TREK Bukidnon: Our first Mindanao TREK

August 04, 2019 Voluntourism

My life has always been about my family and my advocacy. I have always thought of my career as a means to support both. If I really have the means, my TREK would be my sole vocation. 

TREK, or TRails to Empower Kids, is a group I established with some friends almost twelve years ago to help kids in the mountains and other isolated areas, who otherwise would not have access to some of the things they need.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my work, and it has given me so much, and not just in terms of financial support. It has made my life so meaningful because of the many opportunities to use my gifts to support other causes I believe in.

One such project is the annual campaign of Diwa Learning Systems and Bato Balani Foundation, called “The Many Faces of the Teacher” or TMFT. It forwards the stories of teachers who are using their influence to serve. I always look forward to their research seasons because of the wealth of inspiration it gives me.

Imagine my joy when fate brought the two together. That was TREK Bukidnon.

I first visited Kèupiyanan Tè Balugo (formerly Balugo SDA Mission School), a school for the Indigenous People (IP) learners of Sitio Balugo, Barangay Kalanganan, and San Fernando, Bukidnon, in 2018. I interviewed Teacher Junmerth Jorta, who was one of the finalists in “The Many Faces of the Teacher.”

Teacher Junmerth, a missionary by heart, was instrumental in the establishment of the school. Because of the school’s isolation, only Sulads missionaries from Mountain View College, a Seventh Day Adventist school, could go there to educate the kids. It was very informal. Students were not clustered according to their grade levels. And since they did not belong to any grade, they also could not advance to the next level. 

It all changed when Teacher Junmerth decided to accept the task of becoming a teacher in Sito Balugo and establishing a proper school. It was not an easy task. The school is isolated. It takes around 3 hours of trekking and several river crossings to reach it. When the weather cooperates, horses or habal-habals (motorcycles) can be used.

Teacher Junmerth had to face his fear of snakes during his treks to the school. He also experienced being stranded because of bad weather. He had to let go of the comforts he was used to. He just sleeps in the classroom at the school. 

Educating the students was also not an easy task, considering how they are on a multi-grade format. But the biggest problem Teacher Junmerth faced was malnutrition, which affected the students’ performance. Students were often absent from class. When they did attend classes, their performance was low.

He addressed this by launching a feeding program called “Balugo Pagkaon Sakto Program.” The program has been successful in both curbing absenteeism and nursing the students back to health.

Summer breaks are a different story, though. That is when the problem arises again.

Since that first visit, I have already tried planning an outreach program, but I could not mount it because of several things. First, plane tickets can be very expensive if not booked way ahead of time. Second, hauling the donations would be a logistical nightmare. Third, there were also security concerns.

So, I just let it go. I knew that if it was meant to happen, it would. 

And so it did.

Teacher Junmerth once again made it as one of the finalists of The Many Faces of the Teacher 2019, after not being chosen as an honoree in 2018. 

After I got my interview Teacher Junmerth scheduled, I floated the idea of also doing a miniature outreach to the rest of the group. Things just fell into place after that. A few volunteers agreed to join. A package from Canada containing backpacks, which is exactly what the students need, arrived. I also managed to solicit additional funds for the food program.

We only had a few hitches on our journey to San Fernando, but as soon as we entered the welcoming home of Teacher Junmerth, it was all good. 

We stayed for a night in Teacher Junmerth’s home, then the following day, we stayed with his family and traveled to Barangay Kalanganan, which was about an hour-long drive. From there, we rode on horses to Sitio Balugo. 

It was exactly as I remembered — almost two hours’ worth of a peaceful voyage with Danny, my little horse. We crossed rivers, traversed corn fields, and rode by other surreal landscapes. 

When we arrived, there were familiar faces. The elders and some of the students donned colorful costumes. I was excited for the rest of the volunteers to experience the Matigsalugs’ colorful culture.

We first started with a program. Teacher Junmerth led the proceedings, which included welcome remarks, dances, and songs. Then, the kids went to their classrooms, while the parents prepared their lunch. I, in the meantime, started my interviews.

I thought I already knew everything. But I was inspired anew. Teacher Junmerth’s friend, Menchie Lou Garcia Apdian, who is also teaching an IP school in Barangay Kalanganan, told me how Teacher Junmerth has been generously sharing his resources and expertise with his fellow IP teachers. 

His co-teacher, Darryl Jane Mugot, and former student Aria Balaguesi reiterated how Teacher Junmeth’s program helps not just the students, but also the entire community. 

After my interviews, lunch was ready. It was true what Teacher Junmerth had said about fried chicken: everyone loves it. The kids love it. And even the adults do too. 

I was actually worried that we didn’t have enough. But I was surprised that we were able to feed not just the students, but also some members of the community. They had their fried chicken with Mannapacks and juice.

Mannapacks are the food packs Teacher Junmerth was able to solicit. It is a unique food mixture that contains the nutrients that kids need. I tasted it, and it was not bad. I just don’t think I could survive an entire year just on that. 

Anyway, after eating came the most exciting part. We distributed the backpacks. The two teachers, Teacher Darryl Jane and Teacher Junmerth, called each student to the stage, where our volunteers displayed the backpacks. Each one was able to choose a backpack they liked. 

Seeing the delight on their faces was a priceless experience. It was worth all the effort. And I could see, based on their reactions, that even our volunteers were overjoyed.

We had time after the program to enjoy the surrounding river a bit. 

On our way back to the jump-off point, we rode habal-habals, or motorcycles. It was altogether a different experience — a more thrilling and exhilarating one. 

Suffice to say, we ended the day on a high note, both figuratively and literally.

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