by Sarah Mae Ismael, YES Program Alumna, 2005

I am Sarah Mae Ismael and I had the chance to study in the United States in 2005. Back then, I was amazed by almost everything I saw and experienced. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish the Philippines was more like this.” I also distinctly remember telling myself that I need to go back to the Philippines and make sure that I contribute something that makes a difference.

Going to school and interacting with my American classmates made me realize that there is still so much I had to learn. In 2006, I came home to the Philippines with the drive to work for inclusiveness and borderless interactions.

It has been a personal commitment of mine to do a community service project every year with a special group of friends.  We usually choose a certain group of indigenous peoples and implement appropriate projects that help them gain access to various facilities. It is also our goal to help them develop sustainable communities that are rooted in their own culture. This year, we decided to choose a place that is closer to my heart: Barangay Taluksangay in my very own city, Zamboanga.

Barangay Taluksangay is a coastal barangay that is 18 kilometers away from the city center. The islet was originally home to the Sama Banguingui but other tribes sought refuge in Taluksangay during the height of the Martial Law in the 1970s. It is now a Muslim community composed of various indigenous tribes. During the 2013 Zamboanga siege, it once again opened its doors to families who lost their homes due to the war. Now, it is home to more or less 8,500 people; 80% of which who live in houses on stilts.

After a series of consultations with key persons and members of the community, our group was able to flesh out some key areas that can be improved. Being a largely Muslim community, topics on sex education (including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases) are not openly discussed. This year, there has been one confirmed case of HIV in the barangay which is quite alarming. It is also usual to see families with many children and maternal deaths are not uncommon.

On the upside, the community has a youth organization composed of people who are full of potential. The Barangay Council is very supportive and proactive, and there are various community resources that are waiting to be tapped for the community’s further development.

Because the concerns raised by the community were varied in scope, our group decided to “adopt” the community from January to March of this year. We believe that the community already has the ability to respond to their concerns and we decided to tap on those. We named the project, TCA2C: Transforming Community Ability to Capability.”

The project started with a conversation with the leaders. The purpose of the meeting was to establish the areas where we can help the community. This also served as the initial consultation with the community.

Working with the Youth

A few days later, we held the Leadership Training with the young leaders and aspiring leaders in the community. The young leaders of Taluksangay are hardworking, and they actively participated in the activities. Participants were given modules about the theories and principles of leadership. They were also given the chance to work with their peers in group activities and workshop sessions.

(Groups were asked to brainstorm on the ideas of leadership. (Photo by Eurie Calderon)

(Resource speaker Mark Panganiban processed the participants’ responses in the activity. (Photo by Val Amiel Vestil)

After the academic discussion, youth participants were given the chance to apply the principles and theories they learned in various team-building activities. For half a day, participants went through various activities where their leadership skills were tested.

(One part of the leadership activities requires groups to complete a mini obstacle course while their legs are tied together. (Photo by Val Amiel Vestil)

(After all the activities, participants were asked to form a circle, so they can share insights and learning to the whole group. Winners per station were also given awards. (Photo by Sarah Ismael)

After all the activities, the young leaders shared how they appreciated the activities and how they want our group to come back often.

Working with the “Transformers”

Although this activity was not in the original plan, the Barangay Council specifically requested for our group to have conversations with people who used to be addicted to dangerous drugs, or the group that the Barangay Council fondly call the “Transformers.” In partnership with the police station, the focus of the conversations was on programs available for reformed addicts, lectures on the effects of using dangerous drugs, and some inspirational talks.

(Participants take a group picture with Resource speaker Thesa Lusica, members of the Barangay Council, and police officers. (Photo by Val Amiel Vestil)

Working with the LGBTQ+

Members of the LGBTQ+ were also beneficiaries of the program. In coordination with YPeer-Pilipinas, participants were given a training module focused on the importance of HIV awareness, practices that increase vulnerability to HIV and other risk factors, safe sex, the importance of HIV testing, among others. Participants were also given the chance to ask questions about concerns they might have that they have not asked before because of many factors.

Because Barangay Taluksangay is largely Muslim, it can be quite challenging for members of the LGBTQ+ to seek help or guidance when it comes to matters related to sex. The sessions were designed to provide a safe environment where the participants can freely ask a peer about things that they want to know, especially on HIV screening. Condoms from the Department of Health were also distributed to the participants.

Resource speaker Jan Aldwin Cutin fostered an open, intimate, and safe environment where participants can freely ask questions. (Photo by Val Amiel Vestil)

It can be noted that there was a low turnout for our HIV Awareness and Prevention Seminar which is probably due to the stigma of being labeled as part of the LGBTQ+. A few days after the session, the barangay captain shared to our group that he is planning to formally organize an LGBT group in the barangay. He even said, “Where [sic] the community likes it or not, we have to ACCEPT them, and create a structure or mechanism so we can disseminate information well, especially on matters related to HIV.”

Working with Mothers

The mothers of Barangay Taluksangay were also beneficiaries of the program.They are primarily the beneficiaries of the Philippine government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) (English: Bridging Program for the Filipino Family) under the Department of Social Welfare and Development. There was a session on responsible parenthood and family planning. In the afternoon, we invited someone from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and parents had the chance to ask questions and clarifications about the 4Ps program.

Volunteers take a selfie with the mothers who participated in the session on responsible parenthood. (Photo by Reden Sabela)

Working with Teachers

As part of our project, we also invited teachers from all over Zamboanga to a session on teaching competence and passion. In coordination with EDgeUCATORs Zamboanga Peninsula and St. Joseph School of Zamboanga, more than 60 teachers gathered together to learn about the new Philippine Professional Standards for Teachers (PPST) and to listen on talks that would ignite or re-ignite their passion for teaching.

Teachers pose for a group picture after an energizing session on teaching competence and passion. (Photo by EDgeUCATORs)

While preparing to implement this project, I was able to realize the truth of the idea that the best way to help a community is to involve the community. Every community already has the ability to improve and help themselves; sometimes a little outside help may be needed to turn the ability into capability.

We know that we cannot be the saviors of communities, but our group wants to reach far communities and do our part in making sure that they get access to education and other opportunities.

I was interviewed by the local news network during the culminating program and I talked about the project.  (Photo by King Castillo)

Even if we just spent a relatively short time with the community, each one of us felt the community’s sincerity and openness. We see more partnerships with the community in the future.

With all these, the success of the project will not be made possible without the help of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The grant made our desire to help the community a reality.

I would also like to thank the people of Barangay Taluksangay and the Barangay Council who welcomed us, strangers from different parts of the Philippines, and for teaching us about your ways and culture. Our original goal was to join the community to help, but it was us who got to learn more during the program. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to the Nuño and Johan family from Barangay Taluksangay, who welcomed us with open arms and supported the project all the way.

Finally, none of these would have been possible without the help of my team, the Dayaw Kalinaw. They volunteered countless hours in the planning and implementation of this program. Despite the challenges and difficulties of doing community work, things become lighter when one is doing it with people who share the same passion and drive. True enough, it is easier to turn ability to capability when working together than doing it alone.

Members of the TCA2C: Transforming Community Ability to Capability team (Photo by King Castillo)