, MARCH 12, 2007 (STAR) By Patricia Esteves - South of Manila, in the town of San Jose in Batangas, lies a unique Gawad Kalinga village, an idyllic farm resort where the poor and the rich live together amid blue skies, meadows and lush tropical gardens.

Called the GK reunion village, the seven-hectare spread includes 30 multicolored GK houses, seven cottages, a kitchen garden, ostrich, goat, carabao and chicken farm, reception area and the retirement/vacation homes of affluent GK donors.

"Itís the reunion of the rich and poor coming together, equal in worth and dignity, bringing out the best in one another. The GK donors will be their brotherís keeper," GK founder Tony Meloto said.

More than just a charming farm resort, the GK reunion village is also providing sustainable livelihood to 18 families.

By creating a "first world "environment for the poor," Meloto said, "you trigger the first world aspirations of the poor."

The GK residents are gainfully employed in the resort as fruit and vegetable farmers. They also raise livestock and tend to the ostrich, carabaos and chickens on the farm. Some clean the guesthouses and cook food from the homegrown produce for the guests during functions and special occasions.

The GK residents are also the ones building the homes of their benefactors at the back of the village.

Soon, a 200-seater fine dining restaurant, a pavilion and more cottage houses will rise in the farm resort, Rudy Lubis, farm manager said.

Society chef Gaita Fores of the famed Cibo restaurants has volunteered to train the residents to cook international cuisine in preparation for the building of the new restaurant.

Dina Paterno and Vicky Cuisia of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) also volunteered to spend time with the families to raise their level of awareness, hone and cultivate their sense of Filipino culture.

"We will conduct workshops, trainings to raise their level of awareness about the Filipino culture and encourage them to express themselves in various art form expressions," Paterno and Cuisia said.

In totality, Lubis said they hope to mold the GK reunion village into something like Villa Escudero. The profit from the tourism receipts will go to the cooperative of the poor residents of the GK so that more livelihood programs can be generated for them.

The farm resort will be open to wedding, baptismal, birthday receptions and corporate and convention functions/meetings.

Lubis said he had this in mind when he decided to buy the seven-hectare property, part of which he donated to the poor through GK in 2005.

"Giving them a sustainable livelihood will empower the GK recipients to become productive and self-reliant individuals. The livelihood will not only chip away the poverty but empower the poor," Lubis said.

Gawad Kalinga is a Couples for Christ (CFC) movement that helps build homes for the poor families through donations from the government, corporations, civic and other religious groups and Filipinos abroad.

It offers a holistic approach to poverty and a concrete plan for rebuilding the Philippines aiming to build 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in seven years (GK777). Each GK village, composed of 30 to 100 poorest of the poor families, is created by volunteer caretakers and the poor themselves.

Lubis developed a portion of the area into a poultry and piggery farm but in the course of time, it became a farm resort.

"I thought then it was suitable to make it a farm, at the same I thought of giving the poor beneficiaries of the GK homes a means of livelihood," Lubis, a businessman, noted.

To raise more funds for the livelihood of the poor, Meloto and GK executives suggested turning a portion of the land into farm lots and selling them to GK advocates who want to build vacation/retirement homes. To date, 23 farm lots have been sold, mostly to Fil-Americans from North California, Guam and Canada. Two retirement homes stand in the village.

"That is why we converted this into farm lots because we want the proceeds to provide a lifetime sustainable livelihood for the GK residents and the community so that they can be productive, self-reliant and food-sufficient," Lubis said.

Lubis is also proud that all residents are permanently employed in the farm.

"For the past year until now, the residents are permanently employed in the farm, and they have SSS and Philhealth. We also put up a cooperative because we wanted the residents to be able to send their children to school and have extra income," Lubis said.

With the expansion, Lubis said they will need more workers in the farm and plans to get employees from the residents of GK villages in Kalayaan and Bermuda and three other villages, in Batangas.

The residentsí livelihood in these villages include taho, ice-cream and ube. They also harvest peppercorn leaves.

Lubis said they hope GK reunion village community will create tourism and investment and will set a lay model that will be replicated all over the country.

He said their goal is to create GK communities that are self-reliant and sustainable.

"And we hope, this will be a socio-economic revival of this nation. If this multiplies and multiplies, we will create a lot of tourist destinations, increase dollar infusion, making a productive land productive while helping the poor," Lubis said

Meloto said heís very proud of how rich GK advocates provided the resources and skills to develop the capacity of the poor and all the more proud that the rich and poor will live side by side, living the bayanihan spirit in the community. In fact, he said, the retirement homes of the rich GK benefactors will not be too big, in keeping with the houses of the poor residents.

"When you create upward mobility, which creates a rippling effect, it will trigger the aspirations of the people to have first world dreams," Meloto said.

Lubis, for his part, is just as proud of the GK families in the reunion village being so disciplined, hard working and dedicated in taking care of the village and the farm. He said the livelihood programs gave the poor residents real hope.

"At the start, they were having difficulties because of very high discipline, the residents canít smoke, drink and gamble. At the start, there were a lot of rejections but after a year, they have decided to reject their vices because deep in their hearts, theyíve seen the hope is in the community," Lubis said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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