Poverty taught me the necessity and value of education. The limitations that come with it propelled me to dream, and dream big for my self, my family and for others.
It was not easy to be the youngest in a family of eight siblings.
Growing up in Mindanao, in a remote and mountainous barangay, in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay, I experienced, at a young age the realities and complexities of life, I thought I was too fragile then to handle.
But I did not hate being poor. In fact, now I realized it was necessary.
Perhaps the most astounding of all is not the fact that I climbed out of poverty, but how I was able to beat the odds and escape from the shackles of virtual penury.
Generosity of other people
Looking back, part of me is still in disbelief, and in absolute awe. I could not have overcome the hurdles in my life by merely relying on my own capacity. Reflecting on my past, I remember the selfless people who carried me through difficult times and somehow made my life a little easier.
When I was in elementary, because my miner-parents moved from one location to another, some of my siblings and I had to live with relatives and even with families not related to us so we could keep going to school.
When going to school meant skipping a meal and walking 10 kilometers a day, down a beaten path, where I saw mountains as border bullies placed between my limitations and my greatest potentials, I came home and found solace in a family, not my own, that sheltered me.
In a culture revolving around “me, me, me,” I also found compassion in the hearts of beneficent people.
They were my high school teachers, kind enough to guide me and treat me like their own son.
Ms Anlap, my chemistry teacher, spent countless times with me, sharing her inspiring story, always reminding to never let poverty dispirit me from pursuing my dreams. I saw in her the excitement and anticipation of a mother, eager to see me succeed.
My senior class adviser, Ms Sanoria, who does not have a biological child, yet treated me as her own.
She had a house rented out to students who are from far places like myself. But because she understood my financial situation, she did not mind the times when I was delayed in payments or unable to pay. Instead, she would often invite me in their house to eat with them. Though she was very strict and feared by many students at school, outside the class, she transformed into a loving and gentle mother to me. I remembered her giving me last minute advices while I was packing my things and preparing to leave for college.
Both of them were very proud of me graduating as class valedictorian, despite all the challenges they witnessed themselves and what I had to endure.
After high school, my parents told me not to go to college right away. Finances were the biggest concern. And even if I got a full academic scholarship, I still need money to buy food and spend for school requirements.
I did not heed my parents’ advice and instead went to attend university with the little money I saved from working in the mining area that summer, laboring from dawn to dusk everyday.
I must have disappointed them at that time. But now, I think they are thankful I did not listen to them.
Though college was more challenging, it was not too despairing because of the good people I came across.
I met Marlon and his wife, who was then his girlfriend. They occupied the room next to mine in the boarding house where I stayed. I easily became good friends with them since we came from the same province and belonged to the same church denomination.
Because they probably noticed that I did not eat as often, and as much, they offered to share their “kitchen” with me, even if did not equally pitch-in to the budget. In return, I gladly took care of the house chores and made time tutoring them and their classmates and helping them in their school projects.
Away from my family, I also found a father in Dr. Ong, who mentored me during my college days. Most-feared professor by many students, to me, he was a motivator, full of wisdom, giving generously when I was lacking or in need.
Even after college, when reality became more apparent, and life turned out even harder than it seemed, I survived and overcame obstacles because some people chose to invest their lives on me.
Today I consider myself a success in my own right. Though I am not wealthy, my life is way better than before, all because my faith and hard work were fueled by the support of my family and the generosity of other people.
Everyday I still wake up always thankful to God for sending them to me during crucial moments of my life.
Paying it forward
From having so little, to experiencing living a comfortable life, after working in the United States for nearly five years, my search for a greener pasture was a journey back home.
I decided to come back home in July 2012 and started a business that would champion education for the underprivileged children.
I founded BAG943, a mission-driven business that sells good quality bags and incorporates social responsibility by adhering to a “Buy One Give One” promise through a social arm called Bag of Dreams Project.
For every BAG943 purchased, another bag is given to an impoverished child from its pool of adopted public schools across the country.
Aside from the fact that there is a need to champion education for the impoverished kids, founding BAG943 was also personal to me.
While in Mindanao for a vacation in 2011, I saw a school kid walking in a rice paddy dike carrying a plastic bag with his school stuff inside. He walked toward me and suddenly my heart started to race against frozen time. A flashback of my life started playing. The past looked me in the eye.
The memory of the times when I had to ask for a free plastic bag from a nearby sari-sari (retail) store to put my things in became vivid.
I had been a regular face in the store because the plastic bag ripped almost every day. Having a plastic bag for a school bag felt awkward for a little kid.
I was in 4th grade when I received my very first decent bag, a gift from a distant relative. It wasn’t new, but it made me see things in a brand new light. Receiving that bag made me realize that while I was in the midst of an almost forgotten village, someone was actually thinking about me. It made me feel like someone made an investment in me so it empowered me to do better in school.
Because someone believed in me, I started believing in myself. Having a school bag like my classmates gave me the confidence to dream the kind of dreams that they have, or maybe bigger.
The right thing to do
We live in an age where there is not so much faith and hope felt around us. Where we seem to care less, or not care at all. Not because there is no hope, but because we’ve given up on it.
The problem about poverty in our country is the perception that it cannot be changed, that we can’t do something about it.
I figured that my story is not just a story about a poor kid overcoming obstacles in life. It’s a testament on how powerful an act of generosity is, on how far it can take someone, and what values it can create.
What I am doing right now is a product of what people did for me. If I am able to give, it is because I had been given.
I believe that in order to transform Philippines into a better nation, we need to be citizens who look after the welfare of those who have less opportunity in life. It is the right thing to do.
In a culture of generosity, we teach the value of selflessness, of giving more and taking less.
In a culture of generosity, hope is our universal language, and dreams ceased to become a monopoly of the few.
Every act of generosity transforms a heart. And every time we die to ourselves in our giving, a seed of goodness blossoms in the heart of others.
The reality that the boy I saw in Mindanao was just one among thousands, perhaps millions, made me realize that I had to do something bigger than myself. If change happened to me, it could happen to many other poor children out there who have dreams too. And I don’t have to look too far to believe it is possible.
To give back with what I have, and with what I can, is my sincerest way of thanking those people who invested in my life. And I hope I come across not as a person who succeeded, but as a message that will inspire children to go for their dreams, and challenge many of us to care more for this generation and the generations to come.