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The joy of being useful

The older we get, the closer we are to death, so as an elderly person, I cannot help but think of death. I wonder: If there is no hell, as Pope Francis says—and I am relieved he said that—where then do demons hang out? I am joking.

But I do worry, so I ask my friend Mila A., the lady who runs the laundry shop in our building in Makati: “Mila, do you know what to do if someone dies?” I ask her a few questions more, mostly about cremation. She is not too familiar with the procedure, and is slightly annoyed that I ask.

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“Why are we talking about that?” she says.

Because I don’t know the process after one dies and I am curious, I say. Also, I say, I’d like to know about cremation so I can decide if I want to get engulfed in flames or be buried six feet under, for some people to later find what’s left of me, if any, should they decide to build a condominium building over my grave.

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Mila asks if I’d like some fruits, and says she’d bring me some.

I decide to go across the street to where the supermarket and the movie theaters are. I happen to walk behind four ladies, each wearing a shirt with the words “Street Facilitator” on the back. That’s new to me so, boldly, I ask them what the words mean—like who are they and what is it exactly that they facilitate. Before we know it, we are talking and laughing like old friends on the corner of Chino Roces Avenue and Arnaiz Street.

They tell me they are volunteer workers for the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development). Their job is to clear the sidewalks of homeless people sleeping there, children who are not in school, vendors who take up street space, and other forms of obstructions. I can’t believe my ears. I had no idea that there are such people who volunteer their time and energy just to be useful. What a contrast to some individuals I know who make a career out of being pests.

I ask them what they gain out of walking the streets of Makati from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and they all declare being happy and satisfied with being able to help. Amazing!

Ate Letty is 54 years old and lives in Barangay Poblacion. Her husband works in Saudi Arabia, and they have a daughter who is a veterinarian. Her hobbies are cooking and dancing, but she is happiest when she is on the street looking out for people to help and generally being useful to her fellow Filipinos. She says she has been 12 years on the job, and the satisfaction that she feels cannot be described.

Liza V. is 40 and is happily married to a farmer. They have four kids—two boys and two girls, the eldest being 17 and the youngest barely eight. They live somewhere in Bangkal and it is nothing for her to walk from there to Chino Roces Avenue, where she starts her job as a volunteer DSWD worker.

What does she get out of her volunteer work? Liza’s face lights up and she says: The happiness and satisfaction of being useful to others!

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They wear off the soles of their shoes pretty fast, and Liza is quick to point out that Ate Letty is wearing the expensive Micaela shoes.

Mameng M., 55, has a very sunny disposition. Her husband, who is 10 years older, is an ambulance driver. They live in Barangay Santa Cruz and they have three children: an engineer, a

computer science graduate, and a psychologist. She says she loves the experience of her volunteer work and the lessons she learns from it as she walks the streets and meets some very friendly people. She is happiest when she knows that she has been helpful and useful to others, especially to those in need.

But the ladies all admit that sometimes their job can be dangerous, especially when they have to wake a possibly drunken dweller sleeping on the sidewalk.

Linda B. is 61 but looks younger. Her husband is a fruit vendor, which probably accounts for her vibrant personality. She had a total of 12 children, including a set of twins, but four of them have died. She was once a “street coordinator,” which led to her present volunteer job. She is a very enthusiastic dancer, which is her main activity when not working. At night, she says she and her husband relax by having a beer or two.

(I ask the ladies about cremation, and here is what I learn from them on the subject: The cost is P1,500 for the very poor, and the normal rate is P15,000 for the low-end service. The procedure for the next of kin is to get a doctor to certify the death. The body is then taken to the morgue, where the death will be further ascertained; only then will the death certificate be issued. From there, one has to go to City Hall to register the death.)

I wanted to write about other useful people, like the recently departed Kuya Germs, who is probably still being useful in heaven, but the four energetic and happy ladies have taken up all my allotted space.

Shirley Wilson de las Alas, 77, says: “While others are shy or cautious, I talk to everyone I meet because I like to learn things I know nothing about. And that is how I make friends and gain additional knowledge at the same time.”

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