By Mae Lorraine Rafols Lorenzo
Photos by Noel B. Pabalate
Additional photos from Ricky Medenilla & Lorraine Badoy
There will come a time when we’ll be faced with a life-changing situation that allows us to choose how it can alter the course of our lives. We can choose to be indifferent, and that’s okay, or we can choose to be involved and change someone else’s fate.
Newlyweds Ricky and Pia Medenilla chose the latter when they decided to help nine Sacadas from the proud T’boli tribe who allegedly escaped “labor hell” in Hacienda Luisita. They didn’t just touch lives with their actions—they restored faith in humanity.
Opening the gates
Two months ago, Ricky and his soon-to-be brother-in-law Pey Canlas were heading out of their home near Camp Aguinaldo when they noticed nine individuals camped out on their parking area seemingly waiting for something.
The group, most of whom were in their senior years, had been there for two days, and that prompted Ricky to approach them to ask what they were waiting for. Their story crushed him.
The nine individuals camped out on their gate were farmers from the T’boli tribe in South Cotabato who worked as Sacadas (farmers recruited from the highlands) on the sugarcane fields of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac. According to them, they just escaped three months of grueling work, suffering mental and physical abuse from recruiters who “promised them a chance at a better life.”
It was hard to believe their story at first: They just came from a place that promised comfortable room and board, but instead reportedly placed them in a stifling hot shelter where they were asked to scourge the garbage for meals. It was said that they ate only one full meal a day, which was deducted from their final pay, a figure that was a far cry from the promised R500/day wage. The farmers had to fill at least five trucks with sugarcane, so they could be paid a measly R9/day of backbreaking work. Or so they claimed. The case is still under investigation.
Claims of physical abuse were given, and when they couldn’t take it anymore, they were allowed to go—but first they needed to fill a 150-ton load of sugarcane. When they left, they had no money, and it had been three days since they last had a decent meal before they decided to head to Camp Aguinaldo hoping to “hitch” a ride on the C130 plane of the army that frequents South Cotabato.
The elders claimed, however, that they were not allowed inside the camp for lack of direct contact or even identification. So they camped outside hoping officers would take notice and help them go back to the fields they left due to a rodent infestation. They said guards at the camp had to drive them away due to security reasons, and the shunning left them more scared than ever of getting in trouble with strangers.
And then Ricky and Pia opened their gates.
“To tell you the truth, I was skeptical at first. I’ve helped people similarly before, and they ended-up looting my home,” said Pia, a businesswoman and broadcast reporter.
It was Ricky who convinced Pia to believe their story. As someone who comes from a humble background and who’s familiar with the roots of manual labor, it broke his heart to see fellow laborers, and senior ones at that, who allegedly went through such a traumatic experience.
“Naiyak po talaga ako. Ang naisip ko noon, paano kung ’yung magulang ko ’yon?” (“I cried. All I could think of is what if it were my parents?”)
The couple opened their gates, and their homes to the strangers, who would eventually become their friends. And it was when they shared their story that Pia was finally convinced that they were “victims of unfortunate circumstances.”
“You can see with the way they ate, the way they carried themselves. They showed us that they did not want to take advantage and bother people. They really just wanted to go home,” said Pia, who wasn’t able to sleep when she finally heard the whole story of the Sakada farmers.
“It broke my heart. How could someone do something like that to a fellow human being?”
Miracle in motion
The next events that transpired can be described as nothing short of a miracle. The nine farmers were brought to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for support. They were promised help to get them back to their province, and to see what could be done for their case.
The ordeal proved too much for the farmers, that one of them named Amira, hugged Pia’s legs asking her not to leave them for fear that they would be hurt. It took some time before they coaxed everyone to trust the office of Secretary Judy Taguiwalo.
One of the couple’s friends, Joel Pablo, posted on social media the plight of the T’boli farmers which got the attention of DSWD Asec. Lorraine Badoy, who also posted about it on her personal Facebook page. Her post not only narrated the story of the T’boli farmers, but also asked help from her followers.
The reply was overwhelming. Pia and Ricky were able to raise as much as R180,000 from donors, and groups like Duterte’s Kitchen donated sacks of rice for the farmers to bring home to their families.
“It was overwhelming. We were transparent when it came to the donations and we showed people how much were being deposited. We saw large sums, but there were more small sums like R100 to R500 coming in. It showed us that help came from various social classes. Everyone was willing to help,” said Pia.
The farmers also requested Jollibee, and people gamely answered to the call. “Umulan ng Chicken Joy!” Pia fondly recalled. Other treats also came in boxes like donuts and other pastries.
“Their experience was traumatic, but the acts of kindness shown by strangers showed the farmers that there are still good people there, that they shouldn’t lose hope in humanity.”
And the help didn’t stop there. The experience has inspired Ricky and Pia so much that they changed their wedding invitations and asked guests to donate to a fund they setup for the farmers instead of giving them the usual wedding gifts. And their giveaway? A copy of the Philippine Graphic Magazine, which featured the plight of the Sacadas, so people would know more of their story.
The amount “gifted” to them during their wedding became the seed fund of yet another project from Pia and Ricky—to start a cooperative in South Cotabato that aims to protect communities whose farmers are claimed to be the most exploited, and have a streamlined and systematic organization that will prioritize their plight.
“My mother, the late Ofelia Castro taught me that it is human nature for people to help. She inspired me to do this with my husband. The Sacada farmers touched our lives and we wanted to do something significant. We don’t want to just help them temporarily. We want to do something sustainable that will not just help the T’boli farmers, but other tribes who have been victims of this kind of exploitation,” said Pia.
The Medenillas are hoping to raise as much as R2-million to see their project come into fruition, and used the initial amount they got from their wedding as seed money. The goals are simple yet necessary: To Support another community like the T’bolis such as the Lumads; to help the government address poverty in far-flung areas; and to create local jobs so they can encourage people to stay where they are and avoid exploitation.
Currently, a portion of the funds is being used to file a case against the recruiters of Hacienda Luisita, with the help of the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA). They are also in talks with officials from the Cooperative Development Authority and the DSWD to jumpstart the farmer’s cooperative. Pia is also personally advocating reproductive health within the community, reaching out to the Commission on Population (POPCOM) to help educate women in the communities.
The couple will also encourage the members to personally donate to their COOP’s seed fund, so they can take pride in the foundation of their cooperative. Aside from livelihood and reproductive health, education will also be a main goal for the group.
“At the end of the day, people need to know that this is not about us. This is about them. I want their stories to mean something, help them be happy and see their worth in the community,” said Pia.
To support the Sakadas, you can donate via GavaGives: https://www.gavagives.com/sacadas-ang-muling-pagbangon; or donate via the following bank accounts: BPI Savings (Pia Castro, 004489-0227-91, Capitol Hills), BDO (BDO Savings, Pia Castro, 007640-0367-95), or via Xoom or PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org).To know more about the project, visit: https://web.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1386100144787999&id=1386082858123061&_rdc=1&_rdr.