Aug 222014

rp_Jannelle-So_So-LA-300x170.jpgChicago, IL – The objective seems simple: eradicate poverty for 5 million Filipino families by 2014. But to everyone involved with Gawad Kalinga (GK), the task seems daunting.

Their website describes GK as: “Gawad Kalinga, translated in English means to ‘give care’, is a Philippine-based movement that aims to end poverty by first restoring the dignity of the poor. It employs an integrated and holistic approach to empowerment with values-formation and leadership development at its core. Established in 2003, The Foundation currently works with over 2,000 communities and has been recognized as the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee & 2011 Skoll Awardee for Social Entrepreneurship.”

But to others, it is more personal: “My transformation came from a GK village. Before my visit, I didn’t know anything about being Filipino. I was an American, born and raised here. That’s the only culture I knew,” said Tony Olaes, chairman of GK-USA. “But since I got involved and since my chairmanship of the board n 2009, I realize now that the highest form of being Filipino is GK,” he said, addressing the GK-USA board of directors in a meeting last weekend.

GK-USA is a non-profit organization that supports the work of GK in the Philippines. “We exist to assist GK headquarters in the movement to create a culture of sustainability and scalability in the Philippines; while encouraging our Filipinos and Filipino-Americans here to connect to their country; so that together, Filipinos in the Philippines and Filipinos here, can create and promote shared values,” said Glenda Genio, GK-USA executive director.

To foster this spirit of partnership, GK executive director Luis Oquinena flew from the Philippines, to give an update on GK’s work, more important of which was financials: “Since 2009 until late last year, we have been operating in the red. But we addressed that by revisiting pricing and reorganizing,” he said. “We have asked some workers to ‘change lanes,’ enabling us to trim our staff from 222 to 102. We reviewed fixed cost versus project-based cost; and now we have a lean core of workers.”

Oquinena also shared his observation that “God has been building up our brand and credibility.” He happily noted that several more companies are choosing to engage GK; and even the Philippine government has taken notice and action. “A few years ago, no one ever thought of giving free land to the poor. Now even the government is doing it, giving value to our people’s sweat equity,” as he talked about the wealthy sharing their treasures with the needy.

Haiyan was a game-changer. And this was the consensus among the group.

“As sad as it was, we also saw the gift it brought,” Olaes said, referring to the spirit of bayanihan  that was kindled and rekindled among Filipinos. “More people started to care.”

“GK is all about the landless, building homes for communities; but also relocating families that live in danger, to safer areas before calamities strike,” said Oquinena, adding that the disastrous effects of Haiyan made everyone, including the whole world, realize that the poor are indeed most vulnerable. And they are the ones whom we cannot leave behind.

“’Walang Iwanan’ means no one left behind, and to some extent, ‘Never say die,’” Oquinena explained. “In the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), that’s the battle-cry of a team called Ginebra. That’s the barangay spirit, the spirit of community. And that’s what GK is about.”

As part of this spirit, Oquinena reported that this year’s Bayani Challenge that ran from April 9th – June 12th, attracted 1.7 million volunteers from around the world. ‘There were about 1 million volunteers in Bohol alone.” Bayani Challenge is an annual summer activity started by GK to encourage everyone to spend a few days immersed in depressed communities, to build homes with GK. “This 2013 was special because of the earthquake and then several typhoons, capped by Haiyan. There was a lot of rebuilding to be done and we needed a lot of volunteers.”

According to Oquinena, when the team was projecting numbers before the summer event, they pegged the volunteer size at 1 million, thinking it was already an ambitious figure to hit. But when they not only hit; but surpassed their own objectives, it made them realize that it is right to challenge boundaries, especially at this time. After all, 5 million families is in itself a big target. Believers of GK are banking on the power of volunteerism. And the lifeblood of volunteerism is inspiration.

“People want to join if the inspiration is clear,” Oquinena said, talking about a recent GK partnership with Xavier University where GK helped train the students and the final product was a village for the poor, called “Eco Village.” And here, according to Oquinena, lies the heart of growth: “We don’t care to lose the Gk identity, so long as the mission is being accomplished. If we want to grow, tension will lie between mission and identity. What will you choose?”

GK believers agree that the GK identity should take a backset to the GK work and objective. Oquinena’s forecast is that of the 5 million families, only 700 thousand will be helped by GK; the remaining 4.7 million will be assisted by other organizations.

“What is emerging is that many organizations want to connect to GK, either to help us in our work; or use our model. And when others use our model for helping the poor, that should be enough. We shouldn’t fear as much that the GK identity gets lost. What’s important is our work,” Oquinena said.

Looking beyond and more specifically, forward to the next 10 years, Oquinena dares every Filipino to challenge the boundaries; to think of bigger things; and more importantly, to allow ourselves to be the answer to somebody’s prayers, the prayer for food, for shelter, for a dignified way of living.

Since 2009 and up to 2013, GK-USA has donated $5.3 million to GK. But our work is not yet done. Have you given? And can you give more? Wil you answer to call to be the answer to somebody’s prayers? There are lots of ways – www.gk-usa,org.

Jannelle So is taking a break from 20-years of print and broadcast journalism career that began in the Philippines and continued here in the US. Connect to her on Facebook (; Twitter(; and Instagram ( or email her at

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