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Special Features | National

Bayani Challenge Day 5: A foreigner wishes there was more of the bayanihan spirit back home

GK volunteers in action in various places for the last Bayani Challenge. PHOTO COURTESY OF GK BAYANI CHALLENGE
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines - Thomas Graham had been in the Philippines for about a month in February last year when he first met Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto.

After trying on different hats after graduating in 2004, working for television and business back in the United Kingdom, teaching English in Argentina, Costa Rica, Spain, and Italy, then writing in Botswana and South Africa, he ended up in the Philippines to do articles for foreign publications.

“They were quite uninspiring, my reports,” said Graham, 31. “I was kind of going through the motions.”

But interviewing Meloto, the man behind the movement that saw Filipinos building houses and entire communities together, was a Eureka moment of sorts.

“Suddenly everything he said kind of really resonated with me. It planted even bigger seeds in my mind as to what I really wanted to be doing and I want(ed) to use my skills to really have a positive beneficial impact on the world as opposed to just using them to further my own personal ambition or for my own wealth.”

He quit his original job and traveled in Indonesia and Thailand for a month to figure out what he wanted to do.

“It was one of those things when you go abroad for a month thinking, ‘I’m gonna clear my mind,’ and you come back with even more questions,” he recalled. The meditation retreat he went on wasn’t much of a help.

Upon returning to the Philippines, he ended up doing volunteer work for the non-government organization, as well as a Spanish NGO and a French microfinance organization. He covered events for World Vision as well, where he got to interview Gloc-9 after a performance.

“Looking back, I think I was probably a bit too BBC,” he said. “And he’d just got off the stage and I was asking all these questions….” The rapper, Graham would later learn, preferred to be interviewed in Filipino.

He was about to leave the country for good in October, when he had a chance to talk to Meloto once more. The older man, who had read some of Graham’s work before, asked him, “Would you like to write a book?”

It was the sequel to Builder of Dreams, Meloto’s book about Gawad Kalinga’s beginnings.

“I couldn’t say no,” said Graham. “It’s one of those (times) when you’re asked to do something, in some ways it would be easier to say no, but you can’t say no because there’s no way I can do something as interesting as that back in the UK. To write a book with one of the most respected people in the Philippines, and such an inspirational leader to so many people either through himself directly or the movement he’s created.”

He has since been tagging along with the charismatic visionary, meeting business leaders, government officials, volunteers, beneficiaries, and farmers, among other people. He has been to Gawad Kalinga villages in Bulacan, Masbate, Davao, Iloilo, and Bacolod, interviewing residents and hearing stories that are “humbling and exciting” at the same time.

One was of a woman who was living with her four children – one of them stricken with leukemia – in a shack.

In a conversation with “the happiest, smiley-est cancer patient he’d ever seen” at the hospital, a priest asked her what she wanted. She replied that she wanted a house with a garden big enough for a flower pot, jokingly, thinking to herself that they would never have a garden anyway. To make matters worse, their house had been wiped out by Typhoon Ondoy in 2009.

“He was really inspired by her,” said Graham of the priest. The child eventually passed away, but now the mother is living with her other children in a Gawad Kalinga community in Bulacan, where she is part of Agricool, a program that cultivates social entrepreneurs with a leaning towards agriculture. The children are now “top achievers,” and the family is living in a supportive community, no longer squatters in Metro Manila.

“What I find incredible is that there are so many stories like that,” said Graham, adding that it was inspiring to meet volunteers “who have given up so much but seemed to be happier as a result, and seemed to have more purpose in their lives.”

In April last year, he helped with the preparations in Masbate for the Bayani Challenge, a five-day event that brings volunteers from all over the country and abroad to build homes, refurbish schools, clean up coasts, conduct medical missions, and do literacy projects for children.

While it was there that he saw how Filipinos could be lacking when it came to pride of place, it was also there that he saw how such an event could also inspire the very same people.

This year, he brought his father to witness another run of the Bayani Challenge, which ended Wednesday in 37 locations all over the country – 32 more than that of last year.

“I was commenting to my dad, ‘We can do the same in England,’ looking at the broken society (there and) looking at how GK is developing nation-building, sharing, and caring. A lot of values that came out of the Bayani Challenge are really relevant. (These are) what we need in a lot of modern societies especially in the UK,” he said.

The pair went from site to site as Graham interviewed people for the book Meloto is collaborating on with him. One of the more memorable places was a village in Iloilo, where 25 homes were being built by the mayor, the police chief and his staff, the governor’s wife, the Gawad Kalinga site head, and the beneficiaries both of the village and the villages nearby.

He asked the volunteers from the other villages why they were helping build houses that wouldn’t become theirs afterwards.

The told him that it was their obligation, as others had helped them build their own houses as well. Now they wanted to help others build theirs.

“Only the Bayani Challenge can bring such a wide spectrum of people together,” said Graham. “That was really significant, really nice. (It gave me a) really uplifting feeling. Everybody felt like they were working together. Different sections of society (came) together with one goal in mind.”

While he continues to figure out where he wants to go in life, Graham nevertheless has a few ideas: finish the book in June, so it can be published in time for Gawad Kalinga’s tenth anniversary in October, and maybe start a social business so he can create wealth not just for himself, but for others too.

He didn’t find it back home in the UK, but perhaps he found a few more things that are more fun in the Philippines.