Changing the Tide

Inspiration from Zamboanga, the Philippines

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When Jay Jaboneta spoke at a bloggers summit in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines last October, he encouraged participants to use social media to foster nation building and improve people’s lives. Little did the Manila-based communications manager know that within weeks he would be putting his words into action.

While in Zamboanga City, Jaboneta heard about a nearby village where young children had to swim 2 kilometres and walk another 5 kilometres to get to school. During his flight home, he thought about how he could help. “I had so much admiration for these children,” he says. “I felt they deserved to be rewarded and helped for all their efforts.”

Back in Manila he discovered that the children came from the village of Layag Layag, a cluster of more than 200 Muslim families living in shanties built on stilts over the sea. The villagers survived on seaweed farming and fishing but could not afford a boat to ferry their children to school.

In November, Jaboneta posted a story about the children’s plight on his Facebook page. He thought that was enough, but his friend Josiah Go encouraged him to do more. With Go’s help, Jaboneta created Zamboanga Funds for Little Kids, which sought donations through his Facebook page to build a boat for the Layag Layag children.

“It was not a formal organisation but there was an enthusiastic show of support, and we managed to raise $1600 in a week.”

Looking for help on the ground in Zamboanga City, Jaboneta contacted Anton Lim, a local liaison officer with the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist humanitarian organisation. Lim, who admits he had never heard about the plight of the children of Layag Layag, travelled to the village. “I saw first-hand how the children struggled to swim across the murky water, holding their bags on their heads with one hand while they paddled with the other,” he recalls. “I was alarmed that they received no assistance to make their situation safer.”

Lim also spoke with Tito Gadon of Zamboanga City’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, who agreed to donate logs confiscated from illegal logging activities.

Next, Abraham Mawadi, a boat maker living in Layag Layag, was contracted to build the boat. “I have seven children and each of them had to swim to school because I didn’t have money to buy wood to build a bigger boat,” says Mawadi. “I was excited when I learned this boat was for the children. I volunteered to take care of it and be its official driver.”

On March 27, Jaboneta, Lim and a group of 16 volunteers formally turned the boat over to the Layag Layag community. Christened Bagong Pagasa (New Hope), it began ferrying children, 20 at a time, on June 6, the first day of the new school year. While the children are in school, the boat is used to transport goods and produce to the market. The benefits of the new boat were felt immediately. “There was a sudden increase in the number of students this year, especially in the preschool,” says Nuljambri Jayari, principal of Talon Talon Public Elementary School, which the children of Layag Layag attend.

And children are showing a new sense of confidence. “They used to come to school with their heads bowed and looking tired,” says Clarissa Cruz, a sixth grade teacher at the Talon Talon school. “They were ashamed because they were poorer than the other students. They were dressed in wrinkled and often damp clothes.

“Now they come to school dry and fresh looking. The children have a new eagerness to learn and a visible sense of pride.”

The boat has also lifted an enormous burden from the shoulders of the parents. “I didn’t go to school but I knew how important it was,” says Nur-Ma Hamsain, a mother of two toddlers and five stepchildren. “I used to stand watching them swim away with the younger ones clinging to the shoulders of their bigger siblings when the waves were high. When they had to stay in school later than usual, I worried about all the children swimming in the dark.”

Nur-Ma’s 20-year-old stepson, Abdulbasik Salim, is one of the first in the community to go to college, thanks to Jaboneta and the Tzu Chi Foundation, which financially assisted him in securing a scholarship to study marine science at the Zamboanga State College. “After I graduate I will help the community in Layag Layag set up new livelihood projects,” he declares.

As word spread through Facebook and the media, additional help poured in for the people of Layag Layag. The Tzu Chi Foundation used the donations to give the village clothes, school supplies and boat repair kits.

“I envisioned the boat would improve the lives of the children but I didn’t imagine how it would open a whole new world of opportunities for the entire community so quickly,” admits Jaboneta, who has contracted Abraham Mawadi to build a second boat for community.

In May, Jaboneta travelled to the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California, to share his story with other social media experts, and the following month he accompanied a crew from Facebook to Layag Layag to film a documentary. He has also been named one of seven Modern Filipino Heroes by Yahoo! Philippines. Jaboneta’s good work continues to grow in unexpected ways. Like many others, Dr Ofelia Sy, a cardiologist and a volunteer for a charity coalition based in the province of Bicol, was touched by the story of the children of Layag Layag. After learning about children on a remote islet in the province of Masbate who get to school by either getting into a tiny boat or swimming to the next island, she called Jaboneta to see what could be done for them.

He quickly arranged for a television crew to visit the island. After the story aired, donations of books, clothes, school supplies and cash to build boats poured into the newly formed Masbate Funds for Little Kids.

“We now have 25 boats and pledges to build more, which will also be used to fetch drinking water since the island has no electricity or fresh water,” Dr Sy says. The Department of Education has also set up a makeshift school on the island, and more than 130 children have enrolled.

Jaboneta, Dr Sy and Anton Lim are now setting up Philippine Funds for Little Kids to help needy schoolchildren across the country. “Jay changed the lives of many people who have been long suffering,” Dr Sy says. “He reminded us that as citizens of this country, we can empower ourselves by helping each other.”

In the end, Jaboneta argues, the children of Layag Layag are the real heroes. “They inspired us to develop a sustainable operation in their community. My vision is to be able to move more individuals and organisations to take up the challenges of education. I would like to get more children to school so one day, no child will be left behind.”

For more information on Philippine Funds for Little Kids, please check out

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