MANILA, JULY 5, 2009
(STAR) PEOPLE By Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - ‘Poverty is our enemy, along with all the evils that cause it.’ — Tony Meloto, founder, Gawad Kalinga

‘You give a man hope when you give him a roof over his head. And when he has hope, he feels he can do anything, even find a job.’ — LRay Villafuerte, governor, Camarines Sur

BOSTON — In this city where the early stirrings in the fight for US independence were felt (think Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere), and where a Filipino freedom fighter in exile forged a conviction to return home on Aug. 21, 1983, an organized army of Philippine patriots sought to win for their country what a century of political independence did not. They launched a revolution to free their country from poverty, an oppressor with an army so brutal.

It was in the Greater Boston Area, in the midst of June, not far from hallowed halls of Harvard, that Gawad Kalinga (GK) launched its GK 2024 template for poverty eradication, which aims to give homes to five million of the Philippines’ poorest by 2024. It is a revolution because it aims to overthrow an oppressor. When that happens, GK founder Tony Meloto believes the Philippines will be unshackled from Third World status.

The Philippines will be truly free.

[PHOTO AT LEFT -Philippine-American Friendship Day A man raises the Philippine and American flags to mark Philippine-American Friendship Day yesterday at an exhibit in Taguig City featuring the flags of different countries. Jonjon Vicencio]

Over 700 Filipino-Americans, Filipinos and foreign donors converged at the Marriot Cambridge here from June 12 (Independence Day) to 14 for the first GK Global Summit, bringing together a powerful force: from Vice President Noli de Castro to the winner of a $170-million US lotto jackpot (a Pinoy couple who intends to sponsor a village in the Philippines); from Camarines Sur Gov. LRay Villafuerte to Dolly Pangan-Specht, a corporate wife from Oregon who helped build a GK village in CamSur and spent over $2,000 of her own money just to attend the GK Summit; from Taguig Mayor Freddie Tinga to the long-lost former Agriculture Secretary Cito Lorenzo (now a US-based GK advisor); from Makati Mayor Jojo Binay to American Keith Peterson, president of Saladmaster International (whose company built a GK Village in Iloilo).

For De Castro, Villafuerte, Binay, Tinga and the other Filipino officials present, it was to further commit the powers of their office to support GK. For the Pinoy couple who hit the lotto jackpot (they asked to remain anonymous) and Pangan-Specht, it was a desire to give back to the land of their birth. Be it one village or one house.

For big corporations like PLDT-Smart (represented by Butch Meily), Ayala Corp. (represented by Gerry Ablaza) and Pilipinas Shell (represented by Ed Chua), it was a reaffirmation of support for GK’s troops.

For all, it was a desire to celebrate another Independence Day for the Philippines. Sooner, not later.

“We have discovered in GK that there are enough closet heroes in this world, just waiting to come out once there is a great cause that they can believe in,” says Meloto. When I asked him at summit’s end, as we walked through the tree-shaded Harvard campus, how much money was raised at the summit, he said, “We raised partnerships, not just money.”

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Meloto believes in “show and tell,” rather than just “preach,” which he said he would rather leave to priests. Those he invited to speak at the summit, which he chose to be in a city renowned for its history and wealth of learning institutions, embodied his “show and tell” principle.

GK’s “Exhibit A” was the 41-year-old Villafuerte, whose province has the most number of GK villages in the country — one for each of its 35 towns and two cities. CamSur, the Philippines’ 39th poorest province before Villafuerte was elected governor, is now its 10th richest. It has also been declared by GK as its first Designer Province, with the first GK Bed and Breakfast Inn with a magnificent view of Mt. Iriga. Villafuerte hopes the Inn will attract tourists who want to be part of the GK builds. Who knows — cause-oriented celebs like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie might just want to check in to dramatize support for the movement that has built over 2,000 communities for the poor in the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and even Papua New Guinea.

In an interview as we took a stroll on the pathways of the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Villafuerte revealed how he made his province home to the most number of GK homes (4,500 as of this year and counting). The CamSur provincial government bought several tracts of land through the Landbank when Meloto offered the province funds and volunteers (including Oregon housewife Dolly Pangan-Specht who met LRay for the first time during the summit) to help build GK homes, costing some P80,000 each. Through this Landbanking scheme, Villafuerte has allocated 12,000 homelots for GK.

Seizing the opportunity to build homes for the frequently typhoon-hit province, Villafuerte cut red tape and improved infrastructure near the GK sites. He noticed some beneficiaries did not show up for the build, and learned it was because if they absented themselves from work, they would have not have food for the day. The governor, a TOYM awardee like his father and namesake, thus promised to feed those who put in hours to build their new home. He believes in going all the way to help the poor. Villafuerte is also building the first GK village for a group of Aetas who told him they were already tired of their nomadic lifestyle.

The importance of a home was also emphasized by Binay, who said the Filipino word for home, tahanan, comes from the words, tahan na, which means, “hush now, my dear child.”

To build homes for thousands of squatters from Makati, the city government partnered with GK and bought land in Bulacan for their resettlement. GK took on project management and the Makati private sector raised P11 million to build the 480 homes. Binay called the housing project, “Dreamland.”

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For his part, Taguig’s Tinga said that since his city had the fastest growth rate in the country, the migration rate was going to be equally fast. Because of the construction boom, Taguig saw an onslaught of workers who moved their families with them to the city.

He raised P15 million from The Fort’s A-Listers to build 15 GK villages for Taguig’s poorest, with US Ambassador Kristie Kenney physically helping out in one of the builds. To date, 700 families benefited from the partnership. If CamSur is GK’s designer province, Taguig is GK’s designer city.

The poor, from CamSur to Sulu, from Taguig to Iloilo, who now have homes, thanks to GK, have become the ground troops for our new battle for Philippine Independence.

From the ground, it looks like victory is near.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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