“Aleanna, mag digamo ka na kan on bisan ga sinako ta sang hilimoson diri!” my mama yelled from below. 

I had just climbed our bamboo stairs after having played with the other children in our neighborhood. I didn’t mind cooking the rice. Classes were always suspended when we expected a storm and I was home, glad for a day off from letters and numbers.

I was ten when Yolanda hit our coastal town of Carles, in Iloilo, that November 8 of 2013. Three days before, we had reviewed and practiced the tried and tested disaster drill that even we children already knew by heart. As I watched my papa, Alejandro Pancho; mama, Aybe Pancho; and the rest of my family and neighbors go through the emergency exercises, I was convinced that this would be another wasted effort. Nothing unexpected was going to happen.

Typhoons have always come and gone our way so that, towards the latter part of the year, hearing endless rain pounding on our thatched roof is never anything out of the ordinary. We hail the rush and whirl of wind when it comes. It is a welcome change from the scorching heat that is our lot for the better part of the year. And the day after every storm, we simply look upon the flooding and a few felled trees with a certain calm and resignation. We have after all always endured, and survived.

The clouds were a threatening gray and the wind was unusually cold that day. Tiyoy Jonie had not gone out to sea since he and his fellow fishermen had put their bancas to shelter. They could have gone fishing one more time. But they instead sat around waiting for something that was going to be, I thought, nothing as usual. As I looked out the window, I could see that the sea was beginning to get rough, though it was normal at that time of year. I could sense the changing of tides, young though I was, the sea being so much a part of my life. Then the wind began to blow steadily, and giant waves began to form. 

I saw Manang Nilda rush down from her house to get some rope, similar to what my Tiyoy Jonie used for his fishing nets. With the help of her family, she tied down the roof and secured the walls of their home. Suddenly, I sensed that something different was up. I saw it in the worried faces of the grownups and heard it in the frantic rise and fall of their voices as they barked orders at each other. 

Then, in a flash, I found everyone huddled beside me, frightened by the sound of Yolanda’s howling winds felling trees and the alarming thuds on the ground that seemed to be getting closer as tree trunks hit the ground. We had just grabbed our pillows to put them over our heads when the typhoon, with just one mighty gust of wind, blew our roof away. 

Ari ko sa dalom sang hulogasan!” I heard Manang Nilda cry out as if from very far away. I wondered if hiding under her kitchen sink was a good idea.

I tried to imagine my grandmother, Lola Elsie, who lived with my crippled aunt, Tiyay Jael, in a house so dangerously close to the sea. Since her birth, one of my tiyay’s arms and both her legs had never moved. In my mind, there was no way they could have survived. I imagined them utterly helpless before the relentless pummeling from nature. And as objects flew and fell on us, all I could think of was death. 

I will never forget what the violence of the accompanying storm surge created. The destruction when we ventured out much later, stunned and homeless, was visible from everywhere. Our timber and bamboo homes were all sucked into the sea. Concrete structures were torn apart. The eerie sight of everything that used to be upright lying scattered on the ground made us, who were lucky to be alive, realize that we had lost everything.

With winds recorded at 318 kilometers per hour at Yolanda’s height, the extent of the destruction was no wonder. Trees and electric posts lay on fragmented roads and shattered bridges, preventing any assistance from getting to us. The local first responders placed on alert were themselves survivors of the devastation. I understood from the desperate faces of my elders that we were completely isolated. With no electricity, connection to the outside was suddenly nonexistent. Our community was promptly and completely cut off from the world. I remember drinking whatever water we could find. And, packed like sardines, we camped in a house where I was forced to sleep in the bathroom. There was no place else to squeeze my small body into. I can now understand the desperation that I only felt at that time.

A few days later, wonder and joy briefly displaced gloom when Lola Elsie miraculously appeared with Tiyay Jael. We listened in disbelief as they recounted their ordeal. For three hours, when waves as high as ten feet raged beneath them, Tiyay Jael had held on with her one good arm to the lone coconut tree still standing, whilst Lola Elsie embraced the tree from behind her. 

