By Marivir R. Montebon
At a fund raiser in the summer of 2011, Merly Barette Barlaan profusely thanked her donors for having shelled out some cash and checks for her school project in her hometown in Carmen, Bohol. “Your money goes a long way. You know a cup of Starbucks coffee, which is about three dollars, is 120 pesos and enough to buy one live chicken. Your four cups of coffee could buy four chickens which is a good start for a family to domesticate and raise their incomes,” she said so sweetly.
“But that sent many into thinking, of course, and pushed the generosity button in them.”
More than a year later, Merly decided to bring all her four children back to the bosom of her home, right smack in the rural mountains of Carmen where the famous Chocolate Hills, to establish her dream…a village of development and peace. Kicking off with a library and learning center, she, along with this writer, a co-dreamer, drafted a 10-year-development plan for community development.
Merly went home to pursue these goals. And voila, before our very eyes, we now see little tots graduating from preschool and sent off to the public schools already able to read and write.
We also see the kids’ families increasing their incomes by making their lands productive with vegetables, and rice, and even flowering plants.
Merly’s message is…it can be done. No traditional politics here, just sheer faith and effort to increase your community’s economic life. The world is at her command, so it seems, with the full support of her husband Mar and her family. Even her work environment (she works in an NGO for the United Nations), has agreed that she will bring her office (made up of laptop and cell phone) to the rural world of Bohol.
OSM! brings up close Merly, in an interview, on how she realized her vision. Excerpts:
1.How is the library and preschool doing one year since their establishment? (how many students hv graduated to elem school?
Merly: The library is doing well and is evolving to a wider role in the community. Since the completion of the bamboo cottage early this year, the LLC name (meaning Library and Learning Center) has changed to LTC (Library and Training Center). We are now capable of accommodating stay-in workshops with capacity of up to 30 participants. In fact, this coming March 18-April 8, 2013, CWaCE LTC will be hosting the 20 American participants for the GPA project to construct a local school cafeteria.
With regards to the Pre-school program, we will be wrapping up our third school year in couple of weeks. Our third batch pre-school graduates will bring our total to 30. All of our graduates have gone on to study in the public elementary schools with high marks and top honor students.
2. Has the community, your home place accepted and supported this development idea? How?
Merly: So far, most of the community members have positive attitudes and are cooperative with me in my endeavors. CWaCE is working in partnership with the PTA, the village school officials and the local government unit on a project to promote good health and optimum educability for the children. CWaCE was able to secure a grant worth $6,000 from the Generation Peace Academy and provide free accommodation for two weeks for their 20 American volunteers to construct a school cafeteria in Montesunting. It’s the first major collaboration mobilizing the parents and the community. I feel that the community is very supportive and proactive. They look forward with excitement to welcome our American donors. It will be the first time that our community can welcome such large number of foreigners.
3. As for the other anti.poverty projects, how far has it gone?
Merly: With the start of program implementation, we currently have 15 families gaining employment from the HOPE program-related projects. The HOPE program has a ten-year development plan. It’s a long term plan. We are just on our third year of implementation – the first three formative years. It’s a very slow process, it’s all about laying foundations, conditioning the environment which means clearing old dormant mindsets and implanting new productive ones. Introducing to the community new sets of values and leadership paradigms so that by the time we reach the completion stage of our development plan, the community and its citizens are empowered to be competitive not just locally but also in the global market.
4. What other aspects of the development program are to be implemented?
Merly: Next year, we will start on product development and packaging, and hopefully by 2016, we can be ready and start on the marketing phase. Our product actually is not just one spot of the village, but the whole village itself and some neighboring villages as an agri/eco tourism destination.
In order to accomplish these goals, I am investing in the youth resources. One project is investing in providing scholarship for 10 high school students who are under-privileged but intellectually-gifted. CWaCE would like to raise these potentials to be the catalyst of a new generation of conscience-driven, incorruptible leaders of the community and country. Another project in progress is our partnership with the academe in educating the educators and the youth on the “Five Principles of Peace” as a way to curb the rate of moral and political corruption.
