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A Lifetime Commitment To The Cause Of The Poor

The prime movers of the Gawad Kalinga project are very young and very idealistic and, if one goes by the normal qualifications, inexperienced. People are surprised that they have been entrusted to do work that ordinary NGO's entrust only to experts. Ugnayan asked Jose Luis Oquinena and lssa Cuevas to talk about themselves so that we can find out why they have been entrusted with this task and why, against all odds, they are succeeding.

What emerges is a picture of two young persons imbued with lofty ideals and fired up with youthful enthusiasm to do the best they can in what they have been tasked to accomplish. Most of all, what we see are two young ones honed and matured by the difficulties of reaching out to the disadvantaged, armed only with hearts made full by God's grace.


My full name is Maria Isabel Formoso Cuevas although people know me as “lssa”. I was born on September 7, 1989. I've been working fulltime for ANCOP since I graduated from Ateneo. I have two brothers who are younger but definitely bigger than me. I'm just a normal girl. I like reading and writing. I keep a journal for all my thoughts. They say thoughts and ideas are God's gifts, and I'd like to be able to write them down. I love coffee and spending quiet time with friends for kwento (gab sessions) and catching up with each other's lives. I love to party!!!! I am an efficient worker, but I am also a great party goer.

God speaks to me powerfully through nature. The undulations of the sea, the cycles and seasons, the ocean or the mountains - they are all reminders of God's goodness. How did I get to this point in my life? I joined Youth for Christ in 1995, but was not very active in the group, at least not until 1997. I was a Mission Volunteer for YFC in 1998 serving in the North sector and in the High school program. When I graduated from college, I went straight to the CFC Center as a fulltime worker for ANCOP, handling the Siga and Sipag programs. Now I am still a full time worker for ANCOP but with the Gawad Kalinga National Program.

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to go fulltime, but not as a purely pastoral worker. My mom Bernie was my greatest influence in realizing my calling to serve the poor. She was one of the pioneers of ANCOP and she used to bring me to Bagong Silang, the pilot area of ANCOP. There I met most of the youth. I joined them in youth camps and in some trips of Bagong Silang the Musicale. By the time I graduated, I was sure that I was being called to ANCOP. Tito Tony (Meloto) gathered the first group of young ANCOP fulltime workers, all graduates from the top schools, and we were assigned to various aspects of the work. I was tasked to develop the youth empowerment and scholarship program.

That was the best time of my life. We went to Bagong Silang everyday and built relationships with the people there. It was during our time there that the first ever Tatag house was constructed and we became very close to the members of that family. We remain very good friends until now.

Spending time with the delinquent youth taught me so much about myself, and allowed me to overcome my own fears. I had gone to Bagong Silang thinking that I would contribute so much to the plight of the poor. A year and a half later, I realized they had given me so much more than I could give them. Each experience with them, each walk through the pathways, each story told in the chapel – they all changed my life.

This is my personal conviction : “At the heart of our vision is the ability to care for people.” This is what I always tell myself, especially when I'm tired and I'm tempted to be functional around people. I remind myself that it is not so much our programs or what we do for our beneficiaries that matter. People's lives are uplifted when they are treated with respect, when they know that we want to spend time with them, when we take time off to listen to their own stories. Over the years, I have realized that everyone has a story to tell even those I perceive to be dull. The poor, especially, have so much to share. I agree with Mother Teresa when she says the poor are wonderful. They cannot be outdone in their generosity. Despite their poverty, they go out of their way to make you feel special welcome, and they are so generous with their love and affection.

The Bagong Silang boys changed me the most. We spent so much time together and it was from them that I learned the real meaning of love. Spending time with them, being with them through their confusion, backsliding, mistakes, etc, just taught me so much - patience, understanding, but mostly, real, unconditional love. The Siga throughout the Philippines remain to be my inspiration. I have been given so much - a chance for a good education, a bright future ahead, the confidence that I am a talented and beautiful child of God-these are things I do not deserve but I have been given freely as a gift. I know God calls me to share the same blessings with them … to share God's love in concrete ways.

I know it is such a great privilege to be given this opportunity to work in GK. I am nothing exceptional, really, except for the fact that God called me to be in this service, and it is something I will always be thankful for. I have been blessed by so much, and by His grace, I am able to share His love and His blessings to many others.

I guess this passage from Job 23:10 sums up what GK and God have wrought in me: “I have been tested by fire, and have come out as gold”

I was undergoing great personal crisis when I was assigned to Gawad Kalinga. That time, it was so confusing and I could not understand God's hand in my life. I was so hesitant to accept GK because I didn't know if I could handle it, if I was worthy. It was hard to believe that God still chose me despite my obvious emotional distress, hurt and confusion.

But that verse got me through. Whenever I felt the challenges were too great, I would pray and be reminded that God's refining fire was at work, His hand on the chisel that was molding me to be the best woman I could be. One year after, I look at my life and I know in my heart I am still a work in progress, but my faithfulness is its own reward. I am able to do what I am called for, and I have never been happier. And even as God continues to move in my life, I continue to be thankful. The trials make me stronger as a person, and allow me to love God for who He is and not for what He can do. I do not know what lies before me, but I am excited to see His vision come to fulfillment in my life. And in my heart, I am certain that a lifetime commitment to the cause of the poor is part of His plan.

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