6 young Filipinos making a difference in their communities

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In a time when the narrative is dominated by the futility of resistance, here are six stories of hope that prove otherwise. Illustrations by GICA TAM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It seems that we are living in trying times. If the calculations are accurate, we only have 50 years to live before climate change takes the human race — that is, if we don’t pick sides and eliminate each other before then.

However, alongside these grim reports are stories of people pushing back, often noticeably led by the youth. We have student activists questioning our politicians’ agenda, youth turning up to to take climate change strikes, and young people running for office to push for their communities’ needs.

In a time when the narrative is dominated by the futility of resistance, young people badly need stories of hope that prove otherwise. It then seems apt for us to likewise look around us today and recognize Filipinos who are trying to change narratives in their own circles of influence, one conversation and one step at a time.

Below, we list six young Filipino leaders (who are still considered "millennials') who show that the need for new heroes to step up remains. It should be noted that these are just a handful of the many Filipinos dedicated to making changes in health, development, and conservation.

Illustration by GICA TAM

Michael De la Peña, 27, youth leader for health at Heads up PH and Positive Youth Development Network

For people who know Mikee De la Peña, they know him as a guy who brings out the “mutya” in others. A mentor at heart, this NGO worker’s talent lies in bringing out the potential in other young leaders in the health sector.

In 2014, De la Peña started working with Ideas Positive (IP), the Philippines’ premier youth engagement program for health. He is currently working as the Assistant Program Manager of Heads Up PH, a mental health program focusing on building mentally healthier communities, and is the Director for Communications and Partnership at Positive Youth Development Network.

“[My work] requires me to believe and defend the fundamental belief that every youth’s idea is worth the try,” he says. Together with his IP and Heads Up PH teammates, De la Peña works with the youth in all regions of the country. This is where his talent comes in — through the program, he relishes in transforming passive, apathetic young people into empowered leaders who are taking charge in changing the health narratives of their communities.

Today, De la Peña is proud that their team has engaged over 200,000 youth leaders who then reached over 2.4 million Filipinos nationwide. He cites Project High Five, implemented by Team Dugong Bughaw in Iloilo City, which united 10 rival universities to champion HIV prevention programs in the province and launched the largest youth-led movement to address HIV in Visayas. Second on his list is a project in Basilan which successfully addressed insurgency by: building adequate restrooms and providing livelihood improvement. Lastly, he cites a team in Rizal that addressed high cases of teenage pregnancy through house-to-house campaigning and health systems strengthening.

But the road hasn’t always been easy. “In the early 2000s, when a young person presents an idea to address a public health issue, people around the table would smirk and say ‘let’s leave this job to the doctors,’” De la Peña reminisces. He was inspired to pursue his advocacy because of an experience of their Project Lead, Alfred Dicto. “When an outbreak of diarrhea in a municipality in Iloilo occurred, he presented an idea, which the people sitting around the table back then refused to accept because of his young age. Then it turned out that this idea saved the lives of over a hundred children after implementation.”

De la Peña and his team are happy that government agencies such as the Department of Health, DILG, CHED, NYC, DepEd and even international organizations now give more importance and believe in the power of young people to make a difference.

True to form, De la Peña describes heroism through the “mutya” of young leaders he works with. This includes John Carlo Borja and the YouthForVaccinesSaveLives Movement, which is saving the lives of children from the deadly complications of measles, and young mechatronics engineer Jefferson Hilario, who is addressing mental health needs in schools under the Heads Up PH program.

For De la Peña, combating apathy and despair can be done by giving young people something to hope for — that through collective action, we can usher in a better and healthier world. But in order to foster hope, spaces should be built where hope can flourish and be encouraged, which is where De la Peña sees himself.

“Without hope, there will be no heroes,” he says. “But hope should be coupled by safe and conducive youth-friendly programs and platforms. Our leaders should do their best in helping the youth translate their hope into real outcomes — this is where heroes are born.”

Illustration by GICA TAM

Debbie Bartolo, 25, community organizer at Likha Initiative

Community organizing is a difficult path, especially for young people who are trying to carve a life for themselves. But for Debbie Bartolo, choosing this path was never a story about herself.

The 25-year-old community organizer works with the urban poor of Sitio Anahaw, Alabang and helps with their zero-waste project. Currently, she is the founder of Likha Initiative, a volunteer-led program advocating for zero-waste policies in major cities in the Philippines.

On a quarterly basis, Bartolo and her team conduct environmental arts workshops for the kids and group discussion with mothers on issues of waste management, entrepreneurship, and organizational development for the Sitio Anahaw Homeowners Association.

When Likha Initiative started out, they began in an excess lot where a community was situated near a junk shop. However, due to legal issues and threats by the junk shop, given their promotion of zero-waste practices, Bartolo decided to lie low. This was when she then stumbled upon Sitio Anahaw, an informal settlement on Laguna de Bay for more than 2,000 individuals residing on bamboo house stilts. It is considered a disaster-prone area which is made even worse by increasing numbers of waterlilies.

“The local government focal on environment asked me why Likha is still operating on Sitio Anahaw when no one, [not] even them, dared to so,” she shares. “I only smiled because I know deep in my heart I made the right choice on journeying hand in hand with this community.”

Bartolo is wary of claiming accomplishments for herself, as she believes that what they have journeyed so far as a group will not be possible if the mothers or the children did not welcome them with open arms. Likewise, she also draws support from organizations such as UrbanisMO, British School of Manila, Samahan ng mga Nagkakaisang Pamilya ng Pantawid, and Pure Ocean.

