(Excerpts from his graduation speech delivered on June 11, at the School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development)
To the graduating batch of SEED Philippines, this graduation is so special for us.
Most of us went through hell to get to where we are now, with hunger as an unwelcomed guest always knocking on our doors. But this did not stop us from striving to achieve our dreams.
Let me tell you my story. My name is Danilo Ablen, a 21-year old son of a former laundry woman. I was always a scavenger for food and love.
Living in extreme poverty, food was always scarce in my life as a squatter. Together with my four siblings, we received love from my distraught mother who could not make ends meet with the two husbands in her life who abandoned her, including my father who disappeared before I was born.
I was inspired by Tito Tony (Meloto’s) book, The Builder of Dreams, and the wisdom it resonated in the lives of people like me who suffered severe hunger and pain from abandonment by those who are supposed to provide and protect us. This line, “being poor is not just about lack of money but it is also about the lack of good fathers in the home”, was deeply moving.
At the very young age of 5, I was sent to a slum area in Baliwag, Bulacan just to keep me away from an abusive stepfather who then lived in Norzagaray. I grew up as a squatter under a bridge and faced day to day battles to survive.
As I grew older, I came to think that stealing, cheating, and lying were the easy ways to survive. Living in a pathetic environment under a bridge dehumanized me. I acted like an animal because people treated me that way, and the garbage I scavenged was a metaphor for my wasted life.
It was 2009 when Typhoon Ondoy, which had the most devastating effect in Luzon, destroyed our shabby shanty and left us with nothing but our pitiable lives that became more miserable.
The same year after the tragedy, my youngest sister Marie was diagnosed with Leukemia. We were so poor that my mother had to go around the town of Baliwag to beg for help to keep her alive.
I did not understand then why I had to crawl on the ground to collect loose change to get the next meal while others wasted so much food. I did not know then why life was unfair and unkind, but one thing I was sure of is that tomorrow will be a new day of hope.
My mother and sister went to the orthopedic hospital in Quezon City for further examination. While there, we met Father Arnold Abelardo who was then the hospital priest. Father Arnold helped gather sponsors to fund 12 chemotherapies for Marie who eventually died after the (treatments). My family went home with her inside a tiny coffin that could hardly fit in our small shanty.
Father (Abelardo) knew about our condition and our tenacity to survive. He got us a home (at the) GK Enchanted farm in Angat, Bulacan. It was just the start of many miracles in our life. I want to say thank you to Father Arnold—thank you Father for making this day very special for us.
Here, we finally found a home in a peaceful community. Together with my brother King, we were given a chance to enter college in SEED Philippines.
From being a scavenger, we now own a store and small restaurant that feeds French and Japanese interns and SEED students in the farm, which can provide for all our needs.
But it took a while for me to remove the residue of bad behavior and bad habits. I was lazy and disrespectful towards women and my teachers, especially Ma’am Angel. But none of you gave up on me and my batch mates who were struggling with old vices.
And this is something Tito Tony is strict about because at SEED, we are being trained to be men and women of honor, with self-control and discipline.
I was punished and given eight days of hard labor wherein I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to start digging and clearing the land until 6 p.m. every day. But in the end, I created a beautiful garden in the bamboo villa.
More than this, I realized that I was neither lazy nor good-for-nothing after all, something that my mother and neighbors used to accuse me of. I saw that I was capable of doing good things. I finally understood what Tito Tony meant about being grounded by loving our land and the people in the land.
What was a punishment for me became a privilege and a special opportunity to discover my own worth. I saw greater value in loving the land and making it productive rather than loving girls then make them pregnant and perpetuate poverty for the next generation.
Currently I have two enterprises: OHGK! A healthy drink concocted from oregano, honey, ginger, and kalamansi with Johnson Acdang and Angielyn Tamayo, (for which) our target is to produce 10,000 bottles a month in seven years; and an aquaculture enterprise with my younger brother King. We targeted to raise 20,000 tilapia and 10,000 catfish this year.
We plan to increase our production annually. This is my way to help end poverty for us and other families in the community.
I am very blessed to graduate with this amazing batch. We have all been transformed through inspiration and support from the time we decided not to take the vacation last summer to work on our social enterprises in the farm as our second home.
This place is a piece of heaven that gave us the confidence to persevere and fight for our dreams. As men of honor, we will all fight to achieve our dreams together, and we will show those from the bottom of the pyramid that if we can make it, then they can make it too.
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