In a league of her own

Cagdianao, Province of Dinagat Islands – Some stories seem to begin in earnest only when these are about to end. This was something Meryl Grace Torbeles, 30, could certainly attest to, as it was only later that she realized the magnitude of the work she put into volunteering for the anti-poverty project Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-CIDSS). She confessed that had she known what she was getting herself into, she would have said no in the beginning.

A holder of a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Meryl was accustomed to making lesson plans and keeping her students abreast with new information. Nonetheless, she never had the chance to practice her profession, sacrificing a teaching career in exchange for a happy, married life eight years ago. 

In spite of her lack of practical experience in teaching, her degree still put her at a key position in her community. As one of the few college-educated people in one of the remotest villages in Caraga, it came as no surprise to Meryl when the community unanimously voted her not only to have one seat in the volunteers’ group but three positions in the local Kalahi-CIDSS implementation in their area.

“I didn’t know that volunteering for our barangay could go a long way in erecting a P3.2-million-peso-cable bridge in less than two months,” Meryl said, still amazed at the only biggest hanging infrastructure their village has ever seen.

Also serving as one of the barangay’s attractions, the hanging cable bridge stands as a symbol of the Kalahi-CIDSS volunteers’ hard work.  Villagers could now easily cross to the next sitio without having to worry of getting wet ever since the sub-project was turned over to the local government unit of Brgy. Boa.

For Meryl, however, the bridge reminds her of sleepless nights polishing their sub-project proposal as chairperson of the project preparation team (PPT), sharpening her communication skills as she served as the bids and awards committee (BAC) chairperson, and being thankful for being tight-fisted because it came very handy in performing duties as the treasurer of the operation and maintenance (O&M) group.

Lahi gayud ang Kalahi-CIDSS (Kalahi-CIDSS is really unique). The tasks given to me were quite daunting. Realizing our dream of a bridge lies in the hands of the volunteers’ group or the barangay sub-project management committee (BSPMC), where I held three positions,” she recounted.

She remembered a time when one misinformed construction worker, also a constituent in the barangay, protested the financial mechanism of the project. He believed that the money was used fraudulently, due in part to the strategy that the majority of the community came up with to expedite the implementation, wherein a fraction of the salary of the workers was deducted for their in-kind contribution since they were earning.

At that moment, Meryl could have stepped down and unburden herself of the responsibilities, but she knew better. She asked the barangay captain to call for a special assembly to solve the grievance. As a teacher, she already had this in the bag. Sure enough,  the problem was resolved in less than an hour. At that point, she realized just what kind of power was given to her. She held the three positions because she had the knowledge and the perseverance to lead the group.

“Volunteerism is difficult. We are not paid and yet they expect a lot from us. We even work night and day. I thought our sub-project would never really flesh out and that would have been disappointing, but at the end of the day, we are still very grateful of the knowledge imparted to us through the trainings we received,” she continued

The bridge connecting two sitios in the village has now made it possible for goods to be transferred, for students to have an easier time getting to and from school, and for basic social services to be delivered.

With Brgy.  Boa in its second year of implementing Kalahi-CIDSS, Meryl is still working as a Project volunteer, attending municipal orientations and assemblies, and helping in monitoring even though their barangay wasn’t prioritized to avail of another project grant. As she said, “The infrastructure is just really the icing on the cake. It is the learning that one gets from his or her need to seek knowledge and aid in development that matter the most.” 

Nowadays, waking up at six in the morning has become a habit of Meryl. She enjoys the view of children marching across the hanging bridge for their first class of the day,  even as the first few rays of the sun kiss the dewdrops on the bridge’s rails.

“Nothing compares that experience. As a mother, seeing your child have the gusto and anticipation for school is pure happiness. The thought of contributing that happiness to all children in this village makes me feel fulfilled,” Meryl shared.

When asked again if she would have stood by her “no” in taking the same positions in the implementation for the next three years, she smiled and responded, “I’d do it over and over again.”