Keeping Warmth in Families through Community Building by Kahlil Apuzen-Ito

Keeping Warmth in Families through Community Building: Update from the Philippines

By Kahlil Apuzen-Ito

“I want to help my community, our land,” Mimi said to me, her eyes glowing with determination.  I told her that we will do our best to look for funds for her scholarship and hope that we can continue to provide opportunities for her and others.  As I got into our truck, a wave of relief came over me, knowing that another talented, highly intelligent Bagobo Tagabawa youth, mother, and potential community leader will brave it out–staying in the Philippines to help her tribal community and most of all, to see her children grow. 

Mimi was one of the many brilliant students there are in Sibulan, but the death of her mother at a young age and her father’s struggle to make ends meet, had forced her to leave school.  She now has two children and a loving husband who has only found part-time work as a farmworker.  She had thought about leaving the country to become a domestic helper in the Middle East.  But Mimi’s recent position as our Pagtuon, Pagtrabaho, Pagtambayayong (3Ps) para-technician made her less desperate, as she is able to see other possibilities of meaningful employment in her community. 

The Brain Drain and Effect on Family Life

The exportation of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos for service and professional work in more than 30 countries has had serious impact on family life at home as many of the overseas Filipino workers have become separated from their children for years, often to the point where the children no longer recognize their parents. 

Why would anyone leave their children for work hundreds to thousands of miles away? In the case of mountain communities in the Philippines like Sibulan, unsustainable resource extraction that has left the land infertile, militarization, severe poverty, lack of job opportunities and resources, low education, hunger and malnutrition, corruption, alcoholism, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are among the factors that have fueled a history of armed conflict, social disharmony, and violence in the homes.  Despair over the local situation has forced some of the more educated indigenous youth to look for work out of the country as domestic servants, caregivers, construction worker, and so on.  Though this brain drain and loss of skilled and talented workforce has brought challenges in our work towards sustainability and promoting secure, nurturing environments for children, we, nonetheless, have had to use these obstacles as opportunities to be more creative and resourceful in our approach.

A Nurse’s Story

Forty-eight years ago, my mother addressed nursing students at a nursing oratory competition in Manila.  She implored her audience to consider the importance for Filipino nurses to stay in the Philippines and serving their own communities. Though she did not win the contest, she will always remember that speech.  

Despite her commitment to community work, however, political instability and the dangers of community organizing for over fiftenn years with my father during Martial Law, made my mother finally compromise and bring all four of her children to the United States.  She worked as a nurse in Florida’s Mayo Clinic, a hospital job she never thought she would take, as community health organizing had always been (and still is) her passion.  Since her immigration to the United States in 1985, tens of thousands of nurses have left the Philippines for work abroad, leaving the country with very few trained health professionals equipped to serve the growing population, especially in rural areas.  The reduced professional work force has forced some hospitals to close down, and people from the countryside often have to travel a day or more to reach a clinic. Despite being in the U.S. for all those years, I always had a sense that given the chance and amenable circumstances, my mother would return to her home country and communities to do the work she loves.

Today, with a renewed and invigorated energy, my mother is working passionately to create a community health clinic for the Bagobo Tagabawa community in Sibulan, Davao City, soliciting from  Filipino nurses abroad and local medical professionals for materials and in-kind donations to support the project.  The creation of the community alternative health clinic and the 3Ps program are two of several socio-cultural and environmental conservation initiatives of the Pageno Creative Nurturing Communities (CNC)–a pilot project under the Foundation for Agrarian Reform in Mindanao, Inc. (FARMCOOP).

Joining Resources to Create Opportunities: The fun part

With support from kindred friends and donors from the U.S., we began the Pageno CNC in 2014, bringing Lifeways and Steiner-inspired parent education to help foster creative, healthy, and safe spaces for the Bagobo Tagabawa children and youth in Sibulan.  Though our parenting education workshops were well received and enjoyed by over 100 participants in the community, three-quarters of the way into our first year we branched out to start other community building activities that could lay practical foundations for more secure, stable families and environment where children can thrive.

