MESSAGE: A Culture of Selfless Service

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(Message of Vice President Leni Robredo delivered at the launch of Angat Buhay and Xavier University Social Development Week Celebration at Xavier University / Ateneo de Cagayan on 20 February 2017

It feels so good to be back in Mindanao, particularly in Cagayan de Oro, and most especially in Xavier University. My husband and my adult children were all educated in Ateneo. My youngest, Jillian, is still in Philippine Science High School, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes to Ateneo, too.

My family and I admire Xavier’s culture of selfless service, something that resonates well with our own family values. If one truly embraces the Ignatian values and tradition of cura personalis, magis, and contemplative action, embracing a culture of selfless service especially to the marginalized and disenfranchised is not a struggle. It is an exciting, fulfilling goal.

I am impressed that each Xavierian is exposed to serving the poor at a young age because learning in this university is not limited to the four corners of the classroom.

Vice President Leni Robredo delivers her message at the launch of Angat Buhay and Xavier University Social Development Week Celebration at Xavier University / Ateneo de Cagayan on 20 February 2017. OVP Photo

Through Service Learning Programs, students get to apply the skills and knowledge they learn in school to create their own footprint of transformation in communities where the need is greatest. I believe that when the youth is immersed in an educational system like yours, they are taught that the world is bigger than themselves.

They are trained to be aware of the urgent needs of people around them. And they are coached in collaborating and engaging others to walk with them in this journey of transformative change.

This is not just an excellent strategy for educating our young. It is critical in building our nation. In today’s polarized society, where the values of empathy, dignity, integrity, and liberty are constantly being eroded, teaching our young to be inclusive envelopes them in courage and hope.

It allows them to experience first-hand that people deserve respect, rather than disdain. That the good will always triumph over the bad. Next to our homes, it is in universities and schools where these are best taught.

Examples of your students’ selfless service already show this: in Miarayon, a mountainous IP barangay in Talakag, Bukidnon, your Biology students have been conducting dengue awareness trainings among barangay health workers. Your Agriculture students are teaching farmers how to wash, slice, and handle carrots properly so they can be sold at a higher value. Your Engineering students are already exploring the creation of water systems to improve irrigation and domestic supply of water.

Let’s take some time to acknowledge the hard work of both teachers and students who have made this happen. Please stand up if you are here.

There are so many more examples, proving that Xavier University is our best partner in helping create transformative change here in Mindanao. We are seeing beautiful transformations in the 50 LGUs Angat Buhay has adopted, and I cannot wait to see those meaningful changes happening here.

For instance, in Miarayon, we can partner in supporting nursing students as they provide first aid training for simple ailments like stomach aches, colds, and fever. Business students can explore ways to help farmers market, package, and develop coffee-based products. I heard that Miarayon’s coffee is better than that of Starbucks!

We will also look at the hunger situation in these communities, making sure that the silent crisis of hunger, malnutrition, and irreversible stunting among Filipino children are lessened. We will bring in the models of development that have worked in Naga City, like the zero-hunger program we copied from an international-award-winning program in Brazil. Through this model, government feeding programs buy produce from local farmers, solving the problem of hunger and stunting among children, and poverty among farmers at the same time.

We will also study how to connect farmers to companies like Jollibee and Nestle, which buy onions and other agricultural products directly from progressive and transparent communities.

These are approaches that have worked in other areas and proven internationally, but when we work with communities, we don’t impose these approaches. We listen with empathy and ask powerful questions first. We have found that the most powerful solutions come from the people themselves—ensuring that there is no shortage of transformative solutions.

There are so many ideas in creating societal transformation—enough to envelope all of us in courage and hope.

This is how we roll out Angat Buhay. As you learned from our AVP, Angat Buhay is a program that the Office of the Vice President has designed, to bring about collaborative change and empowering transformation in some of the poorest and most remote places in the country.

Through much consultation, we have chosen 50 local government units to become the pilot areas for this project. We have chosen them not just because the need is great in the places where their people dwell, but also because of their leaders’ transparent and accountable leadership. We are focusing on six areas: food security and nutrition, universal health care, rural development, education, women empowerment, and housing.

Since the OVP does not have much resources, we are linking them with development partners who will provide the resources. Trust, not funding, is our common currency.

Angat Buhay is the crystallization of our commitment, to bring the concerns of those in the margins of society at the forefront of nation building. The Office of the Vice President traditionally is mostly filled with ceremonial duties, receiving foreign dignitaries, representing the country in some events, etcetera. But I do not see myself doing these for six long years.

You see, I was also exposed to a culture of service early in my life because of the teachings in my family and also in Universidad de Santa Isabel, where I studied. This was perhaps what drove me to be a lawyer for the poor, serving where the need is greatest, even if it meant walking long distances on foot, tricycle, or bancas. Even if it meant sleeping on boats or makeshift huts.

So when I assumed office, the first thing we did was reinvent our office to make it more advocacy-heavy. We immediately set to work. Our search for meaningful transformations brought us to places like Agutaya, a far-flung, 5th class community in Northern Palawan with a 12,000 population. You have to take a ten-hour grueling boat ride from Coron just to reach its shores. Agutaya has no electricity, and access to safe, potable water is still a problem.

During the height of Typhoon Yolanda, their only school building was destroyed – leaving many children with not enough classrooms to use, even up to this day.

When my team and I went to Agutaya two months ago, some of the locals were on the verge of tears. We were told later on that it was the first time that a national government official visited their area.

While walking around, we noticed that the Grade 5 students were as small as the Grade 1 students. Those children were stunted and would never get better. Stunting is an irreversible condition. We left Agutaya with broken hearts, but we went home with determined spirits. We promised ourselves that we will be back with help.

There are many more places like Agutaya and some of them are right here around us, here in Mindanao. Alam po ninyo, this land and its people are dear to me and Jesse. As a lawyer for the poor for several decades, I’ve done much work helping Sumilao farmers get their land. And Jesse, through his work in Synergeia Foundation as well as his stint in DILG, has been in many corners of Mindanao training Mayors, school administrators, and many others in good governance. We both believe that the progress of Mindanao is critical to our success as a nation.

With our partnership with Xavier University, we can reach more Agutayas here in Mindanao.

But more importantly, we will have more citizens involved in the work of transformative change where it matters most.

And the best citizens to partner with are Xavierians, who share with us this culture of excellence and selfless service.

Thank you from the deepest parts of my heart.

For all that you do, and for all that you are.

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