MANILA -- Annie Lee Masongsong taught students in a private school for 14 years before she started teaching members of a Mangyan tribe at Sitio Labo in Bansud, Oriental Mindoro. She traded her comfortable life as private school teacher to be an inspiration for tribe members who are not convinced on the power of education.

"Four years na po ako dito, at ang pag-uumpisa ko dito ay hindi naging madali dahil napakalayo ng lakaran, apat na hours na lakad at tatawid ng (I've been here for four years, and things weren't easy when I started here because of long-distance walking, we walk for four hours and cross) 16 waist-deep rivers," she told Philippine News Agency (PNA).

Photo courtesy of Department of Education

Because Labo Elementary School is in a remote area, Masongsong goes home weekly.

"I leave my family every Sunday or Monday at 4 a.m. with my co-teacher and I return home on Fridays. I got used to this set up but sometimes it becomes extra challenging for me on rainy days and the river currents are strong and I need to wait for them to subside," she added.

Apart from her clothes, Masongsong brings rice and other food items to school to encourage the Mangyans to attend her classes daily. She also brings colorful and attractive teaching aides which she creates manually during her free time.

"Sa totoo lang mahirap ang pagtuturo pero gagawin ko parin iyon dahil mahal na mahal ko sila. Naniniwala ako na matuto sila, gusto ko po kasi makapagtapos sila sa kolehiyo para balang araw kahit isa man lang sa kanila ay may magturo din sa lugar dito (The truth is it's difficult to teach but I'll do it because I love them dearly. I believe that they will learn, I want them to finish college so that one of them will be a teacher here)," she said.

The lack of electricity and potable water to drink may make life harder for an educator whose used to a comfortable living. But such situation pushed Masongsong even more to establish projects that would benefit the Mangyans and would make them feel that they are valuable members of society.

"Mayroon po akong 'Pagkain Para sa Lahat' project na layunin na mapakain lahat ng mga bata. Isang beses sa isang linggo, nagpapasuot ng damit na puti sa mga bata para maranasan nila kung paano magsuot ng magandang damit na pang-eskwela (I have a 'Pagkain Para sa Lahat' project which aims to feed all children. Once a week, I ask my students to wear white shirts so they'd feel how it is to wear nice clothes to school)," she said.

Her other projects included Sagip Kalusugan, Bahay Kalinga, Wika Mo, Wika Ko, Inuming Tubig Para sa Lahat and Baboy Para sa Pamilya. They all aim to improve the living conditions of the Mangyans even if they're residing in a remote place.

Masongsong said it may appear she teaches and gives everything to the Mangyans, but the truth is, it is the other way around as they teach her first hand the significance of sharing, unity, humility and perseverance.

"Kahit isang plato lamang ng kanin, paghahatian nila at hindi nila uubusin hangga't hindi sila lahat makakain... Nakikita ko ang pangangailangan ng mga bata, ang uhaw nila na matuto, kaya tumatagal ako dito (Even if it is just a plate of rice, they'll share and won't consume everything until everyone is able to eat...I can see their needs, they thirst for knowledge, that's why I'm able to stay longer here)," she said.

Since she is not with her students 24/7, Masongsong also teaches the parents to read and write so they can guide their children with their homework when she's away.

Photo courtesy of Annie Masongsong

Masongsong recalled that gaining the trust of the Mangyan parents was not easy but she stood firm on her guiding principle - to serve everyone with all your heart. Slowly, the tribe's doubts were replaced with love, kindness and respect for an educator who brought meaning to their existence as human beings and not just people of the mountains.

“Serve with all your heart. No reservations. Perform your duty the best that you can because we are given only one chance. If you do not make it good, somebody will take over and you might lose the chance to do your part. Wherever your feet are, that’s the best place you can perform your duty well,” she added.

Along with nine other Dangal ng Bayan awardees, Masongsong was recognized for her exemplary public service and consistent demonstration of exemplary ethical behavior based on the eight norms of conduct under Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

On Sept. 27, 2018, the Civil Service Commission gave her a Dangal ng Bayan Award at the 2018 Outstanding Government Workers Awards at the Rizal Hall, Malacañang Palace. (PNA)