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    The Leaders We Need Today

    Message at the Rotary Club of San Fernando La Union, Inc. 61st Induction Ceremony

    Hotel Ariana, Bauang, La Union

    Thank you, Ed [Regala]. Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.

    Mayor Dong Balbuerto of San Fernando; Vice Mayor Alfred Ortega; Mayor Menchie De Guzman of Bauang; my good friend, Vice Mayor Henry Bacurnay of Bauang; the representative of the governor, topnotcher board member and also my very good friend, Nancy Bacurnay; of course, my favorite and my former colleague at the 16th Congress, former congressman Vic Ortega; and a very good friend of my husband and myself, Mayor Mary Jane Ortega; Mayor Hermie Velasco—idol ko ito—of San Gabriel, multi-awarded for his health programs; of course, ourly newly-minted president—the [61st] President of the Rotary Club of San Fernando, La Union—Mr. Ronald Dy and Dra. Shiela; District Governor, Father Sonny Pahed; our outgoing president, Mr. Jerry Sharpe—I got it right—Mr. Jerry Sharpe; the immediate past district governor, — Panding Nisce; the present and former officers and members of the Rotary Club of San Fernando, La Union, and the officers and members of the other Rotary Clubs who are present—not just Rotary Clubs, parang kanina mayroon ding Lions, mayroong Inner Wheel, and all the other civic clubs represented here tonight; the other civil society organizations present; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen; magandang gabi sa inyong lahat. Mayor Mary Jane was teaching me how to greet in Ilocano pero nakalimutan ko, Mayor, sorry. [laughter] Mahirap kasi. Naalala ko lang iyong “naimbag” eh. Hindi ko na naalala iyong kasunod. I’m sorry about that.

    But thank you very much for inviting me over and giving me the opportunity to address you on such an important occasion. Whenever I get invited to a Rotary event, I would always mention—with great pride—that I grew up with Rotary. [applause] My late father was a charter member and also past president of the same club. And I remember, my siblings and I growing up tagging along my dad, not only in his meetings but in all the other occasions of Rotary. Kaya iyong mga kabarkada namin sa Naga, lahat din mga Rotary kids. In fact, he remained—my dad—remained very active until his late years, doing civic work with the organization until he passed away in 2013.

    Growing up, my siblings and I witnessed how Rotary deepened his passion for public service. His dedication was so infectious, that the first thing he did right after I introduced him to my then-future husband, was to recruit him in Rotary. So, I also became a Rotary Ann.

    Organizations like yours are important in the growth of every democracy. As we face today’s world of uncertainties and during these extraordinary times, we are called on to think beyond our usual circles, and extend our reach to those who need it most.

    In the last decade, our country has become one of the fastest growing economies in the region: self-rated poverty continues to go down and business has become easier for those who have the means. But despite this, one in five Filipino families still remain poor. There are still mothers who try their hardest to budget a month’s income to manage their homes. There are still fathers who juggle several odd jobs to make ends meet. There are still families who don’t get to eat three times a day, because what they earn is not enough to put food on the table.

    The numbers proclaiming our economic development do not show these hard facts; but we cannot deny that marginalized communities remain severed from their dream of inclusive growth. Many of the poor feel that they have been abandoned, and many of them long to be heard. As long as these realities exist, we cannot claim that we have truly progressed.

    Perhaps this is why many of our countrymen seek instant solutions to the biggest problems we face today, without considering the contributions that they themselves must also make. In some places in our country and in other parts of the world, people have turned to strong-arm politics, who use populist rhetoric to gain power and legitimacy. Some Filipinos have even totally given up and have searched greener pastures elsewhere.

    We try to understand this frustration. I, too, believe that with power and privilege, we should have done more to improve lives. We could have pushed harder for inclusivity. But the answers to our problems lie not in the hands of one person or group. The promise of transformative change is best fulfilled if we all do our part.

    That is why this evening’s gathering is very important. At a time when anger, hate, and discontent have brought out the worst in us as a people, the work that you do as Rotarians reminds us all that hope is not lost. For many years, the Rotary Club has become a steadfast seedbed for countless changemakers: from corporate leaders to public servants, from the smallest unit of government to the highest positions of power. The values that you espouse are values that we need greatly in our world today.

    This is what we are celebrating tonight: the compassion, dedication, and the brand of leadership that run deep in the heart of every Rotarian.

    But how can the Rotary Club use its leadership as a vehicle for effective nation-building and empowerment? How can you serve as a platform to engage government in a real way, pushing for accountability and transformative change?

    You see, real empowerment happens when those we help are also able to help themselves and empower others as well. Before I entered politics, I worked as a human rights lawyer for an NGO called SALIGAN for many years. For days and weeks, we would travel to remote communities and sit down with the various sectors: farmers, fisherfolk, informal settlers, indigenous peoples, rural women, and children. We would listen to their stories and discover how some laws have become instruments of injustice. To address this, we would translate laws into the local dialect, with the belief that with this knowledge, they will be in a better position to fight for their own rights.

    Work was tough. It tested our values and principles. It challenged our resolve. It was not enough that we knew the law. It required us to listen with empathy, believe in people’s abilities, and encourage them to stand on their own two feet. It was difficult, but this was truly where I found myself.

    This is the same philosophy that ensures our work today at the Office of the Vice President.

