Lives of service in the barrios
When she was but a child, recalls Corazon Christina Labayen, “Kweet” to family and friends, her parents Dennis and Lorna who are both doctors went off to work, but not in a hospital, clinic, or some such facility. Instead, they went to work in barrios or small villages.
Early on, their work took them to barrios in Nueva Ecija, Isabela, Bacolod and Bicol on outreach and community development work for local NGOs, and then for Outreach International, a development NGO with projects around the world. Their work would take the couple away from their two daughters (Kweet and younger sister Stella Leonora or Yllah) for days at a time, and when Kweet asked her mother why they didn’t practice in hospitals, “so that we would grow rich like other doctors,” Lorna replied: “It’s a different kind of fulfillment, Kweet, when you serve and help other people.”
Eventually, as both Dennis and Lorna accepted posts with the main office of Outreach International, their horizons broadened to include “barrios” in India, Africa, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and many other countries.
Last December, Graceland University based in Lamoni, Iowa, conferred on Dennis an honorary doctorate in humanities and literature, in recognition of his work in community development. As head of field operations at Outreach International, Dennis with his “tireless work has made a profound impact directly on some of the world’s most impoverished communities and on the philosophy of how development work is best accomplished to eliminate extreme poverty,” the university said.
Disclosure: I have a personal connection to Dennis. He is one of the children of Ben and Nora Labayen, both of whom were best friends with my parents. In my youth, the Labayens lived just a few streets away from our home in Cubao, Quezon City, and we would often visit each other’s homes. Reading of Dennis’ accomplishments, then, I felt a tug at my heart and mind, remembering the friendship that binds our families.
Dennis took up medical studies at the University of the Philippines, and it was during his internship that he and Lorna met. Instead of following the path of most of their classmates, Dennis and Lorna chose to make their careers in rural community health; they were recruited in 1979 as specialists in community health at the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), whose most famous figure is the late senator and “doctor to the barrios” Johnny Flavier. The Labayens joined Outreach International in 1982, and in 2000, Dennis
assumed worldwide oversight of Outreach field activities as director of field operations and now as the chief field officer.
Her parents’ work, recalls Kweet, also compelled Dennis and Lorna to miss many a family occasion or school activity. But while there was some resentment from her and her sister, she says, they eventually understood the nature of their parents’ work.
When Dennis and Lorna joined their batchmates at the UP College of Medicine Class of 1972, writes Kweet, “their classmates were talking about vacation houses abroad, cruises and all other luxuries in life, but at the end of the night, my parents were among those who received the Community Service Award given by the UP Medical Alumni Society.”
Such recognition may make up for the luxuries that Dennis and Lorna and their family denied themselves when they chose to “take the road less taken” despite their qualifications and experiences.
As the Graceland citation says: “It is our honor to recognize Dr. Dennis Labayen … who has devoted his professional career to the cause of human dignity and of the worth of all persons.”
Kweet says that as a child, she often wondered why her parents’ hard work in the barrios resulted not in money, luxurious gifts or great honors, but in “bananas, eggs, fruits, native delicacies.” But later in life, she realized the full measure of her parents’ life of service.
Among all his accomplishment and honors, Dennis’ greatest feat, I believe, is raising two young women—Kweet and Yllah—whose lives are enriched by their example.
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