Puerto Princesa, Palawan:It began as an informal open-air meet during a coffee break at the Asia 21 Summit in Gurgaon – India, in November 2011. The winners of the Asia Society Asia 21 Public Service Award, Roots of Health, had travelled from Palawan in the Philippines, to receive their award and meet the Class of 2011 fellows. Selected after a comprehensive elimination process by the 2011 fellows class and Asia 21, RoH (Ugat ng Kalusugan in Filipino), a reproductive health NGO focused on improving the health of women and girls and their communities, came out tops. Mother-daughter duo Susan Evangelista - deputy director and founder RoH and Amina (Ami) Evangelista Swanepoel – founding executive director RoH, Michael G Kulma - executive director of Global Leadership Initiatives at Asia Society, and class fellows discussed various ways to take the initiative forward. Though fellows based on their professional backgrounds and proficiencies could share expertise individually, a joint effort and in-kind help would be beneficial to the PSA winner, so a visit to the RoH facility in Palawan, the Philippines, was proposed. With fellows based in over 10 countries and with diverse professional backgrounds, varying schedules and time constraints, there were many obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, the seeds were sown; after the summit, the discussions continued online for months.
The unflagging enthusiasm of Mun Ching Yap, persistence of Jamie Choi and regular inputs from class fellows and Ami, ensured that a plan took shape. The dates May 24-27, 2012 were set aside for a visit to the RoH facility in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Fellows charted a plan for optimal use of skill-sets to fulfill the PSAs larger aims – not just a felicitation and a cash award for the organisation in question but how best to use the collective expertise of the fellows group to give the award value. The challenge was to translate the know-how, networks and resources of the fellows group into developing training and strategic-planning agendas for RoH.
Fellows Jamie Choi (campaign director Avaaz.org), Adam Gilmore (division chief engineer Space Shuttle Program NASA), Mun Ching Yap (founder Broadsheet Communications), Rabi Karmacharya (executive director Open Learning Exchange Network), Arief Koesoemawiria (founder and director Suar Intermuda), Martin Tan (founder RiverLife Community Services and Halogen Foundation), Dr Bryan Lim (research Associate University of the Philippines and house Physician San Pablo Doctors’ Hospital) and Vinita A Shetty (journalist and documentary producer), committed to the visit. Mike Kulma of Asia Society joined in as well. This was a first of sorts for Asia 21 – never before had such a large group of fellows embarked on a visit to meet a PSA winner in their home country, and aid them through a hands-on resource and capacities sharing exercise.
On May 24, a sunny Puerto Princesa Thursday, fellows came in from as far as the US, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and as near as Manila. Daphne, Martin Tan’s wife accompanied him on the trip. Ami, Susan and Marcus Swanepoel (media and program director of Roots of Health and Ami’s husband), met the group at the Oro Bonito Place Hotel, where they had checked in. The plan for the next two days – the 25th and 26th of May – was set and included visits to community sites, meetings with locals who were beneficiaries of RoH initiatives, interactions with staff and daily sessions set aside for strategic planning and training etc. The 2011 fellows’ group moniker is Namastasians – an amalgam of Namaste-Asia (Welcome Asia), and from the time the group met for the very first time at the Fellows Summit in Siem Reap Cambodia, the mission to better each trip in every way, has been a tough one. In true Namastasia style, we signed off on day one with lots of laughs, memories of our last trip to Dharamshala to meet the Dalai Lama and for some of us, our very first taste of Sisig.
RoH provides holistic community services to three communities in Puerto Princesa: Pulang Lupa, Unang Lahi, and Little Tondo. Friday began early with a visit to the RoH office on the North Highway, San Jose, where we met staffers Lyn-Lyn Paliza, Joyce Yacas, Daisy Ellorquez, May Arzaga, Mariefe Portuguesa, Belle Cortezano and Wayne Socrates. Staffer Shirene Saban was on maternity leave. About an hour’s drive away from the RoH office, the first stop was Unang Lahi, one of the two communities we visited that day. At Unang Lahi, the RoH team conducted activities, which included monitoring of infant growth and nutrition, providing counseling to new and expectant mothers, distributing nutrient-rich food to children and parents and discussing reproductive health with mothers. For the fellows, it was a chance to interact with the rural community, discuss problem areas with RoH staffers and ways to improve education services.
