the Sumilao National High School, students walk as far as 13 kilometers every day—each way—just to get to school. The only public transport available in the area is a trusty habal-habal, which costs 120 pesos each way or around three US dollars. This is one of the reasons why Sumilao has a very high dropout and absenteeism rate.

To address this, we partnered with the Rotary Club of Makati in putting up a girls’ dormitory in school, where poor female students can stay for free. In fact, just last March of 2019, we turned over the dorm to the school. Now, female students do not have to walk for hours to reach school, and will not be too tired and hungry to understand their lessons. The construction of a male dorm will hopefully be on its way, when I get back home from this trip. 

We are faced with exactly the same problem in other parts of the country: high dropouts, high absenteeism, and poor school performance. These include Siayan in Zamboanga del Norte, which was one of the poorest municipalities in the country from 2003 to 2009. We already have a dormitory for the male and female students in Siayan. Through the help of our partners, students do not have to walk steep slopes and rivers anymore. The principal of the school also told us that the attendance rate of students has dramatically improved since the dorms were constructed.

A few weeks ago, we also turned over a dorm in Balangkayan and another in Salcedo—both in Eastern Samar. Two of the dormers in Salcedo [are] Amara, a Grade 12 student, who used to pack her uniform in a plastic bag so it won’t get wet on her way to school, and Jesseca, a Grade 11 student who dreams of becoming a flight attendant and who is forced to walk two hours each way to class. Now, since they are living in the dormitories for free, they do not have to worry about the long walks anymore. 

Through these efforts, dropout rates have dramatically improved in these communities and students now have a safer and more conducive learning environment. 

We are also starting to witness beautiful transformations in San Remigio in northern Cebu. We have been working with both the local government and our other partners to address the mental health needs of the community. We first visited San Remigio in March of 2017 for a dialogue with a fishing community. But while we were there, we heard reports about mentally ill residents locked up in cages and chained by their families because of their violent episodes. We knew we needed to do something and we needed to do it fast. 

We sought the help of the Philippine Mental Health Association – Cebu Chapter. In partnership with them and the local government of San Remigio, we did a mapping of the community to have a clear baseline that will guide the creation of the most effective strategy and intervention for the community. And since then, barangay health workers have been trained on the intricacies of dealing with mental illnesses. Medicines and community-based treatments are now being provided to the patients on a regular basis. 

Our office also built a mental health facility for the patients, which we turned over to the local government unit last February. It is actually the only mental health facility in northern Cebu. Thanks to our private partners, we were able to provide for the facility’s furnishings, medicines, and medical equipment. During our office’s most recent visit, word has spread about this facility, and now, mentally ill patients from other barangays and other municipalities are finding treatment and refuge there as well.

Beautiful things happen when people and organizations work together, and our prayer is for the community to be a safe and nurturing environment for the mentally disabled. During one of my visits, family members were profusely thanking us because their patients were already getting better. 

In Marawi City, we saw a trail of destitution and suffering after the war in 2017 that claimed the lives of men, women, and children. One of our partners, the Sigma Delta Phi – Southern California Alumnae Association, along with a unique group of people—from Catholics to Latter-day Saints, from local government to non-government organizations, to individuals who contributed varying amounts of money for the Piso Para Kay Leni Movement—helped us with the construction of transitory shelters for those whose homes have been completely destroyed. We did not just build houses; we created a community in what we now call the Angat Buhay Village. We have also contributed to the reconstruction efforts by building classrooms and we are also finding ways to give livelihood opportunities for those whose lives have now been completely changed.

There are many more stories that illustrate the trenchant problems that Filipinos face every day, but what I like to focus on in these stories is the resilience that our people show in the face of hardships. This resilience makes our work an act of love and hope. And they endow us with a sense of urgency and purpose in creating opportunities for collaboration, rallying behind a common goal to uplift the welfare of our people.

We hope that you will join us in our journey to uplift the lives of our countrymen, especially the last, the least, and the lost. Each one of you can make this happen. Each one of you can be the source of empowerment. Each one of you can make a lot of difference in the way our people in the fringes live. 

In UP, we were taught that to serve our people is our greatest call—regardless of where we are. As the UP Hymn goes, “Malayong lupain, amin mang marating, ‘di rin magbabago ang damdamin.” 

Truly, service to our people is our greatest call. That who we are and all we have are not meant to be kept to ourselves, but are meant to be shared with others, especially those who need our help the most. 

So to my fellow Iskolars ng Bayan: May we all continue to serve the Filipino people with honor and excellence. With you and the entire UP Alumni Association of Greater Los Angeles, we hope to build a brighter future for generations to come.

Maraming salamat at mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]