Bartolo also points to the people in the community she works with. “The mothers of Sitio Anahaw that tirelessly fight life so their children will be able to dream, the kids who never failed to give a smile and hearty laugh whenever we meet despite having all the reasons to question the living conditions where they are in, and the volunteers who never asked what's in it for them if they help — [they] are life's real heroes.”

Illustration by GICA TAM

Jessa Garibay, 28, and Karina May Reyes-Antonio, 33, conservationists at Centre for Sustainability PH, Inc.

At a time when climate change is threatening to destroy our ecosystems, conservation work is needed more than ever. Some of those doing this work are Karina May Reyes-Antonio and Jessa Garibay, Co-Executive Directors and Co-Founders of the Centre for Sustainability PH, Inc. (CS) a women-led conservation NGO based in Puerto Princesa City established in 2016. Their two flagship projects include the declaration of the Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat (CNCH), the biggest of its designation in the country, and the “Saving the Almaciga Project,” the first ever seed-based propagation of this species in the PH.

Currently, they work closely with seven communities in Puerto Princesa City alongside the Indigenous Peoples community of the Batak Tribe (a vanishing indigenous group of about 200 families left). Through work that “comes from communities for communities to communities,” Garibay and Reyes-Antonio incorporate local knowledge and practices in their work to ensure long-term sustainability. Their work involves not only conservation but also livelihood and education on the interconnectedness of human security and healthy ecosystems.

For the pair, conservation can only be done through immersing oneself with the community. “In conservation work, it will always be a winning feeling when people are involved not because they feel obliged to, but because they see that they have key roles to play in stewardship of land and the species that thrive in it,” Garibay says.

For Garibay who is a born-and-raised Palaweña, it made sense to begin conservation in her own backyard. “Palawan is such an amazing place to be, and it is only but fair to give back to my Bayan that has given me so much — a childhood in nature with the backdrop of the mountains and the crystal clear seas,” she shares. “Who would have thought that Puerto Princesa’s highest peak that I get to see growing up would be worth many years of lobbying, research and community organizing of my career!”

Illustration by GICA TAM

Montana Amir Cheng Dominguez, 29, Doctor to the Barrio

“I am not a hero and the toiling masses are not helpless.”

In an impassioned online post, Montana Dominguez shares her story as a Doctor to the Barrio (DTTB) serving in Talaingod, an indigenous peoples community (Ata-Manobos) located at the northern part of Davao Region. She tells of the plight of her assigned area of service — landless, roadless, service-less, and hopeless; a place where the Lumads are painted as “lazy” despite their hard work.

DTTB is a two-year program of the DOH to aid in the augmentation in the scarcity of physicians, especially in the rural doctorless municipalities. As a DTTB, Dominguez’s job is to be the head of the office as municipal health officer and only physician in the whole municipality. Dominguez shares that being a DTTB is a humbling experience as she witnessed the daily struggle of her fellow Lumad brothers and sisters, and that she considers it an honor to take care of them and help them in her own little ways as a physician.

One of the challenges of being head of office is pleasing the office's staff, especially those who are older. Eventually, Dominguez was able to create good relationships with the majority of her co-health workers. “I learned to shrug off cold shoulders from some because I believed I was in the right path in servicing those who needed me,” she shares. “I learned to find a silver lining and courage to make the necessary steps in achieving my goal — to make health more accessible to the people — through working together with the people who share the same idealism.”

Dominguez recognizes that becoming a DTTB is not the usual path for doctors in the Philippines. She believes that heroism still lives among young men & women who are doing big and small things everyday in creating a just society that is free from all forms of discrimination. For Dominguez, this translates to trying to continue making health services more accessible to the most vulnerable communities in the country.

Illustration by GICA TAM

John Paul Ecarma Maunes, 35, PWD rights champion at Philippine Accessibility for Disability Services

If you find yourself working with the PWD sector, you can be sure to hear of JP Maunes being a champion in this space. For more than 10 years now, this multi-awarded advocate has volunteered in all areas where he may mainstream the inclusion of PWDs in all aspects of society — advancing Filipino Sign Language (FSL), pushing for anti-discrimination ordinances in his hometown of Cebu, PWD participation and access to sports, mentoring NGOs and working with the PNP to combat sexual abuse of the deaf, partnering with ABS-CBN to promote deaf-friendly newscasts, and forming humanitarian response team for the PWDs affected during Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

Today, Maunes is the Founder and Executive Director of Philippine Accessibility for Disability Services (PADS), a non-profit NGO where concerned individuals and institutions can work together to promote the rights and issues of the deaf and PWDs. He credits his journey to his deaf best friend, Peter Paul, who taught him the basics of sign language and the culture of the deaf community. When Peter Paul passed away 12 years ago in an accident, Maunes shifted from nursing to becoming involved in community development work with the deaf community.

Maunes also believes in the PWDs right to participate in sports. This led him to establish the PADS Adaptive Dragonboat Racing Team, the country’s first ever cross-disability dragon boat team that recently won the Philippines’ first gold medal and back-to-back championship titles at the 2017 and 2018 International Paradragon Championships held at the Hong Kong International Dragonboat Carnival, Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong.

PADS also won as one of the Ten Accomplished Youth Organization Awards for its impact on developing youth with disabilities through adaptive sports and recreational rehabilitation this Jan. 20, 2019.

This Aug. 20 to 25, 2019, the PADS Adaptive Dragonboat Racing Team competed as part of the Philippine Team in the 14th International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) World Dragon Boat Championships-Paradragon Division in Pattaya, Thailand. The team snatched the first Paradragon world championship title winning four gold medals and a world record as the first champion in the paradragon division. Through the development of adaptive sports, Maunes says that they have personified their vision of a disability-inclusive society. “All our hard work paid off. Our PWD paddlers have gained the respect they deserve,” Maunes says.