At Pulang Lupa – Red Earth, so called as it is an area near the Puerto Princesa landfill, which is former mercury mine, more women and children were waiting patiently for RoH. There are multiple health hazards in the area – soil and air are still contaminated with mercury, and homes are in close proximity to the landfill. Here, staffers conducted modules on health and nutrition for women, young mothers, and discussed matters pertaining to female reproductive health. For children, art and playtime activities ensured no one was ignored. Fellows sat in on training modules, discussed the efficacy of outreach programs and discussed issues including income generation, the Reproductive Health Bill, infant mortality rates and whether men in the community were cooperative. Here too, as part of the RoH nutritional support initiative, mothers and children were given a wholesome meal, something they say, they are not used to having often. Marcus took the fellows on a visit to a flourishing Vertical Garden, which is considered a model for the community. For a minimal fee, RoH leases vertical gardens to families so they can grow vegetables for their own consumption a big bonus was playing with the children and hearing anecdotes from Susan about people’s initial reactions to RoH years ago. In addition to comprehensive reproductive health-aid community programs families in their community sites, RoH also works with young people currently at Palawan State University, Santa Lourdes High School and Santa Monica Elementary School. After a hearty local lunch, it was time for Martin’s session on leadership, at Marcus and Ami’s lovely home.
Saturday saw the day begin at the Swanepoel home with fellows and the RoH staff tuned in to Adam’s session on Strategic planning, Rabi and Mun Ching’s session on Marketing and Fundraising, Bryan’s session on Monitoring and Evaluation and end with Arief’s session on Programming. The sessions were at their interactive best; staffers asking questions, giving suggestions and talking about difficulties they faced in the field. Many were thrilled that the fellows had made time for them and put aside their busy schedules to visit RoH. While there are plans for expanding into other communities and strengthening the RoH network, the biggest challenge they face is the sheer number of communities that need their services. Ami said, “We are a relatively small organization and do not currently have the capacity to work in a bigger number of communities and schools simultaneously. Being a non-profit, we have to work hard to find funds for our work. Reproductive Health can be a controversial topic for some, and this has somewhat limited our capacity to do local fundraising in the Philippines. She added that she was extremely honoured to have been chosen for the Asia 21 Public Service Award and was particularly excited about being able to tap into the expertise of the Fellows. “It was amazing to have the Fellows here with us in Palawan to help us think through our strategic planning, marketing and fundraising plans. The Fellows all have such varied skills and experiences and it was great to get so many different perspectives and more information to help strengthen our programming and our organization.” Once the training was over, it was time to unwind with Joyce teaching fellows a few steps of a not-so-easy Palawan dance and then for goodbyes. Our hosts ended the day on a high note with a sumptuous dinner at Ka Lui and a fabulous night of local music at Katabom with a not-so-eager Jamie being forced to sing with the band.
For most fellows, this was their first visit to Puerto Princesa – that meant time-out spent together, savouring local food, enjoying balmy fun-filled evenings and catching up. It also meant the group trying out their talents at Karaoke – with superstars Martin, Adam, Jamie and Mike – shopping at local markets, being in awe of Rabi, Adam and Mun Ching’s dance moves and getting Arief and Bryan to sing solos. On Sunday, the fellows group packed into tricycles and headed to Microtel in San Jose Palawan for discussions related to Asia 21 and the upcoming summit for the year. Being Mike’s “annibirthary”, deliberations were brief and to the point and then it was time to head to the resort’s Emerald beach with its white sands and azure blue waters. A few days later, back in our respective countries we had memories of a lifetime to cherish.
Salamat Po RoH!