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Changing things

(This is the conclusion of my second talk before Gawad Kalinga, this time in Toronto.)

It’s a far cry from the days when each time you left the country, you were tempted to identify yourself as Thai or Vietnamese or Malaysian, out of shame to be Filipino. Which not a few overseas Filipino workers and foreign-bound Filipinos actually did in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s time.

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What Gawad Kalinga in effect has done, and continues to do, is not just to give the roofless a roof over his head, it is to give the country-less a country to live in. It is not just to give the wretched of the earth a crack at a new life, it is to give the rootless of this earth an old and vaguely remembered haven to go back to. It is not just to finally give a home to the homeless, it is to make of the country in every possible sense home to Filipinos.

If you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammad.

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But GK shares the spirit of “kariton classroom” in still other, deeper, ways.

It shares, first off, its spirit of simplicity. Kariton classroom lugs education around in a kariton, GK lugs hope around in, well, a traveling circus. I’ve always known that philanthropy is big business, but I never knew exactly how big until Tony Meloto gave me to glimpse it. In 1988, a US child-sponsorship charity practiced this: For every $26 that they got, they spent $6 for their target beneficiaries and $20 for them. Laws have gotten stricter since then, but the upkeep of the philanthropic organization still accounts for a great deal of the money. That is philanthropy of a sort that gives whole new meanings to the saying “Charity begins at home.”

I don’t know what the exact ratio is for GK, but I do know it practices lean-and-mean to lengths that would qualify it to extreme sports. I know it firsthand because we just spent more than 30 hours flying to New York last week: We took a cheap flight that had several stops, one of which got us epically delayed. That is how scrupulously GK tends to its finances. Its staff makes up for high-mindedness what they lack in high finance.

Its staff makes up for personal commitment what they lack in financial emolument. The Oquiñena brothers in particular have gotten positively psychic from getting a lot of psychic income in lieu of a physic one.

The money instead goes to the communities, which remains paltry in the face of the enormous need, and demand, for more GK villages. And in the face of ever increasing tasks that go with an ever expanding dream.

GK shares, second off, a kariton classroom’s spirit of empathy with its beneficiaries. GK does not hire an army of foot soldiers to deal with the masa, or poorest of the poor, or the bereft of the bereft, its officers do it themselves. It reminds me of the activism of my time, when we went to places God and government forgot to immerse ourselves in the lives of the deathly desperate. An awesome word, “immerse,” and an almost literally apt one: You get to realize what you mean when you say “Serve the people.” You get to be one with those you propose to serve.

GK has spawned a new activism, one driven by the same history-making force of idealism, commitment, and self-sacrifice. Tony himself lives it. He now spends most of his time in the Enchanted Farm, a laboratory for social entrepreneurship that he recently launched, in a hilly part of Bulacan. Though I myself cannot imagine how anyone can be excessively deprived to be flung in a far-flung place in the company of vibrant, dedicated, and completely charming volunteers. But that’s another story.

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Finally, GK shares a kariton classroom’s spirit of humility. The best teachers are the best learners, the best preachers are the best listeners, the best transformers are those most willing to be transformed.

The Philippines being a country where a culture of patronage runs riot, organizations that try to do something for the poor, or profess to, are always in danger in falling into the trap of thinking, or baldly posturing, that they are a source of beneficence before whom the recipient ought to show eternal gratitude. You see that in TV shows that shower audiences with gifts or in programs that give relief goods to the victims of storms and floods. The recipient is reduced to a spectacle of prostrate and sniveling thankfulness.

There is none of that in GK. There is instead an attitude of respect, a willingness to listen, an eagerness to learn from those it is trying to help. I remember in this respect a movie I saw recently, called “The Blind Side.” For those who have not seen it, it tells the story of a white woman who takes pity on a homeless black kid and gives him shelter. Eventually, she begins to treat him like a son, along with her own biological son and daughter. The black kid goes on to excel in football in his school, and to get a lot of attention from talent scouts.

At one point, during a tête-à-tête with friends, she gets asked a lot of questions by her friends about how her own kids feel about having a black member of the family. Offended, she tells them that she never thought they’d ask a question like that, it reeks of narrow-mindedness. They are apologetic but continue to take a patronizing tone. The things you’ve done for that kid, they say, that’s pretty heroic, that’s pretty self-sacrificing. Surely, they say, you’ve had a huge impact on him, surely you’ve changed his life. The woman, suddenly realizing how the kid had shown her the power of caring, the beauty of love, the infinite mystery of life, retorts:  “No, he has had a huge impact on me. He has changed my life.”

Givers, like Gawad Kalinga, have been known to be blind-sided by the receiver.

That is the miracle of changing things.

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TAGS: Gawad Kalinga, kariton classroom, Philanthropy, tony meloto
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