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The Peninsula Manila, in partnership with Gawad Kalinga, gives 75 families a new lease in life

Barangay San Roque, in the town of Tanauan in Leyte, population unknown—some residents were unregistered and had no birth certificates—had an enviable and unrivalled view and access to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. To get to the beaches, one had to pass through this small, thriving barangay of nipa huts and corrugated sheets. Here, the hardy residents got their livelihood from the ocean as fishermen, or as pedicab drivers who would ferry local visitors from the main road to the unpaved, gravely path that led to the shoreline, or as sari-sari store owners who sold softdrinks and chips visitors consumed during their day trips to the beach. It was a good life—fresh air, bountiful catch, a little revenue from local visitors.

On Nov. 8, 2013, as wave after wave surged inland, Barangay San Roque bore the brunt of nature’s fury. I remember driving down the road parallel to the coastline and seeing only destruction, three weeks after Typhoon Yolanda. There was no house or structure left standing. On the road, planks of wood, metal sheets, and other beams that once held up houses were piled on top of the other. It wasn’t as bad in other parts of Tanauan, but along Barangay San Roque, and in nearby Barangay Sto. Niño, the smell of death and decay was overpowering you had to hold your breath until you got past it.

I wondered how anyone from these parts of town could have survived the deluge. Here, the body count was not only high, but inaccurate. How do you account for the locals who lived and died without paperwork? Born in their homes near the ocean, died in their homes near the ocean. And those who were lucky to survive—some heeded the call to evacuate, some were strong swimmers—all have lost someone.

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  • GK BUILDERS From left: Tanauan councilor Archie Kapunan; GK Chairman Tony Meloto, Peter Borer, Sonja Vodusek, Mayor Pel Tecson, and Luis Oquinena

    GK BUILDERS From left: Tanauan councilor Archie Kapunan; GK Chairman Tony Meloto, Peter Borer, Sonja Vodusek, Mayor Pel Tecson, and Luis Oquinena

  •  The Peninsula, LGU, and GK award beneficiaries the key to their homes

    The Peninsula, LGU, and GK award beneficiaries the key to their homes

  •  The kids pose with Ate Conch, the photographer

    The kids pose with Ate Conch, the photographer

  •  The blessing of the houses

    The blessing of the houses

It has been a very tough two years: No homes, no livelihood, grieving for those they’ve lost while struggling to pick up the pieces of rudely disrupted lives.

To meet a Yolanda survivor who’ve been through hell and high water, I’ve always thought, is to meet the best part of humanity—to have lived through that, to have to continue with living life, it was a testament to the power and resilience and courage we untested humans must have in spades inside all of us.

WELCOME TO NEW HOMES

Last Wednesday, I met many of Barangay San Roque’s survivors on a rainy, muddy day in Barangay Maribi, the site of the new village built by the Peninsula group and Gawad Kalinga, about two kilometers from the old barangay, which has been declared a No-Build Zone.

“Peninsula” would be a brand and a word not familiar to them. Most of those who’ve gathered here have never set foot outside of Leyte, and the international luxury hotel chain is a world away, both literally and figuratively. And yet today, their lives will be changed by the hotel group’s turnover of 75 new, beautiful homes in a village that was constructed in a one-hectare development that used to be, only 26 months ago, a rawland with a field of pakwan (watermelon) and lubi (coconut trees).

The houses are built like townhomes, eight in a row, painted in cheerful pastel colors. Unlike most permanent relocation homes built for Typhoon Yolanda survivors—cramped, concrete blocks without attention to detail, plunked down in the nearest available lot—the 30-square-meter loft-type homes are two-storeys high, tiled, with provisions for laundry and a decent, sizeable toilet.  It is a far cry from the nipa huts that were once their homes, most of which had no toilets. The houses are just Phase One of a long-term plan—a community hall/education center, as well as a playground, will rise soon on the location.

