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New homes, new life for ‘Yolanda’ survivors

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SAFE HOMES Once an empty lot in Maricaban, Santa Fe, on Bantayan Island, the village is now a bustling community where flowers and vegetables grow, pets freely roam and residents carry on with their livelihood in safe, sturdy shelters. PHOTOS BY TARRA QUISMUNDO

SAFE HOMES Once an empty lot in Maricaban, Santa Fe, on Bantayan Island, the village is now a bustling community where flowers and vegetables grow, pets freely roam and residents carry on with their livelihood in safe, sturdy shelters. PHOTOS BY TARRA QUISMUNDO

SANTA FE, Bantayan Island—The doors are decorated with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Colorful flowers and vegetables are growing on carefully laid-out lawns. Dogs roam free, friendly even to strangers.

Makeshift hoops mark the end of still unnamed streets, not yet paved but not an inconvenience. At the center of the village, a Christmas tree made of recycled water bottles remain, a cheery memory of the past holiday party, the community’s first ever.

What was once a lifeless parcel of land full of grass and sharp rocks in Barangay Maricaban here is now a community of survivors raring to move on—the first batch of new homeowners in a multiyear housing program of the Prudence Foundation, the charity arm of Prudential Corp. Asia (PCA), for residents rendered homeless by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) in 2013.

The rising community is what a second chance looks like. By any measure, it is what recovery is supposed to be.

“I am thankful because you cannot just get a house like this,” said homemaker Norma Layling, beaming as she showed her family home, the front of which is modestly landscaped with a variety of plants hedged with large seashells.

Her neighbor Beverlyn Vergara could only be thankful that her family had finally found safe shelter.

“We are very happy. We feel safe here and my children no longer get sick, unlike before when we were living near the sea after the typhoon, where they were always exposed to the dirt in the sand,” said  Vergara, a mother of four.

Leonarda Esparcia’s water-refilling business is now back to busy, with her family settled in their new home. She also gets to sell some of her harvest from a small vegetable nursery she put up across her house, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, okra and upo (bottle gourd).

“We are now comfortable in our house and we are able to do business selling water again. When our house was destroyed by the typhoon, our business suffered,” Esparcia said.

For most Maricaban residents, it’s the first time to have sturdy shelter and proper utility services.

“It’s the first time for them to have concrete houses, to have light and water. And [last December], it was their first time to have their own Christmas party,” said retired Gen. Carlos Holganza, Habitat for Humanity chief operations officer for the Visayas and Palawan.

Habitat has been Prudence Foundation’s partner for its housing project since 2014.

A total of 64 families moved into new 30-square-meter, disaster-resilient and solar-powered houses in September last year, pulled out of ramshackle shanties they’ve had to endure in the wake of the typhoon.

The houses comprised half of Prudence Foundation’s $2-million housing pledge for Bantayan Island, a heavily devastated area that the charity chose for its postdisaster outreach after it noted tepid recovery assistance to the severely affected municipalities.

NEW HOME Beverlyn Vergara, who lost her house to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013, poses with three of her four children in their new home, one of 64 built for families who lost their homes during the typhoon.

NEW HOME Beverlyn Vergara, who lost her house to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013, poses with three of her four children in their new home, one of 64 built for families who lost their homes during the typhoon.

Promise and commitment

Committed to see the project through, the Prudential, which operates as Pru Life UK in the Philippines, returned to the island over the past week with 83 volunteers from 13 Asian countries.

Their mission was to kickstart the construction of 62 more houses, this time on a site in Bantayan town, about 15 minutes away from the Maricaban village.

“We see it through. We sell life insurance, which is a promise and a commitment. You know in life insurance, you can’t lie. When you promise a 30-year premium, in 30 years’ time you gotta pay it back. When we promised we’re going to build houses, we will build those houses,” said Marc Fancy, Prudence Foundation’s executive director.

As they started to build on the new site, the volunteers—some returning to the island for the second or third time—got the chance to see the new Santa Fe village, witnessing firsthand the impact their hard work had made on the lives of the island’s families.

“It’s very lovely … to come back with some of the volunteers who have been there before, and also just the new volunteers, to see now the community take shape,” said Fancy, who led the Pru group on a visit to Maricaban on Thursday.

“It’s not just giving a house. It’s like starting a new community. And they’re really looking after the place … [T]hese are people who do not have similar means to everyone else. And for them to sort of get back on their feet and also sort of give them a sense of pride,” noted Fancy.

It was an emotional return for Jasmit Briar, an actuary director at PCA’s regional headquarters in Hong Kong, who was in the second volunteer round in September 2014.

“I work as an actuary, and while Prudential does great work, my job is quite distant from the front line. I sit in an office, in front of a computer, crunching numbers, but to come out here and make a direct impact … It makes me feel like I did something good,” Briar added.

‘Tangible impact’

For one who spends long hours doing paperwork in the office, Briar said the experience was a rare opportunity to do work that makes “a tangible impact on people’s lives.

“We have so much. I mean, only because I was lucky to be born in a family that, you know had means, I got a good education, [I can] travel the world, but then to come and see people who have so little yet still are so happy and content … I don’t think there are words for that. It’s just an amazing feeling,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter if we ache now. I’m going back to a job where I just need my fingers. I can sit in a comfy chair after this. It’s OK,” she said.

Third-timer Justin Chang, regional program manager at the foundation, shared the view, noting the contrast between his day job and the weeklong construction work on the island.

“[B]eing able to see the development of Maricaban is just so inspiring and powerful for us as a foundation. Because it’s most important that we provide our funds to those who really need it,” Chang said.

Indonesia’s Muhammad Perdana, a first-timer, had no problem with the backbreaking work under the stifling heat despite fasting for Ramadan. He cannot eat or drink until 6 p.m. every day, until July 5.

“It’s a little bit hot, but I can do it because I’m happy to help. I’m really so glad to help the community. It’s fine with me,” said Perdana, an insurance agents trainer.

The volunteer program has been a nourishing experience both for the individual participants and the company as a whole, foundation executives said.

“There’s a very human, nourishing [experience], you know volunteering sounds like it’s one-way. It’s definitely not one-way,” said Fancy.

“[I]t puts life into perspective. You take things for granted … Your opportunity to sometimes be exposed to what the rest of life is like is quite limited.  And these things give an opportunity for people to see that and actually experience it, and … you realize that people who don’t have a lot, they still get through, they’re still so happy, they still plow on,” he said.

The experience also allows employees “to see that the company is not just about money, that there are other things that we care about,” Fancy said.

For Chang, the volunteer program has been an exercise in teamwork, one that is healthy for the global firm’s growth.

“By working together, we can actually move mounds of limestone, literally move piles of bricks that, if you looked at it by yourself, you’d be like, ‘no way can I do that,’” Chang said.

“But when you work together as a team, we actually see the result. So you can transfer that back to the workplace,” he said. TVJ

 

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