We are working on a partnership agreement with the International Peace Leadership College (IPLC ), and Bohol Island State University (BISU) to raise awareness and empower students with new leadership paradigms centered on the “Five Principles of Peace”. In October last year, CWaCE launched our signature project called “Nation without Corruption (NWC)”. Its goal is to raise new generation of young leaders who are responsible and incorruptible steward of our country and its resources. We will be partnering with local and international institutions, NGOs to achieve maximum support and reach our end goal. I strongly believe that the teachers have the critical role in implementing and transforming values system in the society. Without adhering to absolute standard and principles, no matter how much material resources we invested, all of our development agendas will just go down the drain.
5. What challenges are there to be dealt with?
Merly: In the beginning, it looked as if the mountains of challenges are as high as the lofty goals. But as we move forward to what I call to “an uphill climb to development”, more and more I can see the general view of the situation. By living with them, the more I get to know and understand by heart the daily struggles of people and the community because I am experiencing it myself with my own children. The quality of life in my village is below the sub standard level.
The UN’s so-called “social protection initiatives” becomes an obscure cry in the wilderness – the concept is not even heard of and does not exist yet in peoples’ consciousness. Even as basic of a need as drinking water supply is a big challenge. Not to mention the muddy and rocky roads – it really looked like a “cursed road to forever” in my own experience.
Having lived half of my life in the US, it’s a major challenge is to understand the mindset of the political leaders and equally challenging to understand is the peoples’ default acceptance of a corrupted system . I cannot, for one reason understand how the mighty, powerful and wealthy government leaders, can be so far detached to the reality of the daily lives and the needs of the people in the villages to the point that they become so powerless in terms of providing solutions to the very basic needs of the communities.
There are no existing laws that protect the interests of the farmers. Prices are very unpredictable. The farmers and their produce are in the mercy of the mercenary-like middlemen. Most of lobbyist would only lobby laws in favor of the interest of urban interests. Having said all that, and knowing that as a NGO, partnership with them is critical in getting things done, I pray every day to have the unconditional love and wisdom to work productively with them.
6. Your children, all born in the USA, are in your hometown and living in the project area. Why is this?
Merly: There are three reasons behind my decision to move my children to my village in Montesunting. By God’s blessing, all of my children were born above-average intellect and keen awareness of their surroundings. With parent’s guidance and support, I believe the American education system would empower them to become the best in whatever fields they want to pursue. However, the Western educational system puts so much weight on the academic side and competiveness in achieving material success. I feel that in order for my children to be wise future leaders, they need to spend some of their childhood years experiencing the other side of the spectrum so that they can have both experience being raised in the values of the Eastern culture. Then they can have a well-balanced approach in dealing and solving their lives’ challenges.
Secondly, I would like them to spend their childhood and grow in the beautiful environment provided by nature. Nature is the best teacher. There are so many things in nature that are not printed and cannot be describe in textbooks. First-hand experiences are priceless. I believe that children who grow up surrounded by nature will grow to become more peaceful and loving adults.
I myself was a farm girl, when I think back of my childhood memories in the farm, playing by the slopes and hillside and flowery meadows, walking everyday to and from school, it gives such nostalgic and therapeutic feeling to my spirit. I would also like my children to have such beautiful memories of their hometown when they grow up. The third and most important reason is that I would like my children to witness, understand and inherit by heart (not just intellectually) the value of the important work that my husband and I have started.
All the investments and labor of love would not mean anything if our second generation cannot inherit and continue with the same degree of love and connectedness. I feel that by seeing and experiencing certain level of difficulties that other children and families in the village are experiencing, when they become adults and choose their passions and professions in life, they will integrate their childhood experiences in deciding who they will be and what role they will play in solving the problems of society.
I would like to pave a way for my children to be able to think and deal with global agendas with local issues in mind. It’s about securing a strong foundation so that our legacy of love and peace can be inherited, practiced, and enjoyed by many more generations to come.