“Meowrrr!” a jolly greeting from Chocnut, a white-and-gray cat, welcomed me at the South Gate of De La Salle University (DLSU). The campus was eerily quiet. There were no chattering students in the hallway hurrying to get home, no ringing of the “Beautiful Dreamer” bell to end the classes, no individuals fastidiously studying for an exam. There was almost no one in sight, except for a handful of security and maintenance personnel, and a few sleeping cats on benches and in corridors.
One might wonder what I am doing in the university in the middle of the implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). I wasn’t there for a random stroll; I was there with a purpose. I volunteered for DLSU’s Safe Shelter Program, which gives home to healthcare workers of Philippine General Hospital during this challenging time. This program started with accommodating homeless families in partnership with Divine Word Missionaries’ KAin, LIgo NG ayos (KALINGA) Program in March, and eventually extended to housing medical frontliners in April.
I have been struggling to deal with the pandemic along with the financial, mental, and emotional strain it has brought me. For someone who dislikes domestic chores, I was questioning my life choices during the first week of ECQ – particularly not learning how to cook! With access to daily conveniences suddenly plucked out of my world, my priorities shifted. My previously cherished professional skills are suddenly unimportant in all the chaos of dealing with COVID-19. I felt insignificant, irrelevant. And I needed a sense of purpose.
Thankfully, as DLSU opened its doors to care for healthcare workers, the institution also called for volunteers to help attend to their needs. In the Safe Shelter program, frontliners are given comfortable accommodation with a care package (personal care products), hot meals, fast wireless internet, and an area to wash and hang their clothes.
But it was a lot more than the physical amenities. DLSU provides comfort to these people who, at the end of the day, have depleted their energies from running around in hospital hallways providing medical assistance to their patients. The campus is a microcosm of a neighborly community – everyone greeted anyone they bump into with a smile behind the masks, followed by a joyful “hello!” or “kumusta po?” Last week, Pepe Herrera and volunteers treated the frontliners to acoustic sessions of live and video-streamed serenades. It was a very simple affair (while maintaining social distancing, of course). Still, it filled everyone’s hearts with gratitude for being there, for being alive, for having some sense of normalcy even for a few hours. The essential human connection that was abruptly taken away from us – a “beso,” a handshake, a hug, or simply a pat on the shoulder – have been replaced by quick glances at everyone to acknowledge their presence, punctuated by muffled laughter behind masks. This is our “new normal.”
Equally important to serving the frontliners is taking care of the “backliners” in the university – those who cook meals, maintain cleanliness, provide security, ensure Wi-Fi connectivity – the people who have been tasked to maintain a functioning community. Then there are the volunteers from DLSU, who share their time to render service for a smooth stay of the guests on campus. Most of them are also housed in the university, provided with food and lodging, so they don’t have to worry about traveling to and from their homes. The caveat is the sacrifice of not seeing their families while ECQ is in place, but thankfully some solace can be found in modern communication technology.
One question lingers: from the frontliners to the backliners — why give up comfort, why share time, why risk lives during this time of uncertainty?
Perhaps ingrained in Filipinos is the spirit of “bayanihan.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom of group work, where each person completes a task to contribute to the common good. It is synonymous with “pagtulong” (help) or “pagdamay” (aid) and is built on mutual help and concern, the backbone of accomplishing tasks, and surviving disasters in the Philippines. Indeed, bayanihan is inherent in our culture, and especially so when disaster strikes. In battling COVID-19, we have seen private individuals prepare meals for the homeless; small restaurants deliver food to the frontliners; celebrities use their fame to raise donations; groups and families produce face shields for hospital workers. Liquor companies halted the production of alcoholic drinks to manufacture sanitizing alcohol. The list goes on and on. It is encouraging to witness our nation overflow with kindness and compassion. We recognize the importance of each help we extend, no matter how small, or how trivial it may be. We get inspired to help, and so we get up and face the day with a mission to contribute what we can.
And as a volunteer, I recognize the Safe Shelter program as an invaluable help for the community, as much as it was a precious gift for my mental well-being and self-worth. I’d do it again without batting an eyelash, if only to witness the faces of the frontliners light up as they share how instrumental this program has been in keeping a safe space for themselves – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Jonna Baquillas is a Doctor of Business Administration candidate at De La Salle University. Her researches focus on sustainable consumption, sustainable tourism, humanitarian coordination, and consumer behavior. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.