Give a Difference

Give a Difference

“Give and Make a Difference”

Atty. Grace A. SumalpongCorporate Secretary, Board of Trustees 

(Speech delivered at the 55th Annual Honors Day Convocation on February 15, 2013 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.) 

It is always a pleasure to keep coming back to our beloved campus by the sea.  And it is deeply humbling to be among you – high achievers who are so young, so driven,  so full of hope and great possibilities – and to be speaking before you today is truly, truly an honor.

It was some 45 years ago when I first set foot here in Silliman. I spent a good 8 and a half years of my young life as a high school and college student here. My classmates will kill me if I don't mention that I'm a proud member of SUHS batch 72. 

Coming from a small quaint barrio of Campalanas, Lazi in Siquijor, I came to high school full of excitement and anticipation as I joined some 160 other young students. At the same time, I was full of anxiety and dread and insecurity seeing my classmates seemingly full of confidence and self-assurance. It was only later on that I found out that they too had their own fears and insecurities, inadequacies and uncertainties.  But with the patient molding and mentoring by our teachers, we bloomed, grew together and found our own selves.  We remain good friends all these years and look forward to meeting up every Founders Day. Now with Facebook, we keep up with our chatter online.

Like you, I also had my share of class honors, college honors and university honors.

As I think back to those glorious years, not to mention the struggles and challenges that came my way, I look back with gratitude for the many blessings that came my way.  They have certainly opened up a wide and interesting world of opportunities to make something of myself.  

There are 2 persons that come to mind: 

First, is Dr. Horace Silliman. We all know about this man from far away New York who generously gave $10,000 to set up a school in a place he had not even set foot in. And never ever saw in his lifetime.  All he had was the vision and conviction that the Filipino people would need a new kind of education.  Dr. Hibbard, the first president of the then Silliman Institute, described the modest beginning thus :

“There were fifteen boys that first morning.  The equipment consisted of four desks about ten feet long, two tables and two chairs, a few McGuffey's Readers, a few geographies, arithmetics and ninth-grade grammars. I was President; Mrs. Hibbard was the faculty.”

What started out with 15 young boys 112 years ago has grown to what Silliman is today, a university of over 9,000 students, with a distinct mission of molding young students to be persons of competence, character and faith guided by its motto Via, Veritas, Vita (of Christ being the Way, the Truth, the Life).

That gift over a hundred years ago continues to make a difference to the thousands of students who pass through the portals of Silliman.  That includes you. That includes my family.  We were given the opportunity to improve ourselves through good quality education.      

That brings me to the second, a couple actually – I refer to my parents, my late father and my now 80-year old mother.  Papa was a municipal judge in a town in Zamboanga del Norte while Mama is your typical mother in the 60s, a stay-at-home-mom who tended to her family – a huge one even in those days and no RH – all 11 children. Both of them labored and worked hard to make sure we were provided with our needs despite their very meager income. As in other Filipino families, education was their priority. They made sure we had a crack at the best education they can afford. Papa finished law here and was determined that his children will likewise get a Silliman education.  By God's grace, all 11 of us came to Silliman for high school and, except for our youngest sister, we finished college here as well. 

Theirs was a life of sacrifice, forsaking comforts and luxuries for themselves, and practically giving up their lives just so we can all go to school. They made sure we had what we needed. While we had very little, we didn't feel like we were wanting for more as we were cared and loved in equal measure.  I must mention that their gift of sacrifice for us was helped in a big way by the generosity of Mama's parents, my Lolo and Lola and an aunt who allowed us to stay with them for free.  

Thus, the gift that the man from New York gave indeed made a difference to a family of modest means.  Silliman's long tradition of scholarships, student aid and grants enabled us to pull ourselves up and reap the benefits of Dr. Silliman's  generosity as well as the sacrifices that our parents endured.

Aside from the academic scholarship i enjoyed, in college, I worked as a student assistant in the Math Dept where I was also enrolled. I was a lab assistant in the Physics Dept. And because I was in the Honors Program, I had a lot of free time which allowed me to work even more.  This experience and the challenges of juggling my time between study and work helped me a lot when I moved on to hold real jobs – dealing with different people and challenging situations at the same time adhering to time-worn values of discipline, hard work, and dedication.  

Now we ask – Does one have to be filthy rich or powerful to give and make a difference? Let's look at some interesting life stories and see how we can learn from them – compelling stories of people who made a difference by giving of themselves to their fellowman, their community and the world. Along the way, allow me to share my own story.    

In his book Giving, former US President Bill Clinton says “each of us, regardless of income, available time, age, and skills” can help to give people a chance to live out their dreams.      

Some people of great wealth share part of their riches for a good cause.  Bill Gates and his wife Melinda spent over a billion dollars on health care in Africa and India, hundreds of millions to develop an AIDS vaccine and other diseases and address problems of extreme poverty around the world, still more billions of dollars in the United States to develop globally competitive high schools.  Why did the Gateses  decide to give their money and time to reducing the world's inequalities in health, education, and development?  Bill Gates gave a powerful answer in his Harvard commencement speech thus:

“If you believe that every life has equal value, it's revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not.” He went on to say, “This can't be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.” Of course he knows he can't eradicate all the world's problems.  He said “It can never be finished. But a conscious effort to answer this challenge will change the world.” 

But one doesn't have to be extremely wealthy to give money.  Bill Clinton, in the same book, tells the story of an 87-year-old black woman named Oseola McCarty who gave $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to endow a scholarship fund for African-American students in financial need.

McCarty eked out a living washing and ironing other people's clothes. She dropped out of school in her 6th grade to take care of her sick aunt.  She never married. She lived in a modest home her uncle gave her.  She never owned a car and even in her old age, walked over a mile to do her groceries.  All this time she was saving and decided to give 60% of her savings to help deserving young people go to college, with the rest going to her church and relatives. 

