Gawad Kalinga Builds Homes and Lives for the Poor

Baseco Before Gawad Kalinga and the Great Fire

Before Gawad Kalinga intervened, the mere mention of the name Baseco Compound makes outsiders shiver down their spines. With a population of roughly 6,061 families, Baseco Compound, simply called Baseco, was used to be known for its rampant crimes and felons. Such is the past reputation of Baseco that some taxi drivers still refuse to take fares there, afraid of what might happen to them should they venture into the violent, crime ridden neighborhood. It was a typical ghetto environment common in urban poor areas in the Metro. To add insult to injury, the compound was a few meters away from the prestigious Manila Hotel (literally at the back) famous for its accommodating tourists and travelers.

Baseco, located in the City of Manila’s port area in Tondo, became even more known to the public when national news media networks documented the frenzy of illegal human kidney trade that was happening in the compound a few years back. “They never became well-off anyway,” said Rose Garlan, 47, and a Gawad Kalinga volunteer, referring to those who sold human organs to the black market. “Someone sold an organ, but the proceeds from which were used to buy jewelries and a vehicle.”

“There was a decrease in the selling of organs before, but now it’s almost non-existent.” Garlan said. “During those days, the residents just don’t care about their neighbors. Everyone’s making his or her own decision.”

This Hobbesian image of life being nasty, brutish and short characterized the way the residents’ of Baseco used to live.

Rosalinda Tecling, a 33 year-old community leader, explained that the compound used to be the dumpsite of corpses. The reasons for the deaths ranged from business-related killings to personal and even political ones. But most of the time, and since it became a common occurrence in the area, it somehow made the residents numb to such incidents. “There were summary executions, people were murdered and their bodies were dumped just about everywhere,” Tecling said.

Dark alleys and the possibility of being murdered were not the only things that concerned Baseco’s residents. Even the basic amenities human beings deserve were far beyond their reach. Arlinda Mitran of Kaisa Village had a very vivid experience.

“We had electricity problems, we can’t access clean and potable water, we don’t have decent toilets and that’s because everything, as we’ve said, was floating. We were like on a flying saucer.” Mitran said. “My God! We have a house, but its floating! “One of my children fell into the sea of trash one time.”

As if the absence of basic amenities and getting murdered were not enough, even simple walking to and from the residents’ homes were a toil that posed a threat to their life and limb. “Before, we used to walk along a narrow wooden bridge and we would get our feet wet in murky water,” said Danilo Mission, a 58 year-old truck driver and a father of 8 children. “You can’t cross to the other side if you won’t take a boat to ferry you.”

“The good thing now is that we have paved concrete roads. We feel more serene now and we have presentable homes. No more crossing across rivers, no more waves.”

Jun Valbueana, Gawad Kalinga’s Baseco Project Director (he was Coordinator at the time of the interview), doesn’t even know where to start the success story of the compound. “I’m not sure how to describe to you the fire,” Valbuena said. “Perhaps you can just look at that,” Valbuena pointing to the huge framed photograph that was hanging on Gawad Kalinga Baseco’s office.

Looking at the photograph, it was literally a picture of ashes and a series of burned wood that stretched for miles. Also in the photograph were figures of men, women and children staring at what used to be their homes. Nothing was left. All was razed to the ground.

“It became the mission of Gawad Kalinga to bring hope to this people,” Valbuena said. “It’s more than building homes for the fire victims. The houses were just the beginning. It was more of giving their life back to them.”

Gawad Kalinga and the Rebuilding Process

Even before the fire that destroyed Baseco compound in its entirety, Gawad Kalinga (roughly translates “to give care”) was already actively engaging in extending assistance to urban poor communities. In 1995, the Catholic-Christian charismatic group, Couples for Christ (CFC), led by Antonio “Tony” Meloto, through ANCOP Foundation International, initiated its work with the poor in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City. It was the biggest slum area in Metro Manila. It was there where the first youth camp for juvenile delinquents was conducted. There were 127 gang members who participated in the seminar. The organizers, noting the success of the said youth camp, have decided that they want to do more.

From 1996 to 1999, social engineering began in Bagong Silang. The organizers provided training and education for gang members and worked with their families in community beautification. It was there that the first Gawad Kalinga house was built for the Adduru family. By 2000, Gawad Kalinga Awards was launched in which 11 teams pioneered the first GK village outside Bagong Silang. Shelter, child and youth development and health programs were started. Now, Gawad Kalinga is being implemented in almost 1,700 communities in the Philippines and in other developing countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

On January 11, 2004, GK was invited to help rehabilitate the Baseco compound. “When Gawad Kalinga first arrived here, no one would believe it. The residents said it’s too good to be true. They also said that the Gawad Kalinga leadership was just doing it because it was election season,” Garlan said. “But eventually the volunteers grew in number.”

