It was on my last visit to the Bacolod ofﬁce three weeks ago that Alfreda told me that she would be graduating from Elementary school on March 19th. I told her I would try to come over from Iloilo for that. I ﬁrst met Alfreda in 2004 in Bacolod city’s Provincial hospital: I was with a TUC team visiting another patient in our care when I noticed a malnourished child on a nearby bed with a woman, whom I assumed to be her mother, spoon feeding her. It was a pitiful sight to see this child sometimes vomiting and clearly very sick indeed. I talked to her mother and discovered that Alfreda was 9 years old and suffering from multiple organ malfunction, including rheumatic heart disease which is why she looked so malnourished. I did not stay long but I got the contact details of the family and gave Alfreda’s mother a contribution. The following year, we provided funding for Alfreda to go to Manila with her mother to have a cardiac catheterization test. Her medical problems were not over however as the next thing I heard, she had contracted shingles and was to lose the sight in her right eye as a result.
Nine years on, in the company of long-term PSHF veteran, Bernie and Ana, our new coordinator for southern Negros Occidental, I was in a taxi bound for Ma-ao, a rural Negros town, to attend Alfreda’s graduation from Elementary school. We had a journey of about an hour’s duration ahead of us. Heading into the town of Murcia, I asked Bernie if we had any projects in the area and she mentioned Tita Yulo who had received a loan for rice vending way back in the 1990’s. Amazingly, Bernie was able to remember the vicinity where Tita had lived and when we enquired of a roadside vendor, we were told she was still around and living further up the road. We reached the spot and Bernie got out and I watched her being given a warm greeting by Tita. I got out and was greeted just as warmly. Other family members appeared and we started to reminisce about the old days. Before we left, the matter of Tita’s loan balance came up; of course we were not going to ask her for a payment - her rice vending has long ago ended and indeed the reason she never completed her repayments is that she had incurred medical expenses when her teenage son had suffered and died from rheumatic heart disease in 1997.
We bid our farewells and continued our journey to Ma-ao. On arrival, we found our way to the Elementary School assembly hall and heard the sounds of singing; it turned out that they were practicing for the graduation ceremony that would commence at 3pm. We spotted Alfreda seated near the back of the 200 or so graduates. She saw us and came out to say hello; she was clearly delighted that we had come for her special day. After the practice, we gave her a ride to her home. It had been eight years since Bernie and I had visited her sitio and we were excited to meet other children from the past, particularly Mary-Ann and her brother Rex whom we had assisted with schooling assistance in 2006.
Alfreda lives with her brother Bongbong, his wife Crisdy, their baby boy, Alcris and their pet dog Mixie. Her mother is in Batangas in Luzon and her father died when she was very small. Alfreda’s home is one of a cluster of houses surrounded by sugarcane ﬁelds. It is good to see Bongbong again; I remember how caring he had been to his sister when she was hospitalised and indeed it was he who had accompanied Alfreda to Manila for her heart catheterization in 2005. He invited us into his home. It is a simple abode with a concrete ﬂoor and curtains separating the sleeping quarters from the main room. I sat on a beautifully made bamboo bench and I noted other examples of bamboo craftsmanship in the home; I discovered that Bongbong was a carpenter.
As we sat talking, children started to appear and one of these, it transpired was Mary Ann’s sister, Mai-Mai. Bernie and I were delighted to know that Mary Ann was around. Mai-Mai led us back to the centre of the sitio and there she was. She is 18 years old now and looks well. We discover that she is working on a sugarcane hacienda as a weeder earning 120 pesos ($3) a day. I have brought my lap-top computer with me today; I am keen to present a slide show of my visit here with Bernie eight years ago. I set it up on a wooden table and a couple of dozen people gather around the small screen to watch. We enjoy identifying all the children as they were all those years ago, including Mai-Mai when she was a small child as well as Mary Ann’s middle sister Roselyn. In the background in a couple of the pictures is Mary Ann’s mother who tragically died within a few months of our visit.
After the slide-show, I took a few pictures and chatted with the children. Bernie talked with Mary Ann about her life now. I glanced over and Mary Ann was shedding a few tears; had the photos brought back painful memories of losing her mother? Was she regretting her decision to quit school in 2007 when we had provided her with ﬁnancial support to continue her schooling?
Mary Ann is looking after her two sisters on her wages from working on the hacienda. None of the three go to school. Their father is a long distance truck driver and they see him rarely. They have an uncle who sometimes gives them money to buy food. Sad to say, their prospects are bleak; indeed the same can be said for most of the children in her sitio as few of them go to school. What can we do?
