Dr. Oscar Enriquez is a US-based Filipino who perfectly embodies the expression “You can take a man out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of a man.” He has settled in the US for half of his life, but won’t miss any chance to go back and help out the less fortunate in Catanduanes, his place of origin.
In December 2018, as president of the United Catanduanes San Diego (UCSD), a nonprofit charitable organization, he met with other concerned Catandunganons based in California, and proposed to organize an independent medical and humanitarian mission that will bring its services to the remote areas of Catanduanes. The project will be funded through sponsorships and donations from charitable groups and friends. It was targeted to be held in February 2020; hence, the name “Gift of Love” Medical and Humanitarian Mission.
Shortly after that meeting, the system was set in motion. Fundraising activities yielded overwhelming support from family and friends with roots from Catanduanes. Sponsorships were arranged with UCSD, Catanduanes Association USA, Texan Friends of Catanduanes, and the Waraynon Initiative Network. A gesture from UCSD supporters Rod and Rose Alonte was particularly heart-touching. The Alonte couple, who lost their daughter just before Thanksgiving, chose to graciously channel the bereavement cash donations into the mission.
Dolly Dalusong, a UCSD member from Los Angeles, connected with Isaiah’s Rock, a nonprofit Christian Ministry in Chino, California, which generously responded with boxes of T-shirts and toiletries. She personally sent the items in balikbayan boxes to Catanduanes months before the start of the mission.
The generated funds were used to procure medicines and various basic goods. Dr. Enriquez shares that “countless times we had to go to different discount stores to check what were on sale and send them to Catanduanes.” This went on for almost a year, until it was time for the US-based volunteers to fly to Manila.
And then, the unexpected happened.
A few days before the mission’s scheduled kickoff, a provincial memorandum was issued ‘momentarily’ suspending all foreign-assisted medical and humanitarian missions until proper health authorities declare the country free from the threats of COVID-19. Faced with the odds that all the time and resources they put into their first project might come to naught, Dr. Enriquez, was in total shock.
Fortunately, Msgr. Manolo de los Santos, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Virac, intervened in their favor. He allowed the group to use the different parishes in the province as distribution hubs for their non-medical “Gift of Love” packs filled with health kits, toiletries, school supplies, T-shirts, slippers, reading glasses, and other goods. In compliance with the memorandum, medicines and medical-related supplies were to be dropped at each town’s rural health unit (RHU) to avoid mass gatherings that could cause health risks.
Another divine stroke came in the form of support extended by the couple Manuel and Sonia Romero, who offered their warehouse as a repacking venue for the various goods. The couple also allowed their construction trucks to be used for mobilization during the mission.
The organizers and volunteers wasted no time in changing the distribution strategy to cover as much ground within their five-day mission. Day 1 was slotted for the capital town of Virac where they visited the provincial jail and entrusted to the jail warden personal hygiene kits meant for detainees awaiting trial. Their visit to an elementary school in this town, upon the request of the school principal, brought priceless smiles on the faces of children who were gifted with new backpacks, school supplies, and imported sweet treats.
Day 2 brought the group to Gigmoto and Baras towns. In Baras, they combined logistics with the LGU’s “Konsulta sa Barangay” healthcare project initiated by Baras Mayor Paolo Teves and TGP Partylist Cong. Bong Teves Jr., where medicines and related supplies intended for this town were put to valuable use. In two fishing villages in Baras, families were visibly pleased with the timely assistance they received, which included staples such as rice and sugar. For several days, strong waves had prevented them from fishing and earning from their trade.
Day 3 was set for Viga, Bagamanoc, and Panganiban towns. Day 4 covered Caramoran, Pandan, and San Andres. The last day of the humanitarian mission was spent in San Miguel and Bato. A grueling schedule that did not leave out any of the 11 municipalities —truly, a tough act to follow. Each town was given its share of material assistance in various forms. Even after the mission, boxes of medicines, school bags, health kits, including dental supplies that were not used, had to be stored for safekeeping and future use.
The coronavirus threat that presented itself at a most inopportune time turned out to be a catalyst for even better outcome. In similar undertakings in the past, people from far-flung barrios had to start out early, spend for their travel to the capital town, and wait in long lines before they would be attended to. The “Gift of Love” project enabled the resources to be delivered to them at the expense of the mission team. The RHUs, for some time after the mission, will have stocks of medicines at their disposal.
All told, hundreds of families benefited from the love and compassion shown by this group of Catandunganons who may have chosen to settle in the Land of Uncle Sam, but have no qualms about sharing their blessings with their kababayan.
The mission had its challenges. Lessons were learned. Yet, ultimately, the humane objective was met. The “Gift of Love” prevailed, because in most happy stories, love conquers all. It was a first for UCSD and Friends, but it certainly won’t be the last.
(Those who want to participate in the next Gift of Love Medical, Dental, Surgical, and Humanitarian Mission as sponsors, donors, or volunteers, please visit the United Catanduanes San Diego page on Facebook.)