by Marie Weber
The 1970's were bustling years in the United Nations, especially at the Department of Public Information's Centre for Economic and Social Information. This was the time when world conferences were held at regular intervals. These conferences were huge events with thousands of delegates and speakers from all over the world. It takes years of preparation, not to mention the endless publicity to ensure its success. The Centre for Economic and Social Information was heavily involved in all these conferences. Government experts were given temporary offices. There were prominent people from all over the world and delegates from various non-governmental organizations who came to our office. Interns from various colleges and universities earned credits working in our office.
Before one of these conferences I had the fortune of meeting the late Barbara Ward (Lady Jackson, D.B.E.). She came to our office looking for some brochures. I did not have any idea who she was. Sensing my ignorance, she introduced herself (she was at that time the president of the International Institute for Environment and Development) and then asked to see our director who was also British. I ended up accompanying her to the conference room where our director was. Here I was walking with a world famous economist and great humanitarian who was talking to me like we were old friends. She was so appreciative and pleasant, asking me about my family and life in the big city. It was a memorable experience I will never forget.
Having bosses from various parts of the world and seeing first hand how they operated changed my way of seeing things. This bumpkin from Manila, Catholic and conservative, was looking at a very different world. One person who stood out was a Dane named Jorgen Milwertz. Although he was not my boss, he was caring enough to talk with everyone and offered his help to those who had problems. Sweet and intelligent, he went out of his way to be a friend to everyone. He was a section chief but he felt uneasy being called "chief'. At his insistence, the title became "head." When he was promoted to lead our Geneva Office, his title was again changed to "head."
Even eating at the UN cafeteria was an adventure. My gustatory senses expanded considerably and I credit this experience to my love of ethnic cuisine and adventurous cooking style. The change may have been gradual but the experience transformed me. After ten years I left the United Nations. I was a very different person and hopefully, a better person.
In early 1986, after living in the suburbs of New Jersey for several years, an old friend from Manila, Ross Inciong, invited me to attend a rally in Washington, D.C. We demonstrated in front of the White House against then President Ferdinand Marcos who had lost the recent election. Earlier, Benigno Aquino was assassinated at the Manila International Airport as he was stepping down the ramp. The very popular Aquino was challenging Marcos in the presidential election and his assassination was widely believed to have been carried out with the president's blessing. Shortly after, Aquino's widow ran in his place and won the election.
This was the first time I ever attended a rally. On the way home Ross and I talked about various ways that we could help our ravaged country. I did not want to start another organization that dispenses scholarship money to one student a year nor did I want a food program that feeds poor children in the slums every so often. My ten years at the United Nations had reinforced my strong belief in self-help and I felt that this was the right way to go.
In New Jersey, I started meeting with friends in the Filipino community. Shortly after, the Filipino Children's Fund was born. Using my own funds, our first project was a $50 grant for a piggery project in Lanao. The project was supervised by Sister Marcia Mercado, a nun from the Order of the Good Shepherd. Sister Marcia was such a good manager that the project expanded rapidly. The members were selling piglets and buying school supplies for their children. One member even rebuilt her house from the money she earned selling her piglets.
The experience inspired me to expand our organization. We were able to get donations from families and friends so we started a few more very small projects. I soon realized that we needed non-profit status to expand our projects. It would be a lot easier to promote our projects through fundraising events if donations were tax-deductible. I applied for non-profit status using the on-going projects as the basis for our request. After two years of review and lots of paperwork we were given temporary non-profit status.
Soon we were funding small self-help projects in several provinces of the Philippines. We used nuns from various religious orders as supervisors for these projects. However, we discovered that these nuns were frequently transferred to other locations causing some projects to close after their departures. We then turned to community leaders and program directors in universities for help in locating supervisors.
A Maryknoll priest named Jack Walsh, a former New Yorker from Queens, had been in the Philippines for almost 50 years. I read an article from the New York Times about this marvelous guy so I contacted him. Shortly thereafter, he became supervisor of our Davao City project. We funded a low-interest loan program to build individual homes for displaced squatters. These were one-bedroom houses in an area given by the local government after a lot of pressure from non-government organizations. This was one of our most successful projects.
What made the Filipino Children's Fund different from other organizations is the fact that nobody collected a salary or even an allowance. Our headquarters was my house in New Jersey. When I served refreshments during our meetings, I cooked everything myself and paid for it. The directors attended meetings on their own without any compensation. The supervisors in various parts of the Philippines were also uncompensated.
As a complement to our self-help projects, we shipped used eyeglasses, school supplies and medicine (complements of the Filipino medical community). We then added used sewing machines and typewriters. I was always on the lookout for machines that we could ship out. I exchanged my tiny hatchback for a station wagon to accommodate my growing load. When an office upgraded their computers, we asked for all their used computers. Soon my garage was overflowing with computers, old typewriters, sewing machines and boxes of school supplies and eyeglasses. Some weekends were devoted to packing these things in huge boxes that were picked up by companies that ship "balikbayan" boxes to various cities in the Philippines.
The highlight for the Fund came in 1991 when the Philippine Government bestowed the prestigious Lingkapil Award to the Filipino Children's Fund. It was the first such award given to an overseas organization for outstanding services to Filipinos.
There were lots of challenges running a tiny non-profit. A constant one was fundraising. Although there were a lot of well off Filipinos living in the area, they were mostly interested in supporting organizations connected with their hometowns. Since we made it a point to fund projects throughout the Philippines, we were ignored by people who had this provincial mentality. Another challenge was the work connected with fundraising. Being a very small organization with a few directors, we were all selling tickets and space for our annual journal but the biggest burden fell on my shoulder. I was also working full time during this period so I was constantly juggling hats.
Even with all the challenges, my work with the Filipino Children's Fund gave me deep satisfaction. The pictures of smiling children cuddling the animals they were raising were worth the aggravation. And the letters from supervisors about how a few hundred dollars changed the lives of some families sealed my commitment to our program.
In 2002 I resigned as executive director and moved to Northern California. Making use of my knowledge of Spanish, I volunteered as a teacher in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The students were mostly female Mexican adults. Although some of them went to high school, others were illiterate. It has been a challenge for me to teach these illiterate women because they really want to learn English. However, they needed to learn to read and write in their own language first. Another hurdle was some of the husbands of these women who were very much against the idea of their wives being literate and speaking English.
One of my students was an old woman who believed she was 82 years old. (She did not know her exact age or her birthday!). Because she was illiterate we had to start with the Spanish alphabet, writing each letter over and over. I wanted to cry seeing this woman working so hard "drawing" those letters like a little child.
Doing volunteer work has been a very gratifying part of my life. I have been blessed with enough energy and good health to do these activities that mean a lot to me. I intend to continue being of use to my community as long as I can.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Manila, Marie Weber worked at the Philippines Bureau of Mines as senior stenographer. She finished her B.S. in Commerce while working full time and moved to the United States in 1971, where she got a job as a secretary and later as a research assistant at the United Nations in New York City. In 1981 she left the United Nations and got a job as records custodian in New Jersey. In 2002 she took an early retirement and moved to Santa Rosa, California to be near her grandchildren. Marie is an avid gardener and cook. She loves the Northern California weather and enjoys walking and hiking with her husband Mike.
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