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    Education as a Right, Not a Privilege

    Message at the Education Empowerment: Karunungan, Kabataan, Kinabukasan

    St. Pedro Poveda College, Quezon City

    Good afternoon, everyone. [Students respond: Good afternoon!]

    Dr. Lucia Subaldo, President of Saint Pedro Poveda College and members of the Poveda Executive Council; Ms. Gregoria Ruiz, President of the Institucion Teresiana and the other members of the Board of Trustees; Mrs. Jocelle Rivera, President of the Poveda Parents’ Association and members of the Parents’ Association who are here with us this afternoon; Dr. Maribel Francia, my fellow guest speaker; Poveda faculty and staff; our dear high school students; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: magandang hapon sa inyong lahat! [Students respond: Magandang hapon!]

    Thank you for inviting me to be with you today as you welcome the new school year. It gives me great joy to be surrounded by young people who are always in search of ways to contribute to effective nation building.

    I distinctly remember the last time I was here in Poveda: I was just 10 years old and was in Fourth Grade. I tagged along with my Mom who was a teacher at our school — the Universidad de Sta. Isabel in Naga City. It was a trip our administrators and teachers made to observe your school’s Personalized Education program. The following year, the program was replicated in our school.

    While it has taken me more than four decades to return to Poveda, I am truly honored to be here today and speak before such a beautiful and vibrant crowd. I always treasure opportunities to engage with students and young people like you — not least because it makes me also feel young and gives me renewed energy!

    As a mother of three girls, I know that most of you are probably feeling a lot of mixed emotions right now. Some are probably wishing that the summer break was not over yet. [laughter] Some of you, on the other hand, may be excited about what lies ahead this year: Will you find new friends? Excel in new subjects? Get cool teachers? These can make any girl nervous, and you all wonder whether your parents realize just how difficult the start of classes can become.

    Here in the confines of Poveda, it is easy to be oblivious to the struggles that some young Filipinos your age face. We are already consumed by so many things we confront with every day: traffic, school assignments, exams to prepare for, the demands of the daily grind. I am not saying that these things are not important, because they are. But I would like to share with you real life stories that we have encountered in the work that we do, that makes these distractions seem inconsequential.

    At this point, allow me to share with you a five-minute short film. During the commemoration of our Independence Day this year, our office held the Istorya ng Pag-asa Film Festival Gala Night. Istorya ng Pag-asa is the Office of the Vice President’s attempt to change the prevailing national conversation of negativity by featuring the stories of ordinary people who have undergone tremendous struggles but have emerged triumphant.

    One of the finalists was a film entitled “Alkansya.” It tells the story of John-John Andeza, a young boy who would dive every morning in the murky waters of the Manila Bay for coins. Every peso that John-John drops in his alkansya is a step closer to fulfilling his dream: to bring his mother home, and eventually, to provide a better life for their family. This is John-John’s story.

    [Alkansya plays]

    [Applause] John-John’s story is a powerful reminder to all of us that no adversity can ever drown the resolve of a heart that refuses to give up—not even the murkiest waters, no matter the circumstance.

    I don’t know how much allowance you receive daily, but it broke my heart to watch John-John diving Manila Bay everyday before going to school for a few coins, most of which he would save to bring his mother home. He was content to just having two pesos in his pocket if that would mean seeing his mother again. It makes you think: How often have we taken the love of our parents, of our loved ones for granted? How grateful are we for the privilege of living comfortable lives?

    Since we launched Istorya ng Pag-asa in 2016, we have come across more than 200 stories of inspring Filipinos who have defied all odds by sheer faith and determination. One of these stories is that of Ave.

    Ave came from a very poor family in Masbate. She had lost her mother at a young age, while his father worked as a farmer to make ends meet. This, however, was not enough to send all his children to school. So, Ave looked for ways to continue her education. She asked help from her Grade School teacher, who took her in to help out in the garden and in cleaning the house. She was able to finish Grade School and High School with the help of this teacher. But after she graduated from High School, the teacher who took her in told her she could no longer afford to send her to College.