We switch into ‘practical’ mode. The birth dates of the three sisters need to be known for them to enroll in Elementary school. Mary Ann tells us that her aunt Virgie’s daughter Rhea knows their birthdays. We all get in the taxi for the drive to Virgie’s house which is situated in the middle of a sugarcane plantation. We are welcomed by Virgie into her simple but neat and tidy bamboo home. We meet Rhea and ask her if she would kindly visit the barangay ofﬁce to enquire about birth certiﬁcates for Mary Ann and her two sisters. The birth certiﬁcates should enable Mary Ann to enroll in the Alternative Learning System (ALS), a programme set up by the government for out of school youth and for her sisters to re-enter Elementary School. Of course, the PSHF will need to help ﬁnancially, not least for transportation allowances. It appears that the cost of transport (a tricycle ride) is the main reason why so many children drop out from school at an early age.
We bid farewell to Virgie and Rhea and head back to the taxi. We give Mary Ann and Mai-Mai a ride back to the dirt road leading back to their sitio and say goodbye. I am sad to leave them but so glad that our visit today has given Bernie and me the opportunity once more to intervene in the lives of Mary Ann and her siblings.
We are now headed for another part of Ma-ao where we shall be meeting Amid Fernando (15) one of our medical grant beneﬁciaries and his family. Ana has arranged for Renato, Amid’s older brother to wait for us at the junction of the main road and the track leading to the family home. He is there waiting for us and we get out of the taxi and greet him. He tells us the track is rough so we opt to walk the mile to his home. I am wearing a smartish long-sleeved shirt so as to be presentable at Alfreda’s graduation ceremony later and it is extremely hot. I undo the buttons for aeration and walk quickly. My companions decide to hop on a tricycle half way but I prefer to walk rather than sit uncomfortably in a tricycle negotiating all the pot holes. Soon enough, we are meeting Rosalie, Amid’s sister in law and she invites us into their home. Amid is there waiting for us and I am reassured to see him looking so well. The last time Ana saw him, he was in hospital with an oxygen mask on his face and looking very pale. Amid has aplastic anemia, a serious medical condition which requires him to have regular blood transfusions.
Amid’s home overlooks ﬁve recently harvested paddy ﬁelds; they are all terraced and ﬁlled with water from a local spring. The family has 80 ares (8,000 sq. metres) of land, 15 ares of which are cultivated by Amid’s brothers and the rest is either rented out or pawned. I discover that the family pawned a large parcel of land to pay for Amid’s hospitalisation expenses. I am keen to know whether it would make ﬁnancial sense to provide the family with funds to redeem their pawned lot but I am told that this is only possible after two years. Overall, the family’s ﬁnances are not too bad with a number of family members working on sugarcane plantations, including Amid’s mother when she is not tending the rice ﬁeld. The treatment of Amid’s illness however requires a level of funding which the family could never afford and if we (the PSHF) do not intervene, they will be forced to pawn off more of their land.
As we head back to the poblacion or village center of Ma-ao, after saying goodbye to Amid, Rosalie and the children, I reﬂect on the courage and good values of the family; I am glad that we can help them and offer advice and encouragement. Every month, since December 2012, Amid has needed to be rushed to hospital and his stays can be as long as two weeks.
We are soon back in Ma-ao and the graduation ceremony is already in full swing. We meet Bongbong and his wife and son and take our seats towards the back of the assembly hall. We listen to the speeches of the guest speaker and the valedictorian and then the awards are given out to the honours students. Finally, Alfreda’s big moment arrives when she goes up to the stage to be given her graduation certiﬁcate. I take a picture of her descending the steps and then another one with certiﬁcate in hand. The singing of the graduation song closes the ceremony and then we all ﬁle out for picture taking.
It is 5pm and time to head back to the city. We bid farewell to Alfreda but not before giving Bongbong a couple of hundred pesos to buy food to cook a special meal for Alfreda and the family to celebrate her graduation day.
On the way back to Bacolod, we stop off in Vista Alegre, our newest project site with ﬁve loans approved just last month. Bernie is hoping to get a glimpse of Ziggy and her mum - two of our ofﬁce cats that were adopted by Nilda, the mother of Debbie, one of the new loan recipients. We are delighted to know that the two cats are settling in well.
So ends our day in the Negros countryside.
Richard warmly greeted by Tita Yulo.
Bongbong, Alfreda, Richard (back row) with Francis, Jennifer, Crisdy carrying Alcris and Biazel (front row) in front of Bongbong's house.
Richard presents a slide show of his visit eight years ago.
The Sebaste sisters: Roslyn, Mai-Mai and Mary Ann.
Amid (tallest in the photo) with his friends.
Picture of Alfreda descending the steps after receiving her certificate.