MANILA, APRIL 1, 2007 (STAR) By Patricia Esteves - How do rich girls typically spend their free time? They could go clubbing all night or shopping for the latest luxury brands in tony shops or driving around town in their fancy cars.

Perhaps. But this is not the case for 16-year-old Alexandra Amanda Madrigal Eduque of the wealthy and politically prominent Madrigal family.

The high school sophomore at International School and grandniece of well-known philanthropist Doña Chito Madrigal Collantes and niece of Sen. Jamby Madrigal, goes to Baseco, a slum community in Tondo, Manila, in her spare time and helps build homes for the poor through Habitat for Humanity.

With only the family driver accompanying her, Alex sheds off her designer jeans for a simple tee, shorts and rubber shorts, and armed with a hammer, paintbrush and shovel, mixes cement, lays bricks and paints walls like a real laborer.

During lulls, she mingles with the families, talks to them in fluent Tagalog, and plays with the children.

What Alex originally thought to be as a simple school project became her passionate advocacy.

"At the beginning it was a school-assigned project that we all had to go to. But then after that, I fell in love with helping out, I fell in love with Habitat as an organization, I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with what we had to do," she said.

She first helped build homes in Amadeo, Cavite for five days last year and immediately liked it, so she asked her mother if she could help out again. This time, she was assigned to Baseco. There, she became very close to the community.

"The Habitat site closest to my heart – and forever will be – is Baseco. It was here that I have worked the most (in total about a month or more) and here I have created a bond with the people," she said.

Alex spoke enthusiastically of the various developments in Baseco and the different organizations pitching in to improve the community.

"I like Baseco because it shows you a different part of Manila. It’s not the rich Makati or squatter Manila, it’s a developing place. You see the poorest of the poor live there, but you (also) see there is a future because of all the NGOs (helping the community)," she said.

A fire destroyed most shanties in Baseco in early 2004, but through the concerted effort of the government and NGOs, houses were built for the residents.

Alex is also proud of the generous and kind people of Baseco, telling of how they made her feel welcome.

"When I got there, it wasn’t hard settling in. It wasn’t hard getting to know the people because they’re very friendly. I got to know the families; my favorite part of the whole experience is getting to know them and what their life is like on an everyday basis," she added.

Her volunteer work in Baseco opened her eyes to how widespread poverty is in the country, but she realized that despite the sufferings of the poor, their love for family is always present.

"The core value of Filipinos is loving God and the core value of families is being intact. (You) just see the love in the families; it’s the same all around the Philippines and that’s what’s admirable," she said.

For Alex, her sense of fulfillment comes when she sees a house with new walls or another house painted – and yes, the smiles on the faces of the beneficiaries.

"Talagang you sweat, get sunburned and get hurt, especially when you carry the heavy things… or when you drill. Pero at the end of the day, your tiredness just evaporates when you see the houses and the happy families beside them. The joy is incomparable," she said.

"I’ve actually seen (the houses) from scratch to finish… and it’s so fulfilling seeing that you’ve built a home for someone or a family. What I like best, however, is seeing the smiles on the faces of the home partners, and every time I work with them, they become all my friends," she added.

And yes, her most favorite part is playing with the children.

"Sometimes, I bring food for them and I give them cookies or whatever. But I have to make sure that what I give them is pare-pareho (the same) because (when) you don’t give them equal amounts of candies, they will fight. I get to play and have fun with the kids," Alex said.

Alex is glad that she has the support of her whole family, adding that the spirit of volunteerism runs in her roots.

"My family’s 100 percent behind me. I guess it runs in our family to give back like my lola has a foundation somewhat related to Habitat which is in Bicol naman. They build houses for the poor, they have microfinance, they send (children to) schools. The passion to give back is there in our family," she said.

Alex said this is going to be her lifelong advocacy, a promise to Habitat that she will do everything in her capacity to help the poor have homes of their own.

"As I told Habitat before, yes, after college… I want to do something. I’ve sworn to help Habitat for as long as I can because I really like the way their organization works. When I go to college, there’ll be a break but I’ll always come back and help once in a while. But as much as I can later, I want to promote Habitat and make sure it’s known and to build more houses for the people," she said.

She remains optimistic that poverty in Baseco will be alleviated. "I think we still have hope because when you go there, you see (it) as a developing place, you see it as a hopeful place because (there are) NGOs like Habitat and Gawad Kalinga… If more NGOs like Habitat put up more houses, there’s a lot you can do to help ease poverty," she said.

"They don’t give the houses for free, they actually have ‘sweat equity’ houses so the people actually work to gain their houses. And I think if more people get themselves involved, (share) a bit of their time (with) Habitat or any NGO, we’re gonna be able to help the poor," she said.

For Alex, all it takes to rise above poverty is hard work and the determination to change.

"I think Gandhi said (there should be) change. If people just keep complaining and not do anything… if they want to change, (they should) do something. Not only the Baseco people, but the poor people in general, (they should not) lose hope because at the end of the day, if (they) just sit in the corner and not do anything, then obviously, nothing’s gonna happen," she said.

"The more you try, the harder (you) work, the brighter (your) future will be… My mom told me when I was younger that if (I) don’t work hard, (I) would not get anywhere and I think that is a universal thing," she added.

Alex also wants to encourage other teenagers to volunteer and make a difference in other people’s lives.

"I live a normal teenage life, go to parties and malls, but in my spare time, I help. Instead of sleeping or bumming around in the house, I do something naman to help others and give back to the community. I come from a fortunate enough family that provides me with more than just (my) basic need. So why can’t you give them your time?… Even the small things like boosting their self-esteem make a big difference," she said.

Meanwhile, the City of Manila, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, the Habitat for Humanity and all its donors turned over 1,000 homes to the residents of the Baseco Bagong Buhay Village in Barangay 649, Port Area yesterday.

The Baseco area allocated to Habitat, about 15 hectares of swampy land, was subdivided into about 2,800 lots where now stand row houses of eight units each (with an area of 18 square meters).

The houses have steel frames with fiber cement board walls and galvanized aluminum roofing for better heat insulation, plus complete basic plumbing and electrical systems.

With Habitat’s vision of taking urban housing development to the next level, Baseco residents now have simple, decent, durable and affordable homes built using high-quality technology.

The residents can derive livelihood through a commercial center, establish and grow friendships at the Angelo King Foundation Community Center, and deepen their spirituality at a worship center.

Habitat also built a strip of two-story commercial/residential units for partners with home-based micro enterprises. This main street will be named the ING Plaza, where 200 units built with the support of ING Bank now stand.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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