    Fortunately, Ave was able to get a scholarship at a school in Legazpi City, but it only covered tuition fees. So Ave applied for work in her school where she was hired as a school janitress. When we asked her how she was able to manage her work and lessons, she said she would study her books while she was cleaning the school’s bathrooms.

    Can you imagine how hard that must have been? But despite her difficulties, Ave’s perseverance and dedication allowed her to finish college, and even graduate with honors. Later on, she would get a job as a court stenographer. Being surrounded by lawyers everyday, Ave was inspired to take up law. And so she became a stenographer during the day and a law student at night. Eventually, she finished law school, passed the bar, and became a lawyer. Her hard work and dedication paid off. Now, Ave is a Judge Ave Alba at the Municipal Trial Court of Daraga, Albay.

    The story of Judge Ave is not just a story of struggle. It is also a story of triumph over adversity. There are so many stories like this in our midst, some of them still unfolding, but are already sources of inspiration.

    All of us have our crosses to bear. In the face of hardships, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of hope. I had my own share when I lost my husband to a plane crash so unexpectedly almost six years ago, forcing me to be both father and mother to my three daughters. My youngest was just 12 years old at that time, just like maybe some of you here are. To make matters worse, I had to run for Congress just after his funeral to fill the void my husband left behind. It was not easy because it turned our lives upside down. There were days when I question why it had to happen to me and to my children.

    I found the answer in my visits to the farthest, smallest, and poorest communities in the course of my work as a member of Congress. I saw that there was just so much suffering on the ground. The last, the least and the lost of our fellow Filipinos are still in dire need of help.

    I remember one Saturday when I was visiting a far-flung barangay in the mountains of Calabanga, Camarines Sur. I happened to pass by an elementary school and decided to take a peek at one of the Grade 1 classrooms. One of the things that caught my attention was a piece of Manila paper posted on the wall. Written on it were the school days of the week, from Monday until Friday and listed below each day were nine names.

    I asked the barangay kagawad who accompanied me what those nine names for each day meant. She said, there were 38 students in that class, but the room had only nine chairs. Those nine names were the names of the students who gets to sit on those chairs each day of the week. Apparently, it was the teacher’s way of making sure that all the students would have a chance to sit on a chair at least once a week that they are in school. Iyong hindi nakaka-upo, sa sahig uupo. My heart was crushed after learning that these children are deprived of something that many other children their age take for granted.

    We immediately sought for assistance and help came from friends and people, some of whom we have not even met personally. Such was the outpouring of generosity that we were able to gather many chairs and even provide some to the other classrooms also needing them. That experience made me realize that there is just so much more that we can do if we come together and open our eyes and our hearts to people who need our help the most.

    This is what drove me and my staff to reinvent the role of the Office of the Vice President by coming up with a program called Angat Buhay. The program’s aim is to uplift the lives of poor Filipino families, especially in far-flung, hard to reach, and underserved communities. But because we don’t have the resources to implement programs, we have partnered with different private organizations, schools and foundations to bring help to these poor communities.

    One of the key thrusts of Angat Buhay is access to quality education. We believe that no child should be robbed of the opportunity to gain an education that will allow him or her to freely pursue dreams and succeed in life. Education should be a right and not just a privilege.

    In Sitio Bugtong Lubi, deep in the mountains of Hinoba-an in Negros Occidental—one of our Angat Buhay areas—school children of Magsaysay Elementary School study in makeshift classrooms constructed out of light materials and built by their own parents and teachers. Getting there takes one and a half to two hours on top of a habal-habal. You know what a habal-habal is? It’s a motorcycle that is used to ferry passengers. Passengers have to pay P600 each way to ride through unpaved roads that cross mountain ranges.

    And because of their remote location, help from the government and other donors could not come sooner. But through the generosity of our Angat Buhay partners, we made that dream come true for the schoolchildren and parents of Hinoba-an. Magsaysay Elementary School now has two new school buildings. The children there no longer have to suffer the harshness of the heat and rain while in school. Another Angat Buhay partner has also turned over school supplies for the children and committed to continue providing for several more succeeding school years.