For days there was nothing much to eat. But, a week later, the barangay was able to distribute limited food packs that had been fortunately saved from the storm. Tiyoy Jonie, his wife, and five children were finally able to settle themselves into a makeshift tent when the Red Cross finally arrived a month later. That tent, still vivid in my memory, was one of many planted on the ground where our homes once stood.

Fishing was our community’s main source of income. But our boats were reduced to fragments of wood that the tides, for months, washed in and out of our shores. A number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), through the local government unit (LGU), came with much-needed financial support. But there were so many of us in great need of restoring our lives, my papa said. It was then that Manang Nilda, who used to make a living by tirelessly distributing our fish products to the market, thought of forming the Samahan ng Mangingisdang Matatag at Responsabli sa Tarong (SMMART), a group of reliable and responsible fishermen and their families. My parents, together with twenty-five others, decided to join Manang Nilda in SMMART, believing that they as a group would be better equipped to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds they faced in the aftermath of Yolanda.

When the first NGOs who came to our community’s aid started pulling out of Carles five years after Yolanda, we were still far from capable of standing on our own. Terrified at the daunting task before us, there was nevertheless some comfort in knowing that we had each other. But just when we needed encouragement, many in our community, who had easily slipped back into their old reckless ways discouraged Manang Nilda. Aside from the infighting within the group for things that hardly mattered, other members simply left after receiving some benefits. But God, though, knew best, for that was when ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. (ALKFI) arrived with a program.

SMMART members in their fish cage • Source: Partida, R., 2020

ALKFI, through their site specialist, over time helped establish projects that my community had before never thought of—vegetable farming, vermi-composting, allocating areas for fish cages, zoning areas to protect the sea, and fish processing with a working capital. They started us out in agri-business, not only with feeds and seeds, but with lines and fishing nets as well. They provided us with a motorcycle with a sidecar so we could distribute our produce independently. It also helped that government representatives began to be more supportive.

The first two years were the most difficult. There will always be people who will trust no one and circumstances that will sometimes block the path to fulfilling our dreams. Many dampened the enthusiasm that Manang Nilda and my parents felt, convinced that, just like so many other previous foundations and NGOs, ALKFI would eventually leave them or, worse yet, use them for political purposes—once election came, nothing would happen. Some foundations in the past, though sincere in their desire to help, also unknowingly left funds with corrupt officials who simply lined their pockets. My parents sensed the fear of failure and self-questioning that Manang Nilda, as their leader, must have felt but never showed. 

I remember them talking about her courage and dedication one night, after what must have been a long meeting. I was already in bed.

SMMART members holding relief packs from ALKFI • Source: Partida, R., 2020

“Ang kabaskugon sang madamo nagapamatuod nga paagi sa dedekasyon ni Manang Nilda nga wala sang imposible kon ang tanan nagaugyon para  malab-ot ang aton handom.” I sensed admiration in Papa’s voice. He sincerely believed that Manang Nilda’s idea to form a group was proving to be beneficial to all. 

Tuod na kay makita mo sa iya nawong kon ano sia ka insperado kada kit anay naton.” And Mama seemed to agree with him. She also thought that their every meeting inspired Manang Nilda. 

Reynilda Partida, an empowered woman and a leader • Source: Partida, R., 2021

Huo kay nakita ya ang paglaom kag pagtuo sa iya lederato.” Papa explained that it was because Manang Nilda saw how everyone had hope and belief in her as their leader.

Reynilda Partida • Source: Partida, R., 2020

Siguro nakita ya sa kaugalingon kag nabatyagan ya nga sa iya lederato may kauswagan. Sang una makita mo sa iya nawong nga perme sia kapoy subong makita mo sia nga malipayon.” Mama observed that their meetings seemed to renew Manang Nilda’s determination to succeed. Whereas, before, she used to look so tired, she seemed more excited nowadays, an excitement that you could see on her face.