Due to the complexities of our communities’ situation as described above, we initiated activities that can address multi-cross-sectional themes while sowing seeds that can promote resilience, sustainability, resourcefulness, and peace in the home and in the community.  To date, Pageno CNC is actively involved in the following initiatives in Sibulan: 

-organizing a community health clinic which integrates parent education, holistic child development and maternal-child health;

-agro-rainforestation which combines reforestation of denuded tribal ancestral land with organic agriculture;

-cultural revitalization through building an indigenous peoples’ learning center;

-capacity building of tribal youth and women;

-establishing organic backyard vegetable gardens (3Ps).

Tackling Malnutrition through Organic Backyard Gardening

With the help of FARMCOOP’s organic vegetable supervisor, Robert Evangelio, and FARMCOOP staff, we (at Pageno CNC) started the Pagtuon, Pagtrabaho, Pagtambayayong (3Ps) project where six Tagabawa youth and women were trained to help the local school and families in Sibulan to establish their own backyard organic vegetable gardens.  Currently, in addition to Mt. Apo Elementary School, there are now over 50 families growing organic vegetables.  It is comforting to hear that such a simple project has impacted so many.

“You must document their stories,” Robert Evangelio urged me in Cebuano. “You should have seen one of these families. The parents themselves were so malnourished; they were weak, sickly, and so skinny.  After growing their own organic vegetables and eating their produce, they look entirely different—healthy, with more vigor and sturdy bodies. It is not just the children here who are malnourished, the parents too.  I have seen many positive amazing changes in the families since we did this.  You need to document these stories and share them with others.”

In addition to addressing malnutrition in the home, the organic vegetables also added income to the families as they sold their surplus in the local market.  The income was used to buy school supplies, milk, uniforms, and help support the education of their children.  Two of our 3Ps-trained youth and mothers—Mimi Remiliana Tatad and Dorcas Utay–initiated a feeding program.  By coordinating families to donate their organic surplus to the local Mt. Apo Elementary school and three local childcare home facilities, they continue to feed a total of more than 350 to 400 children a month in Sibulan.

The 3Ps project has become quite successful, bringing together many families and even community leaders who are often on opposing sides.  Tribal council leaders have asked us to expand the program to more remote areas of Sibulan where fewer resources and opportunities, as well as severe poverty, have made the youth vulnerable to recruitment in armed conflict.  We look forward to extending our program as we hash out details through a strategic planning meeting with the Sibulan cooperatives, FARMCOOP staff and community leaders this summer of 2016.

Family Well-Being and Community Health: Organizing from the ground

In addition to 3Ps’ activities in 2016, we plan to resume parent education programming under our Family and Community Health Well-being initiative through parent education trainings and skill building concerning nurturing the lower senses, preventative health, alternative healing modalities (e.g. traditional Filipino massage, herbal medicine, etc.) and nonviolent communication (NVC).

We will also be facilitating the traveling medical clinic to provide basic services to the cooperatives, tribal council, school, and local government unit.  Lack of practical health skills in the community and the distance from any hospital and clinic inspired us to sponsor the scholarship of Fearlyn Falco to study midwifery with the condition of giving five-years of service to her community.  Fearlyn Falco is one of four Bagobo Tagabawa youths we sponsored for training in Dr. Moon’s anthroposophic School for Life where youth from different parts of Mindanao were introduced to biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophic medicine, storytelling, puppetry and nurturing the twelve senses of children.  We are also currently organizing community health committees to support Fearlyn’s work while working with community leaders to plan for the building of a community health clinic in Sibulan.

Hope and Warmth: The process of working towards sustainability has been an ongoing dialogue.  In light of FARMCOOPs goal of creating opportunities for livelihood in rural communities through cooperative effort and sustainable agriculture as well as our Pageno CNC’s initiatives to address the socio-cultural and environmental issues in the community, we hope that little by little these initiatives will spark more inspired community building and sharing.  At the very least, we hope that more parents like Mimi will have a chance to raise their children and see them grow—kindling a special and rare warmth that only the bond of parenthood can foster.

Kahlil Apuzen-Ito is a Lifeways graduate and the International Project Director of Pageno CNC, a pilot project under Foundation of Agrarian Reform in Mindanao, Inc. (FARMCOOP). For more information about our work and FARMCOOP please visit our website: or email Kahlil at