The construction of the village was funded using the $900,000 raised by The Peninsula Hotels’ “Hope for the Philippines” campaign. The campaign, started immediately after the typhoon hit, was, according to former general manager Sonja Vodusek (who is now the general manager for The Peninsula Tokyo), a knee-jerk reaction after finding out many of the hotel’s staff came from the region. After a quick call to Peter Borer, the group’s chief operating officer, to get his support and approval—which he quickly and gladly gave—Sonja conceptualized a campaign whose fruit is now the one-hectare property.

“Hope For the Philippines” was a shared initiative from Nov. 22, 2013 to Jan. 31, 2014. The funding was derived through four ways, all of which involved all the Peninsula properties worldwide. The first prong was earmarking $5 for each night’s stay in every Peninsula room worldwide. Second was allocating the proceeds from the sales of a special Philippine-themed “Tea of Hope;” and the third, an almost nationalistic promotion launched in all hotels of the classic Pinoy dessert “Halo Halo of Hope.” The sale of “Trees of Hope” Christmas ornaments, a yearly tradition for the property, were also donated to the fund.

The construction of the ambitious project was not without its challenges. The group first went to Negros, then Iloilo, then Samar, before finally deciding on Tanauan, Leyte, and then afterward, the project was delayed because of two big typhoons. Because of its relatively remote location, Peninsula had to seek the support of the LGU in installing water and electricity lines, and paving roads that lead to the village.

Dramatic, too, was the actual journey of The Peninsula’s top executives to the site, some of whom came all the way from Hong Kong headquarters. Aboard two separate nine-seater private jets, the executives braved the wildly turbulent ride, but one had to be diverted to Cebu because the pilot refused to risk it. Inside were new Peninsula GM Marc Choon, who kissed the ground (literally) upon landing and director of marketing Mellissa Ledesma, who texted her “goodbyes” and “I love yous” to her family. The other one, carrying Peter and Sonja, arrived at the Tacloban airport, with the two visibly shaken executives raring to go and finally see the project in its completion.

It has, in all manners of speaking, been quite a journey for Sonja, who that day exhibited the survivor’s spirit of bravery and courage.

FINDING A HOME

Nothing gives you fresher perspective, however, than meeting the beneficiaries, who all wore white for the occasion, a fitting symbol for renewal.

During her speech addressing the overjoyed survivors, Sonja says, “I remember the story that Gawad Kalinga executive director Luis Oquinena and Mayor Pel Tecson shared with me on the day I first came to this place. They said that on the day they both decided to use this piece of land to build your homes, there was a rainbow in the sky. And they knew this would be a blessed place, a good place. I believed this to be true then—and even more so now.”

In classic Waray humor, someone from the audience pipes up, “May Peninsula New York, may Peninsula Tokyo, may Peninsula Maribi na!”

Together with Gawad Kalinga, The Peninsula Manila chose 75 partner families based on “sweat equity” merit, their contribution to the project in the form of actual work.

Beneficiaries include a widow who lost her fireman-husband during the storm when he responded to the local government unit’s call to rescue other villagers; young families with schoolaged children; and an 84-year-old lolo who told Tanauan Mayor Pel Tecson, “I never thought I’ll ever get a house in my life. Thank you for making my dream come true.”

I asked Mayor Pel how the lolo paid for his sweat equity, and he says, reluctantly, that there will always be considerations. Or what we would like to call compassion.

The mayor and GK chairman Tony Meloto are proud of what they’ve achieved, and have been trying to invite the government and its agencies to see what could be done for the other survivors who are still waiting for their own houses, with the Peninsula Village as model site.

Sonja, who committed to overseeing the project long-term says, “We have delivered on our promise to you with 75 typhoon-resistant houses. Next on our list is to assist in the schooling of your children. Last, we intend to establish a long-term, income-generating project.”

They’re eyeing to build another 25 houses to make it to 100 total, but will need additional funding for it. The hotel is also currently in discussion with several NGOs to profile the families and suggest sustainable programs to match their skill sets.

Sonja says, “Our focus is not just on building homes, but rebuilding lives. Let this rain shower away your pain and let it allow you to start afresh.”

  • Morris Swadener

    When will the water be connected to the village?