Returning to Our Roots: A Heartwarming Journey of Community Connection and Celebration in Sitio Saybuan

December 22, 2023 Voluntourism

Last December 8th to 9th, to commemorate our group’s 16th anniversary, we returned to the community where our story began.

We are a volunteer-led organization of mountain climbers and outdoor enthusiasts united by the shared advocacy of aiding children and communities in the mountains and other isolated areas.

In Sitio Saybuan in Itogon, Benguet, we laid the foundation of our group, Trails to Empower Kids or TREK. We were 15 mountain climbers who wanted to give back to mountain communities, and we have been doing so for the past 16 years.

Though a bit overdue, we felt it was time to celebrate again with the community we love—Sitio Saybuan.

The volunteers and the teachers and students of Saybuan Elementary School

The community has always been on the back of our minds, but the planning was set in motion when a parent from the community, Ma'am Marivic Alvarez Alonzo, contacted us and invited us again to visit their community.

She said, “Na-miss na po namin kayo… Miss na miss na rin po kayo ng mga bata. Yung iba po graduate na po, pero may bagong pumasok. Sana makabalik ulit kayo dito sa amin.” (We missed you already. The kids also miss you. Some have graduated, but new students have come in. We hope you can come back.)

The group has been returning to Sitio Saybuan. We first revisited in 2010 and then again in 2017 to culminate the group’s celebration of its 10th anniversary. In 2020, during the pandemic when we couldn't physically trek, we sent aid to assist them with their modular distance learning. 

We didn't want our outreach activities to be one-time events. We want to witness how the community grows, check on the kids, and see how else we can be of assistance to them. Of course, our biggest wish is for our help to no longer be needed by the communities we serve and for our organization to become obsolete. That would mean all kids, regardless of their location, would enjoy equitable access to resources and opportunities. But for now, we will keep coming back to these communities. 

And every return to Saybuan feels like a homecoming.

From the moment I set foot at the jump-off, everything felt familiar—the trails lined with flowers, the hanging bridges, and the view of the mountains and the river. I remembered all our stories from the trail and felt warmth knowing that new stories will start.

At the school, there was hot coffee, rice cakes, and boiled root crops waiting for us. It was mid-morning, and I barely had time to finish my coffee when they announced that we could have lunch already.

It was early, but we had a full day ahead.

We divided ourselves into three teams. I joined the first team that arrived in Saybuan, composed of dentists and volunteers who could assist with the dental mission we prepared for the students and some members of the community.

Immediately after lunch, we started preparing the area where we could conduct our dental mission. Once ready, we asked kids to line up so they could listen to a bit of a lecture on proper dental care, then brush their teeth together. After these, they were ushered to the area where they could wait and then register for the dental mission. Our dentists checked their teeth, extracted teeth that needed extracting, then applied fluoride. And gifts awaited them afterward to reward them and give them a good overall experience.

Our hardworking Dental Mission team

While this was ongoing, our team that handled the marketing of ingredients for the volunteers’ and the community’s meals arrived and started preparing already.

Even without good sleep and after a long, tiring journey, everyone chose to help rather than rest. We spent the afternoon until late evening unpacking our boxes, sorting, and repacking.

Early the next morning, even before the sun was up, we already started preparations for the day’s program. 

Our third and last group arrived, responsible for the program. Councilor Norberto Pacio, who has been helping us since before we started, also arrived with welders who installed the solar lamps we donated for the community.

Councilor Norberto Pacio with our volunteers Izyan, John Rex, Karyl, and Ponga

We created a simple program. We started with games. Some members of the community performed. Then we gave Ma'am Marivic, Saybuan Elementary School Admin Alvin Balbines, and Councilor Norberto time to give their speeches.

TREK Anniv events coincide with my birthday. This time, I celebrated with Karyl, John Rex, and Bench

John Rex hosting our program

Ma'am Marivic said that she is thankful that her request was noticed, and we chose Saybuan again as a venue for our outreach.

“Wala akong ibang intensyon kung hindi mapasaya ang mga bata at mabigyan sila ng pamasko. Sa tulong po ninyo, nagkaroon ng ngiti ang mga bata ngayon.” (I don’t have any other intention but to make the kids happy and give them Christmas gifts. With your help, the kids have smiles on their faces.”)

But I think more than the kids, it is us, the volunteers, who are happier. While we are the ones giving, the joy the kids and community give is much more.

After that, we handed over our donations. We started with backpacks with school supplies, hygiene kits, and loot bags. All these were gathered through the generosity of TREK’s sponsors.

Some of the students with their backpacks, loot bags, hygiene kits, and school supplies

Then, we called each kid, and they received a sack full of goodies from their "Santas." About three months ago, we asked all kids to write their Christmas wishes, and we looked for sponsors for each one.

With my inaanak Shin Zhi who wished for Hello Kitty stuff

Members of the community also brought home grocery packs. Our friends from UnionBank Digital sponsored grocery packs for all 65 households of Sitio Saybuan.

UnionBank Digital Team with some of the grocery bags they packed for the community

We had lunch afterward with the community. It was a simple lunch of a noodle dish or pancit, pork adobo, and fried chicken but, like all the other meals we shared with the community, it was memorable.

Kids also got treats from Goldilocks Bakeshop

After lunch, we packed our bags and headed back to the trail with new memories of Saybuan.

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