    There is also Siayan, a mountainous town in the province of Zamboanga del Norte. We first heard of Siayan when we learned that from 2003 to 2009, it was the poorest municipality in the Philippines—at one point, its poverty incidence hit a staggering 97.5 percent. Siayan also has one of the highest school dropout rates. We visited Siayan more than a year ago to check on how we can be of help, particularly in decreasing the school dropout rate. We found out that one of the reasons was the distance that the students have to traverse just to be able to go to school. Some students living in coastal communities even need to swim everyday just to attend their classes in the main land.

    Last year, our partner, the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, provided for “school boats” that can pick up the students from the different islands and bring them to school everyday for free. But these were not enough. Last February, we inaugurated a dormitory inside the Siayan National High School. The dormitory is for students from very poor families who live so far away so that they will have a place to stay for free during school days.

    During the inauguration of the dormitory — iyon talaga iyong pangalan niya, si Rain-Rain — we met Rain-Rain, who is 17 years old and is in Grade 10. His house is located six kilometers away from the school. Before the dorm was built, Rain-Rain had to walk for more than an hour each way and had to cross two rivers to get to school. During rainy days, the river would swell, making it impossible and dangerous to cross. He said he wakes up before the dawn breaks, but would still arrive late because he still has to help with morning chores. As a result, he would receive multiple warnings, filling up an entire bond paper’s worth of violations. But what is more heartbreaking is we discovered that Rain-Rain was not the only one who had to go through this hardship. There were so many other children who were similarly situated. And that was one of the reasons why the school dropout rate in Siayan has remained very high.

    Now, Rain-Rain is one of the new boarders of the dormitory. He told us that he is now happy being in the dorm because he can now focus more on his studies and he won’t have to miss too many classes.

    I tell these stories of sacrifice and perseverance to my three daughters every time they complain about the smallest things, like homework, traffic, or slow internet connection. I would always remind them that their concerns are nothing compared to what other children their age need to go through just to be able to attend school.

    I am also telling you these stories today for exactly the same reason. It is my hope that you draw inspiration from these brave young souls, who continue to persevere despite the many hurdles that confront them. More than anything, these stories represent unrelenting hope and courage — values that define our core, build our character and make us great as a nation. Oftentimes, we feel too preoccupied with mundane concerns that we tend to overlook the many things we should be thankful for.

    At a time when our social media timelines are flooded with so much distraction and viciousness, we need to learn how to drown out the noise around us and just to focus our lenses on things that truly matter. This will give us a better sense of the little things we take for granted every day. Because it is in appreciating our blessings and being grateful for them that give us the resolve to take care of others who are not as lucky as we are.

    The stories I just told you reflect the many hardships that young people are experiencing in poor communities. But these stories are also meant to remind us that in the face of challenges we are all called to be resilient; to choose light over darkness all the time; to choose hope over despair; and to choose love over fear.

    From where I stand, what I see is a room filled with some of the brightest and, perhaps, the most fortunate and privileged of your generation. You are all beaming with hope and passion, purpose and vigor. But let me ask you today: What will you do with what was given to you?

    I know many of you here today dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, artists, public servants, and CEOs of your own companies. When that time comes, I hope that you will always choose to go where you are most needed. Always choose to serve our people however you can. As the saying goes and I quote: “Those to whom much is given, much is also required.“

    So my dear girls, during these extraordinary times, each one of us is called to be a beacon of light and hope for others.

    Remember, you are never too young to make a difference. Use your education, and use your idealism and God-given talents to make this country a better place for John-John, for Rain-Rain, and for every Filipino child.

    May our conversation today inspire you to always try to be the best that you can be in your journey to realizing your dreams and to make your life more meaningful by taking care of fellow Filipinos who need your help the most. We will be counting on you in the future.

    Mabuhay kayong lahat! [applause]

    Posted in Speeches on Jun 27, 2018