Tiyoy Jonie busy tending his sideline- buying and selling crabs • Source: Partida, R., 2021

Positive things then started to happen. Tiyoy Jonie, who before Yolanda would lazily sit around and dawdle as he languidly drank his coffee in the mornings, was suddenly busy with sidelines that augmented his income. 

ALKFI’s community approach meant engaging the young like me. I was then fifteen when SMMART Youth was formed to inspire awareness and responsibility among the youth. And because my parents were members of SMMART, I joined its youth arm, though I did so reluctantly. Shy, I disliked social gatherings. Certain that whatever was asked of me was beyond what I was capable of, I always had in mind the thought of giving up. It did not help that some people, so immersed in hardship and unable to see any ray of hope in anything, discouraged us from seizing the opportunities that were right in front of us. Their resistance to discard our old ways must have been the spark that lit a new resolve in me. If I had chosen to be swayed by apprehension and fear, how could I ever move forward? 

 ALKFI’s presence in our lives together with the LGU gave us credence. Even the mayor who was previously bent on giving the ALKFI project to another group, according to Manang Nilda, was now on our side. The other members started to see Manang Nilda’s sense of responsibility growing through the years with SMMART, composed not only of women, but also of men. Many believe that she has successfully managed to convince people that helping each other was the only way to better our lives. Our community has witnessed Manang Nilda use the knowledge that she has acquired to help those not only in our community, but the many others outside of it. Her attitude has been that of inclusiveness. My parents have always affirmed that she has gone beyond what is expected of her, concerned about securing licenses and insurance for the fisherfolk, most of whom can neither read nor write. Doing things the legal way has been her consistent goal, and she is constantly encouraging fishermen to acquire the proper documents so they can fish in peace.

SMMART Youth on the other hand is like a house with weak foundations. We shun responsibility. Young and immature, we sometimes just want to have fun. I worry that it could gradually collapse in time. But I am also convinced that what is broken can always be fixed. We must strengthen each portion of our home now, and keep the termites of apathy at bay. We need each other, strong columns of the house, to face the difficulties that come our way. 

SMMART Youth members in action for mangrove planting and coastal clean-up • Source: Partida, R., 2020

My wish is for the seventy-two of us young people to work together for the common good. In the past, we only thought of ourselves, not caring for the things around us. With ALKFI’s precious guidance, we are now slowly learning to think of others. These days, I have come to find value in every tree that I plant. I see trash and am mindful of its environmental consequences, depending on how I dispose of it. It took Yolanda for me to grasp the importance of taking care of the God-given things around us. 

Ever since the forming of our association, things have also improved in our homes. Manang Nilda’s marriage, I heard my mama say, has drastically changed for the better. My parents were close spectators to her transformation. Mama thinks it is because Manang Nilda has found purpose in her life. And I see it, too. Manang Nilda looks content nowadays, and contentment has been contagious. In the process of helping each other, my family has also truly bonded. I have learned to listen and learn from my elders. Burdens have become easier to bear, lighter to carry as we face them together. We needed to believe in ourselves, and ALKFI has been instrumental in building that confidence.

It is morning. I take a sweeping view of the Carles that I call mine. I see lots of green and a seafront full of bancas perfectly lined up on the sand. Tiyoy Jonie is just about to pull his own banca out of the water after his daily fishing jaunt. I recognize Manang Nilda’s familiar, bright-colored headgear from afar. She is busy inspecting the fish cages once again. 

            “Indi na madayon.” That will never come about.

            “Indi mo na masarangan.” You’re not capable of doing that. 

            “Wala na sang pasingadto an.” That will not go anywhere.

The discouraging comments that we constantly heard from skeptics have been reduced to a whisper, just as our doubts of being capable and worthy of these projects have subsided. 

Aleanna with her siblings • Source: Pancho, A.M., 2021

Aleanna finishing her modules • Source: Pancho, A.M., 2021

I suddenly have an image of myself finishing my studies, sending my siblings to school, and building a house for my parents. I dare dream big. I have seen the impossible made possible.