    When we assumed office three years ago, I told my staff that we must not stand idle for the rest of our term just doing ceremonial functions. So three months into my term, we launched an anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay, where we positioned ourselves as a bridge between communities needing help and organizations wanting to help. Perhaps many of you already know this, but our office has one of the smallest budgets in the entire bureaucracy. But what we lack in resources, we make up for with innovation and creativity.

    Since we launched Angat Buhay, we have already mobilized more than 320 million pesos worth of programs, reaching out to more than 380,000 beneficiaries. We are now present in 185 cities and municipalities across the country, and every week, we set aside two or three days to visit them.

    As we went around the country in the course of implementing Angat Buhay, we found inspiration in the lives of the people our programs have touched. We were able to see first-hand how they lived, and sought ways to make things work better.

    For example, one of our advocacies is providing quality education to every Filipino child. In our visits to far-flung communities, we met students who had to cross mountains and rivers just to go to school, waking up extremely early to attend their first class.

    In Sumilao, Bukidnon, we discovered that sons and daughters of farmers are forced to take their classes in small and dilapited houses. Outside makeshift classrooms, outsiders can see the slippers neatly lined by the door, indicating the number of students cramped inside. This was how Sumilao Elementary School looked like, and sadly, this is the norm in many other far-flung communities across the country.

    Even in Sumilao National High School, students walked as far as 13 kilometers every day each way just to go to school. The only public transport available is a habal-habal, which costs 120 pesos each trip—a price too expensive for the children and their families. This resulted to very high dropout rates.

    When I was invited to speak during the Rotary Club of Makati’s weekly Tuesday luncheon meeting last June of 2018, their members expressed interest in partnering with us. Through their generosity, we were able to put up and turnover a girls dormitory in Sumilao National High School last March. Now, poor female students do not have to walk very far just to go to school; they can now stay inside the campus for free. We are already looking for partners who can support the construction of the male dorm and we are working with the local government of Sumilao to ensure that help is being sustained in the community.

    Just before I left the office this afternoon, I was told that we already got partners for the male dormitory, so that was a really good news. [applause] The dormitory in Sumilao is not the only one. We also built dormitories in Siayan, in Zamboanga del Norte, which was one of the poorest municipalities until 2009 in the country, and we’re now building also in Balangkayan in Eastern Samar. Very poor communities where the dropout rate is very high. And the reason for the high dropout rate is that students have to walk very, very far just to go to school.

    The story of the students of Sumilao reminds us of the great task before all of us. But more than that, it is an invitation for each one of us to leave the comforts of our own lives, to roll up our sleeves, and walk with the least, the last, and the lost.

    Aside from the work that we do in the field of education, our office is also committed in pushing for sustainable livelihood opportunities and jobs in the provinces. If we are to build a strong, able nation that can compete with its Asian neighbors, then we must bring progress to the margins. We should come together and find ways to empower and fully equip our people, no matter where they are in the country.

    During one of our visits, we came across a small town at the heart of our country: a place called Agutaya, in Northern Palawan. It is near the more commonly known islands in the tourist province, such as Coron and Cuyo. Getting there is already a challenge: the boat ride takes 10 to 16 hours from Coron, and even longer, depending on weather conditions. I’ve been there twice.

    So you could imagine the joy and wonder in people’s faces when we first stepped foot in their town in 2016: the locals greeted us with tears, their mayor telling us that this was perhaps the first time—that was perhaps the first time that a national government official landed on their shores. When we went there, the conditions were barely sufficient: there was no electricity, no access to potable water, no hospitals, and many children were stunted. It broke our hearts when we saw their situation, and so we reached out to our partners to ask for their help.

    Assistance came almost immediately. Thanks to our Angat Buhay partner, the Metrobank Foundation, we were able to construct water pumps in four public schools. We brought hygiene kits and vitamins for the children. Another partner, the St. Theresa’s College Quezon City Alumni Association, gave boats for the seaweed fishermen whose own boats were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan years ago. We were also able to provide solar panels through the help of other partners and solar kits from Team Energy, allowing more than 400 families to experience having light in their homes for the first time.

    We strove to provide a holistic approach, so our Angat Buhay partner, the Andres Soriano Foundation, provided health caravans and livelihood trainings. They also did water testing, so that a permanent water system could be put up as soon as possible. Our other partner, Canvas PH, also donated books and the National Bookstore Foundation provided school kits for the children.

    During our visits to our adopted communities, we realized: Agutaya is just one of the many communities that need our help. If we can invite and include more organizations in the fold, we will be able to reach out to more of the last, the least and the lost of our people, especially those in far-flung areas where development and success continue to be a dream.

    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. All we have to do is listen and reach out to where we are most needed.

    We have always dreamed of a country where no one is left behind. If more people work together in making this dream a reality, the impossible can become possible.

    It is my hope that we can create these avenues of meaningful change with you as our partner. During these difficult times, divisiveness and negativityhave no place in our conversations and connections that we must make. We are here today because we are enjoined by a similar cause, a goal that we can achieve as one: that we can make the dream work if and only if we pave the way for our fellow Filipinos to reach greater heights, and become so much more.

    So to the Rotary Club of San Fernando La Union’s new set of officers: May you be blessed with unity, commitment, and inspiration, as you continue your organization’s legacy of selfless service and commitment to theFilipino people. With you and the entire Rotary, we hope to build [a] more just and inclusive society for future generations to come.

    So once again, maraming salamat po sa inyo at mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]

    Posted in Speeches on Jul 02, 2019