‘Tulong Bubong’: Making poor widows happy with new roofs


MAITUM, Sarangani (MindaNews / 9 March) – A group of widows, some in their twilight years, is helping build better lives, spreading happiness and inspiration to poor women in this bucolic coastal town.

Members of the Merry Widows Society that was organized in 2019 in General Santos City pose for a souvenir shot. Photo courtesy of RUE RIVERA-RAMAS

Since October, the Merry Widows Society, a group composed of over 50 women from different walks of life, has been bringing cheers and hope to poor households in far-flung communities here through their “Tulong Bubong” (Give a Roof) project.

The project has so far benefited at least 40 “poorest of the poor” beneficiaries who are themselves widowed, separated or abandoned by their husbands. The group also prioritizes families of female senior citizens who are very poor.

Rue Rivera-Ramas, founding president of Merry Widows, told MindaNews in a phone interview that they formed the group to show that old widows can still play a relevant role in society.

“When you are old and widowed, sometimes there’s that feeling of uselessness, like you are a trash. Some people even laugh at you,” she said. “We organized ourselves to be relevant, to still be a force to be reckoned with in our society.”

Rivera-Ramas, 73, said the benefactors of the “Tulong Bubong” project have been donating P2,000 for each beneficiary for the purchase of six pieces of tin sheets and a kilo of nails.

“We tell our friends that P2,000 is just one dining out for two or three persons. What about sacrificing one fine dining and helping the poorest of the poor? When you help others, you feel good inside,” she stressed.

“If you see the photos of their houses and their status in life, you will be moved to tears,” Rivera-Ramas said.

The Merry Widows makes sure that the beneficiaries deserve the project, through an ocular inspection of their volunteer here, Elizabeth Ramos, a retired local government employee.

“It is heartwarming when you see them truly appreciating the help they’re provided with,” Ramas told MindaNews during a site visit on Feb. 24.

One of the beneficiaries of Merry Widows is Gelyn Ungat, a member of the ethnic T’boli tribe.

Gelyn Ungat and her five children live in this house whose roof was repaired through the help of the Merry Widows Society. Photographed 24 February 2021 by BONG S. SARMIENTO / MindaNews

In the last few years, she has been single-handedly bringing up her five children after her husband abandoned them.

Unschooled due to poverty, the 38-year-old mother has been toiling as a farm worker to bring food to their table in a small house made of light materials.

If Ungat does not work, she won’t get paid. If she does, for instance as a corn harvester, her wage was so meager – P25 per sack that she can fill with corn. With her skinny frame, she admitted all she could manage is only five sacks, meaning an earning of only P125 a day.

“I use that to pay our debt at the neighborhood sari-sari (mom-and-pop) store. After I pay, I would ask the owner for another credit,” Ungat said in the vernacular. “I don’t earn enough to fend for the family.”

Sometimes, she would unashamedly ask her relatives for either rice, sugar or coffee to tide her family over for some days.

Her second child Terence, 12, by his own volition, has been helping her bring food to the table. Instead of playing, the Grade 7 student spends his free time as a farmhand in a nearby coconut plantation. He can bring home P500 for three weeks of helping in the farm, to help buy food and other essentials for the family.

“I’m sacrificing to help our mother so I can contribute in buying rice for the family,” he said in the vernacular.

Four of Ungat’s five children are taking modular classes due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Due to extreme poverty, she noted that they mostly eat twice a day only – usually subsisting on gabi (taro), kangkong or banana that are aplenty in their community called the Perret T’boli Village in Barangay Kalaong here.

“If we have noodles and canned sardines paired with rice, that’s already a luxury,” Ungat told MindaNews during the site visit.

With an income not enough to provide adequately for the needs of her children, she could not even allocate money to repair their house’s tattered roof.

With the help of neighbors, Gelyn Ungat (shown with son Terrence) installed the new roof of their house made of light materials. Photographed 24 February 2021 by BONG S. SARMIENTO / MindaNews

During rainy nights for years, the family members would be awakened by leaks that they have to wait until the downpour would stop so they could sleep again. They have been plugging the leaks with plastics and cartons that they got somewhere, or with banana leaves, but all these were for naught and did not last with the recurring rains.

Fortunately, the Merry Widows heard the plight of the Ungat family and came to their rescue – giving them spanking new tin sheets and nails to replace their broken roof. As their counterpart, the beneficiaries will have to install their new roofs.

“I am really very happy that we were given a new roof. Now we can sleep without interruption even if there’s rain,” she said.

When asked what help her family might need, Ungat replied: “It’s up to the good heart of those who want to help us.”

Several politicians wanted to donate but the Merry Widows shunned them to avoid tainting the Tulong Bubong project with politics, according to Rivera-Ramas.

She assured the give a roof project of the Merry Widows here will continue, but without setting the number of target beneficiaries, as many of their friends offered their willingness to help.

“When you put roofs over the head of these poor people, they feel empowered. It inspires and uplifts their spirits to do more and face the challenges of life fair and square,” Rivera-Ramas said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)