An Outreach Mission to Camiguin Norte, Babuyan Islands

Ricky Tugagao was in grade 3 at Cadadalman Elementary School when I ended my 3-year term as parish priest of St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Camiguin Norte, Babuyan Islands. He was born without a left leg and his right foot does not have a leg, just a foot sticking out of his right pelvis. He moves about by using his two hands and his limbless right foot. He lived in Sitio Pagitpit, at the foot of Mount Camiguin, about 4 or 5 kilometers away from his school. But he goes to school every day by riding on a carabao together with his two siblings accompanied by his mother. His favorite subject is English and his dream is to become a doctor someday. I met Ricky again when I went back to Camiguin Norte last March 18, 2015 for an outreach mission. In a few days, the grade 6 pupils of Cadadalman Elementary School will be graduating and Ricky is one of them. According to one of his teachers, Ricky is in the top ten of his graduating class.

Together with 19 volunteers, we embarked on an outreach mission called “Project Aral, Silid Aklatan”, a collaboration between the Dominican Missions and Black Pencil Project. The project’s objective is to help provide school supplies for about 1,500 school children from the four elementary schools in the island of Camiguin Norte, one of the five islands of Babuyan Islands. The idea to set up a library in Morol Elementary School came from artist AG Saño, also a wildlife and environment conservation advocate, and who like me, is a member of Black Pencil Project’s core group. He has been visiting the island annually for 15 years now, since year 2000 as a whale researcher and photographer for World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), and now as a volunteer of Black Pencil Project. The Babuyan group of islands is home to several species of dolphins and is a migration destination of the humpback whales every summer. With a population of approximately 5,000, Camiguin Norte has 3 barangays with Ilocano as their native language. The residents are either fishermen or farmers. About half of its population live in poverty. There are no hospitals or doctors on the island; no public markets, no post office, no funeral parlors, limited supply of electricity, only a few motorcycles and bicycles. But the good news is there’s a cell site on the island! The Dominican Mission station where Fr. Bejay Namuag, OP and Fr. Jeremy Realubit, OP are presently assigned was our home for a week.

It was with the help of the organization’s website – www.blackpencilproject.org, and social media, particularly Facebook, that we were able to gather donations. A 3-minute video entitled “Books for Babuyan” made by volunteers and posted on Facebook explained the project’s purpose. Radio station DZBB also boosted our fund raising efforts when Mr. Mike Enriquez interviewed Mon Corpuz, founder of the Black Pencil Project, a few days after the Pope’s visit to the Philippines. I met Mon Corpuz when I was parish priest in the island. A whale watching expedition with a group of mountaineers and photographers in the summer of 2009 brought him to Camiguin Norte. The story of a pencil equally divided into three pieces by a teacher so that three children would be able to write came from this community and inspired Black Pencil Project’s advocacy.

We left Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City at 6:00 a.m. on March 17, 2015. With a truck and a pick up loaded with school supplies, slippers, raincoats, books and bookshelves, we travelled all the way to Sta. Ana, Cagayan on a mini bus that we borrowed from the Dominican Seminary. We reached St. Anthony’s College in Sta. Ana, Cagayan at about 10:00 p.m. and stayed overnight in the dormitory of the Franciscan Apostolic Sisters. The following morning, we were blessed with good weather as we embarked on a 4 hour boat ride across Babuyan Channel. We had to leave some of our load behind because the two fisherman’s boats we hired were not enough. It was transported to the island on our way back to Manila as back load of the boat that took us back to Sta. Ana.

Babuyan Channel is always rough, with the Pacific Ocean on the east and the West Philippine Sea on the West. There are no regular passenger ferry boats that ply the route from Sta. Ana to Camiguin Norte. There was news of an impending typhoon that will enter the Philippine area of responsibility a few days before we crossed Babuyan Channel. Although we were spared from the typhoon that weakened into a low pressure area, we were not spared from a coral rock that our boat accidentally hit on our way to Morol Elementary School on the second day of our mission. With a hole in the hull of the boat, all the volunteers had to abandon the boat and swim to shore about 50 meters away. We were then rescued by fishermen who got news of our mishap not long after we left the Dominican Mission guesthouse. It was a good thing that all of us were wearing life vests. We had to abort our mission on that day, which coincided with the feast of St. Joseph - Sitio Morol’s patron saint. 

On the third day of our mission, I requested just 6 volunteers to accompany me to   pursue the delivery of bookshelves, books and school supplies to Morol Elementary School. From the parish church, it was about 2 hours boat ride and 45 minutes trek before we reached the school. We were accompanied by some pupils who walked with us from the shore to the school. Along the way, I asked a few children their names, grade level and what they wanted to be. Sunshine is in grade 3 and she wanted to be a teacher. Another one, also in grade 3, wanted to be a policeman. And then I asked another boy whose name was Ricky, what grade was he in and what he wanted to be. He replied that he was in grade 3, and what he wanted to be was, to our surprise – to be in grade 4! All of us laughed at his answer and one volunteer even remarked that his was a short term goal. But after a while, I thought to myself, maybe because of poverty this boy was not even sure if he can make it through to grade 4.

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The rest of the remaining days of our one week mission were spent by the volunteers sorting and distributing the school supplies for the 4 elementary schools, and devoting their time to other worthwhile activities for the community. Among the volunteers were Rey Bufi of The Storytelling Project and teacher Chinky Carandang, who gave a seminar-workshop for teachers on storytelling and teaching strategies. Dino Dimar, a survivor of the Florida bus accident in Bontoc, was with us to document the mission. It was his first time to ride on a bus again after the accident last year. Since his first visit in 2009, Mon Corpuz met the group of children in Sitio Tangyud whom he photographed 6 years ago and promised to give them each a printed copy when he returns. It was a happy and emotional reunion of the photographer and the children who have grown up since he took their photograph. Mountaineers Yay Ortega and Shella Milaor, were our kitchen staff together with Mon Corpuz. Kuya Nine, who used to be a production assistant of Joey Ayala, brought his guitar and ukelele and played music for us. Before we left, he gave away his instruments to a couple of children who would like to learn how to play it. The group of volunteers in this outreach mission to Babuyan Islands was a mix of artists, photographers, mountaineers, musicians, and adventurers. We brought home with us and will always cherish the memories of the poor school children in the island, who in spite of their poverty, hope to fulfil their dreams for a brighter future. 


UPDATED May 27, 2015:

Father Joemar recently opened a Send a Child to School program. For just One Hundred Pesos (Php 100.00) a month, or One Thousand Pesos (Php 1000.00) for one school year, you can already support one high school student's studies. It's not much for us, but for the schoolkids in the isles of Camiguin Norte and Calayan, it can make all the difference in the world! You may send your donations at the Bank Of The Philippine Islands (BPI) Account of the Dominican Province of the Philippines, Inc.:
Dollar: 0214-0218-89 Peso: 0211-0000-15


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