DAVAO CITY, DECEMBER 31, 2012 (PHILSTARweek) “Sir, mag-ingat po kayo pagdating sa area ha. Mainit ang mga ulo ng mga tao doon. Gutom kasi (Be careful when you reach the area. People there are hot-headed because they are hungry).”

This was the advice of a van driver to a team of Operation Damayan, the charitable arm of The STAR Group of Companies, as they approached SM Lanang last Dec. 19.

The team went to SM Lanang to help their colleagues repack goods to be given to residents in areas hit by typhoon “Pablo” in Compostela Valley the following day.

The team could not help but recall news footage showing typhoon victims intercepting vehicles of relief teams and unruly residents scrambling for donations.

But whatever the challenges, the team knew that their operation had to push through. The beneficiaries – many of whom lost plantations that serve as sources of both their food and livelihood – badly need the donations.

Fortunately, the relief drive went smoothly, thanks to the efforts of Damayan’s private partners, local officials, coordinators and security forces.

Equally important was the positive disposition of the beneficiaries who embody the resilient spirit of the Filipinos.

Counting their blessings

Far from being desperate and hopeless, the beneficiaries of Damayan’s relief drive are optimists who know how to count their blessings despite the tragedy that befell them.

Everywhere in Monkayo, Montevista and Compostela, one could see grim reminders of nature’s fury – uprooted trees, wiped out plantations, fallen electric posts and damaged houses.

But the residents there had the uncanny ability to make positive things out of the bleak surroundings. Children were playing merrily on uprooted trees. Women were laughing as they chatted in front of a house with damaged roof. Men were teasing each other in casual banter just like any ordinary day.

Perhaps what kept the typhoon victims going was their belief that they would rise from the tragedy – and that their loved ones would be with them when that time comes.

Fausto Libranza, 82, village chief of barangay Gabi in Compostela town, lost 60 percent of his plantation to Pablo.

Libranza, however, is confident that his faith in God and his family’s unity would enable him to overcome the trials he is facing.

“I have great confidence that we will rise from this tragedy. My children will have to work and strive harder,” Libranza, whose barangay was one of Damayan’s beneficiaries, said.

“We also have to pray to ask for God’s help. But the prayers should be accompanied by hard work,” he added.

Elsie Juario, 36, lost her entire four-hectare plantation, which used to earn up to P30,000 during harvest season. She and her husband used to sell bananas, rubber and corn to support their family.

“I still thank God because nothing bad happened to my family,” she told STARweek on the sidelines of Damayan’s relief operation.

While saddened by the loss of her livelihood source, Juario said she would just find a job to provide for her children’s needs.

Shirley Ceballos, 53, one of the Monkayo residents who lined up to receive a relief pack from Damayan, said she was expecting a better life next year.

“We lost our house and many of our things were destroyed. But we are happy our neighbors helped us and allowed us to stay with them. No one among my loved ones died,” a smiling Ceballos said.

Worth the effort

Bringing the donations from Manila to Davao and repacking them to make 3,000 bags is not an easy task. But Emmie Cruz, head coordinator of Damayan, said it was all worth the effort.

“Residents repaid our efforts by smiling at us and saying thank you,” she said.

Cruz said the relief teams are motivated by the fact that their efforts would bring cheer to residents who have suffered severely due to the typhoon.

“I told my colleagues that while repacking and distributing the goods can be taxing, it is nothing compared to the things that the victims went through,” she said.

Cruz said they are also thrilled by the prospect of cheering up families who are too busy rehabilitating their lives to even think about Christmas.

About 3,000 families in Compostela Valley received early Christmas gifts from Operation Damayan and its partners during the relief drive last Dec. 20.

The STAR group conducted the relief drive together with the Metrobank Foundation and the P.J. Lhuiller group, which owns Cebuana Lhuiller.

The operation was also made possible by SM City Lanang led by Apple Legario of the mall’s community relations office, the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command led by Lt. Gen. Jorge Segovia, the Philippine National Police Southern Mindanao Regional Office led by Police Chief Supt. Jaime Morente, the Compostela Valley local government, and provincial development management officer Vivien Palada.

Damayan started calling for donations on Dec. 7. The fund drive soon reached almost P3 million.

The beneficiaries were from barangay Poblacion in Monkayo, barangays Bangkerohan Norte and Sur in Montevista and barangay Gabi in Compostela town, areas not yet adequately covered by local and international donor groups.

Relief packs were distributed to the residents of the three towns. Each pack consisted of rice, sugar, coffee, milk, sardines, corned beef, noodles, towel, blanket and slippers.

Fifteen members of Operation Damayan, 13 personnel of the Lhuiller group, 14 employees of Metrobank and dozens of policemen and soldiers braved the rains and trudged through muddy roads to bring relief to the residents.

The goods were carried by two private ten-wheeler trucks and two six-by-six military trucks.

“In times of calamities, we extend a helping hand and most of the time we do it with The Philippine STAR. We have a good relationship,” said Cesar Vidal, executive trustee of the P.J. Lhuiller Foundation Inc.

“We hope we can improve the conditions of the people in the places affected by Pablo,” he added.

Lito Baiño, cluster sales head of Metrobank Davao, said: “We joined the drive because we want to reach out to the community, especially now that many people were hit by the calamity.”

A different noche buena

Beneficiaries of the relief operation beamed as they received their goods. Some of them went out of their way to say “salamat po (thank you)” to each member of the relief team as they passed by.

In Bangkerohan Elementary School in Montevista, an orange cartolina containing the message: “Welcome Philippine Star. Thank you for helping us” greeted the Damayan team and its partners.

Local officials said the Damayan drive came at an opportune time as people were struggling to find something to put on their tables for noche buena.

“The donations really mean a lot to the residents. The residents who lost their livelihood sources will have something to eat,” Libranza said.

Manding Pagalan, of barangay Gabi, Compostela, said people are grateful because they can still celebrate Christmas, albeit in a simple way.

“Before, people would spend money to make sure they have delicious food for the noche buena. Now, people do not seem to think about noche buena. What they think about is lining up for donations,” Pagalan said.

“They are grateful because at least some people and groups are assisting them during these times,” he added.

Aimee Castillo-Cubon, a councilwoman of barangay Gabi, said this year’s Christmas would be different since people are still reeling from the impact of Pablo.

“There are no more carolers, no more Christmas lights because we do not have electricity. Maybe some will have noodles and tinapa (dried fish) for noche buena,” she said.

Leochan Tenorio, village chief of barangay Bangkerohan Sur, said the ham and quezo de bola would be replaced with canned goods provided by donors.

However, residents in Compostela Valley do not mind eating relief goods during Christmas dinner as long as their families remain intact.

It seems that Pablo – which left more than 1,000 persons dead and damaged over P36-billion worth of property – reminded residents of the province to appreciate their loved ones and to have faith in God.

“Christmas is an opportunity to thank God. We have reasons to be thankful. No one in our family died,” said Shirley Ceballos, 53, of Monkayo.

Oliver Cotoco, 40, a resident of Compostela town, said: “We believe that when something is taken away from us, He will return it and we will have much more. We just have to believe.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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