This reminds me of a story in Luke 21:1-4 about a poor widow's offering.  As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow who put in two very small copper coins.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” How awesome!    

There is no age requirement in giving to make a difference. 

Early last year, there was this American couple that was struck by the devastation wrought by typhoon Sendong on Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and here in Dumaguete.  They decided to come and do what they can to help.  Their 7-year old daughter Bronte Henfling decided she had to do something as well.  So, with her favorite teddy bear Frank as her backdrop, she made a video asking for donations. She uploaded it in Youtube.  Soon, thousands of teddy bears were sent to her from all over the world filling up the Mandarin Oriental Manila, the hotel where they were staying. The response was just amazing – 3,500 Teddy bears, including her own Frank, were distributed to children in Cagayan de Oro and I was told here in Dumaguete as well. See, a 7-year old, and a stranger at that, must have brought joy to grief-stricken children she knew nothing about.    

Some people give of their time.  They make a point of spending time with prisoners, with the elderly, orphans, abandoned children.  Some volunteer as tutors, conducting reading and story telling sessions with street kids.  There are countless possibilities.

Here's one of my favorite stories as told by Loren Eiseley, an American anthropologist, educator, philosopher and natural science writer. 

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.  He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.  One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer.  He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.  As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and what he was doing was not dancing at all.  The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. 

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”  The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.” “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.  To this the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die.” 

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.  As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”  

Some people share their talents.  Soon after I finished law school and passed the bar, I was given the opportunity to teach law at the Far Eastern University Institute of Law.  I readily accepted the offer with one purpose – to share the way by which I learned the law in the Ateneo to students who did not have the same opportunity I had.  When I moved to Cebu City in 1999, I also offered to teach in the University of San Carlos College of Law the way I knew how. Now, it always gives me so much pride and pleasure seeing my former students doing well in their careers and their practice.  I'm sure teachers present here today feel the same way about their students.      

Some make a difference by the power of their ideas. I'd like to share with you the Gawad Kalinga story.  According to its website, it started with the work with the poor by Couples for Christ in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City, the biggest slum in Metro Manila. The first seeds of its work then became known as Gawad Kalinga.  Borne out of one man's passion, it has now become a global movement that builds integrated, holistic and sustainable communities in slum areas.  Gawad Kalinga is now being implemented in almost 2,000 communities in the Philippines and in other developing countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

Gawad Kalinga sparks hope in the dream for a poverty free world – one family, one community and one country at a time.  This is Tony Meloto's passion.  A true man for others, he has inspired not just his family but hundreds and thousands of volunteers throughout the country and the world to work towards building model communities where the poor can thrive and attain their fullest potential so that they can look forward to a better future for their children and the generations to come.            

Some make a difference through innovation – Think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg.  The explosion of new technology and new gadgets in the last few years have made life easier for all of us, thanks to the vision and imagination of these men.      

Some pay it forward, give back. 

I was a banker for a good part of my professional career.  It was a rewarding career both intellectually and financially.  I had the opportunity to use my gifts as I moved up the so-called corporate ladder.  Along the way, it allowed me to pursue a law degree, working full time while studying.  I was able to help a sister send a daughter to study here in Silliman, a tradition in my family of helping those in need.  

In 2010, after over 27 years as a banker, I decided to retire.  It was actually an early retirement.  And I took a 2-year break. 

Now I'm in my give-back mode. A year ago, I decided to join ABS-CBN Foundation and help in its efforts to clean the Pasig River.  As you know, the Pasig River meanders into the very center of the country's seat of power. It was once rhapsodized as the mainstream of commerce, trade and communication, the mother of Manila, the inspiration of artists, and the gateway to the Philippines' historical, social and cultural life, the country's soul.  You must have read about it in Jose Rizal's works.  Sadly, years of neglect, mismanagement, urbanization, population explosion resulted to its terrible state of filth, pollution, and stench.  It has become a haven for criminality, addiction, and a place of extreme poverty.  For years, it was taken over by thousands of informal settlers who live in its banks in squalid and subhuman conditions, vulnerable to flooding and disease.  As to be expected, these people use the river as their toilet, sewer and garbage dump.

This can't go on. So, ABS-CBN Foundation took on the challenge of cleaning the river. We serve as the private sector partner of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, the government agency that spearheads the effort to revive and rehabilitate the river.  With the strong backing of the ABS-CBN network, we use the power of media to raise awareness and consciousness about the urgency of rehabilitating the river now. Our dream is to be able to give this long-forgotten river a new breath of life and restore it to its former glory and splendor, hopefully in our lifetime, so that young people like yourselves and future generations can enjoy it once more. 

So, from the cushy air-conditioned offices in Makati, I now spend most of my time in the esteros.  Instead of dealing in multi-million peso transactions, I now deal with people in the community, market vendors, volunteers, our aptly named river guardians called River Warriors helping to transform their lives, helping to develop their self-esteem, restore their self-respect and their dignity.                

You have been given a wonderful gift of high intellect and good quality education. Make good use of these gifts. To you dear honor students, parents and loved ones, teachers and administrators, congratulations!  You have surely done well.  The good book says “To whom much is given, much is desired.”. And I say to you, make a difference – to your fellowman, to your community, to our country and the world. 

Bill Clinton ended his call thus:

“So much of modern culture is characterized by stories of self-indulgence and self-destruction.  So much of modern politics is focused not on honest differences of policy but on personal attacks.  So much of modern media is dominated by people who earn fortunes by demeaning others, defining them by their worst moments, exploiting their agonies.  Who's happier? The uniters or the dividers?  The builders or the breakers? The givers or the takers?

I think you know the answer.  There's a whole world out there that needs you, down the street or across the ocean.  Give.”