Basilica Jaravece, 43, was nostalgic of the size of her house before the fire. “I work for the Department of Public Works and Highways. Each time I come here, I always say, ‘this is too small’,” Jaravece said. “The house where we used to live in can accommodate four people. But my perception changed and I began to appreciate Gawad Kalinga’s housing when my family and I got evicted.”

Trainings and Seminars

Together with building and maintaining shelters are the trainings and seminars Gawad Kalinga officers and volunteers facilitate. Believing that giving hope to shelter beneficiaries does not end when the final brick was laid, the trainings and seminars were intended to address the residents’ economic and spiritual needs. Livelihood trainings were designed while value-formation talks based on Catholic social teachings and catechism were assembled.

The trainings and seminars were anchored on Gawad Kalinga values that can be summed up into three overarching principles: (1) Bayanihan, which is a Filipino trait of becoming a hero to each other (from the Filipino word “bayani” which means hero) – it hinges on a caretaker system centered on relational building; (2) Padugo, which roughly translates “to bleed for the cause.” This means that one devotes his/her own time and resources to initiate work within the community without expecting outside funding or support; and (3) Patriotism in Action in which working for the poor is equivalent to nation-building. It is part of the CFC’s initiative to encourage multi-sector participation and partnerships in eliminating poverty.

“Before Gawad Kalinga, parents would simply brush aside God. No one knows how to pray. But when Gawad Kalinga came, we learned how to pray to God,” Corpin said. “The values formation seminars include both parents and children. Even the grandchildren are included.”

According to John Mark Geruela, 18, a SIGA (Gawad Kalinga Youth Organization) volunteer, they have regular assemblies that gather interested youth in the compound. It was there that camaraderie and friendships develop. It is in these assemblies that GK value-formation take place.

“We talk about so many things in the seminars,” Geruela said. “We share our experiences and topics vary from our relationship with our parents to how we should properly relate to others.”

But just like their elders who were suspicious of Gawad Kalinga’s intentions after the fire, it was also difficult for some youth members to become fully involved. One example is Gladys Gitalada, 16, another SIGA member. “I found it really corny at first. I even asked myself, ‘what have I gotten myself into?'” she said. That’s why I didn’t immediately become active in SIGA. But occasionally I attended meetings then.”

A Vital Change

Although saying that “change is inevitable” is cliche, change through participation is differently experienced by each member. Take the case of Ruth, not her real name, a community organizer and speaker for Gawad Kalinga Baseco. I have decided to keep her real identity anonymous because of this information.

“I used to be an active member of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). In fact, a liquidation order was issued against me when I left the movement. My area of responsibility then was at Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila (Tondo, historically, is the roughest part of Metro Manila in terms of poverty and crime incidence). That’s why I’m very familiar with the ins and outs of Tondo,” Ruth said. “My purpose then was to infiltrate Basic Christian Communities in the churches of Tondo. I also became active in the Gabriela movement (leftist women’s organization a now a Party-list representative in the Philippine House of Representatives) and very active in the Pro-Choice movement. The issues concerning women are very important to me. It became my advocacy to make women understand their rights. But all that changed.”

She described to us what she went through before finding herself volunteering for GK projects and activities. After getting disillusioned with leftist ideals, she searched for meaning and claimed she found it in Gawad Kalinga.

I became disillusioned because of the corruption within the movement. That’s why there was a liquidation order issued against me. I found out about it,” Ruth said. “They thought I was a Deep Penetrating Agent of the military. Imagine, we’re supposed to spread the idea of equality, but you’ll find individuals in the movement who are taking advantage of others.”

When asked what was the most important thing she learned in all her experiences. She became very emotional. “I saw that the hardest journey in life is the distance between the heart and the mind. Here in GK, everyone, including parents, are also encouraged to encounter change. Change is inherent in every culture,” she said. “Take for example the concept of ‘bahala na,’ (loosely translated as fatalistic passiveness) it was rooted from the ancestral Tagalog ‘Bathala na (Bathala is the primitive name of God of the Tagalogs prior the spread of Christianity in the archipelago).’ If you think about it, you might think it has a negative connotation. But the truth is, early Filipinos are in fact offering themselves to their God.”

Gawad Kalinga, from the words of its volunteers, sees the poor as helpless, not hopeless.