Waking up at four in the morning on a Saturday is never easy, but somehow I managed to get out of bed, arriving just in time at the parking lot by Gate 1. Everything was still dark, and I barely spotted the group of around twenty waiting by the stairs, backpacks in hand. I heard the sound of animated conversation, and apparently a lack of sleep wasn’t enough to stop most of the students who had arrived from making jokes and telling stories. I quickly found some familiar faces, and after settling in and telling some stories of my own, I suddenly didn’t feel as tired.
All of us, students and teachers alike, had decided to join Xavier School’s first visit to the Gawad Kalinga site in Nueva Ecija. For those unfamiliar with the organization, Gawad Kalinga is a local non-profit organization that builds homes for the various homeless and marginalized groups in the Philippines.
Our group was going to visit St. Joseph’s Village in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, an Ateneo-sponsored Gawad Kalinga site, joining a special build that was being held in honor of St. Ignatius just a few days before his feast day. The schools that were joining the build included Ateneo de Manila, Miriam College, Soochow University (all the way from Taiwan), and of course, Xavier School. All of us were united in the spirit of St. Ignatius, and when I say that, I mean that all of our legs felt like they had been hit by cannonballs by the time the build was over.
After a long drive and many stories, we arrived at the Gawad Kalinga site. A small stage had been prepared for the initial program, along with seats for the residents. As the various schools were introduced, we began with a prayer and some words of welcome from Fr. Ben Nebres, SJ and Prof. Hofilena from the Ateneo.
As part of the Filipino tradition of culture, joy, and karaoke, we were all taught the Unity Dance. Enthusiastic, the residents and some representatives from each school led us through the motions, and I attempted to follow them—I admit I got lost somewhere between the part where they moved their hands up and down.
After the dancing, the hard work began. To distribute the load, we were divided into groups, mixed with people from all the schools and a group of GK volunteers who had arrived from Pampanga to help out. The groups were each assigned building tasks, which included painting houses, fetching water, moving hollow blocks, lifting sand, mixing cement, and walking barefoot through mud and dirt while carrying narra tree saplings for transfer and planting. Some were tasked to take care and prepare activities for the children. I passed hollow blocks and sand.
Assigned to the “human chain” for transferring cement and sand from point A to point B, it was hot and I got tired quickly. However, I kept going through a spirit of love, generosity, and passion for Christ. Also, passing hollow blocks turned out to be surprisingly interesting—various strange woodland creatures actually live on the hollow blocks! Some hollow blocks were crawling with ants; others harbored small beetles or cockroaches, which had made their homes in exactly the wrong places. But the biological diversity of the hollow block biome gets better! I distinctly remember passing a particularly heavy hollow block to a Xavier teacher. Once he took it from me, a rat jumped out from inside the hollow block, scurrying into the rice fields beyond. After that, even the strongest of us handled the hollow blocks with care, fearing what horrors they might contain inside.
After the sweaty and tiring work of passing hollow blocks and buckets of sand, I found myself walking to a second job: pouring cement onto the floor of a house to even it out. The buckets of cement were passed from the middle of the building site itself to a new house, which was under construction. The floor still wasn’t complete, and bits of rock and gravel were sticking out from the soil. In the house, a foreman guided me as I poured newly mixed cement onto the floor, passed to me in buckets by other Xaverians who had formed a chain inside the house. It was tough work, but, to our joy, the room was cool because the roof of the house was already finished. We worked together there until one of the Xaverians offered a group of Atenean girls our very comfortable spot, and we all stepped up and acted like gentlemen, walking back out into the heat of the Philippine sun.
Because chivalry is apparently very tiring, I walked over to the nearby sari-sari store looking for something to help with the heat. So I tried that Cobra energy drink thing for the first time—it tastes like cough syrup mixed with sugar mixed with soda water. Of course, it was amazing.
As the morning came to a close, all of us gathered together for lunch. Lunch was an absolute feast: rice, adobo, salted egg, and chicharon, all gathered on a banana leaf, meant to be eaten by hand. Utensils and friendships were both set aside as Xaverians, Ateneans, and Taiwanese alike began their assault on the food. Personally, I went for the chicharon, hoarding as much as I could before anyone else could take away what was rightfully mine. Also, there was soup in styro cups spread throughout the table.
The afternoon was filled with even more highlights as we formed friendships with our fellow volunteers, heard stories from the residents, and worked despite our tired arms and tired legs, subsisting on a diet of sari-sari store delicacies and fizzy drinks.
I learned a valuable lesson from the afternoon build—I cannot handle a wheelbarrow. Earlier in the day, I had seen many of the stronger Xaverians effortlessly bringing wheelbarrows of sand back and forth without breaking a sweat. Foolishly, I thought I could do the same (I average about one hour of exercise a month, and I have the same body frame as a stick insect), so I brought the empty wheelbarrow to one of the piles of sand and watched as the other volunteers shoveled dirt and dust into it. Watching the pile build, I said “more” about five more times than I should have. After it had been filled almost to the brim, I grabbed the wheelbarrow by its handle, then I heaved and pushed and shoved—and moved about two meters. The entire time, I had my batch mate Mark help me by “balancing the wheelbarrow,” but he was really there in case I suddenly experienced extreme muscle failure and needed immediate assistance (and subsequent resuscitation). Thanks to him, I was able to cart three wheelbarrows of sand. Proud of my achievement, I passed the wheelbarrow to Alfred. But my joy was only temporary. I watched, ashamed, as Alfred took the wheelbarrow and easily wheeled another mound of sand to the pile in about 30 seconds, all by himself.
When my well-deserved rest was finished, my group was assigned to a new task: interacting with the kids who lived in the village. Laughing, they greeted us and asked us for our names, and their energy was contagious; despite the hard labor I had just finished, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit less tired. The kids were given a sheet of paper and a crayon and were told to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were a few pilots, some policemen, and even a piece of paper with the words “Gusto ko maging enjeneer” scrawled on the top in purple crayon. That drew a smile from my face. The kids took a few pictures with us, marveled at the sight of the Taiwanese visitors, and Alfred even managed to carry some on his back despite all the work he had done before. Worn out, I sat down on one of the tables and watched as some of the children conversed with Juano and Monty while others played around with Alfred and Mark.
Soon, the day was coming to a close, and I would have to say goodbye to the residents of St. Joseph’s village along with our fellow volunteers from Ateneo, Miriam, and Soochow, but there was one surprise left for our group as we got ready to go. A fire truck drove into the village and a hose was wheeled out for what was to be the greatest shower of my life. We all ran into the spray of water, and there were even sachets of shampoo passed around as our shirts and pants got soaked. A couple of us attempted to hug Ms. Ventosa (she respectfully declined our offers).
We got dry, changed into our extra clothes, and said goodbye to friends met and made as we filed into the coaster headed back to Xavier School. The GK build was done, the work was finished, and the sun set in the background (well, okay, it was raining, but I prefer remembering it that way). The way back home was a long drive, and EDSA was full of traffic due to the Iglesia ni Cristo celebration being held in the area. All of us were exhausted beyond belief. Our arms and legs were tired, but our hearts were not.