WISH COME TRUE. A total of 150 children from areas previously affected by the communist insurgency in Negros Oriental receive Christmas gifts at a mall in Dumaguete City under the Wish Upon A Star project on Dec. 15, 2022. Lt. Col. Roderick Salayo, commanding officer of the Army's 11th Infantry Battalion and Dr. Dino Depositario, deputy city administrator (left to right), are shown in photo together with the children. (Photo by Judy Flores Partlow)

DUMAGUETE CITY – For 10-year-old Rogelio (not his real name), watching the stars at night from his home in a hinterland barangay in Sta. Catalina, Negros Oriental is always a treat, especially when the dark sky is covered with the twinkling dots that could almost light up the entire village and its surroundings.

Rogelio lives in the remote sub-village of Canggabok in Barangay Nagbinlod, where electricity is scarce, and only a handful of houses enjoy minimal power from a single solar lamp.

The area is hardly accessible owing to a rough and bumpy all-weather road, and life is harsh for the majority of residents whose main source of income is in agriculture.

“I look up in the sky and make a wish to all the stars up there, and it makes me wonder if at least one star can make my dream come true,” he said in the Cebuano dialect.

“I was told by an elderly that if you see a falling star, and you are quick to make a wish, it will come true. But I don’t wait for a falling star, I just wish upon them all,” he said with a sheepish grin.

He never thought that this Christmas, not one but three of his wishes would come true after having been picked as among the 150 children from conflict-affected barangays in Negros Oriental to receive gifts through the Wish Upon A Star Project.

Early days of the light

The project was started 12 years ago by the Oriental Negros Children’s Advocacy Network (ONCAN) led by the late Marietta Jambora, through the Bayanihan Para sa Kabataan (BPK) and a host of other partners, sponsors and donors.

Every year, Jambora and volunteer organizers collaborate with the Philippine Army to identify the children that would each be featured in a paper star hung on a Christmas tree, with their photos, names, other personal information and their wishes written on it.

Jambora, in an interview during the early years of the project, said its name was coined from the biblical Star of Bethlehem, whose light shone brightly to guide the three Magi as they made their way to pay homage to the Child Jesus in a manger.

That light was a symbol of hope as it brought the Magi, or Three Kings as others call them, to see the “true Light, the Light of the world”, Jambora said.

During the last Wish Upon A Star in December 2019, Jambora said the project had benefited about 25,000 children.

The project came to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the quarantine restrictions that came with it.

Jambora also died in April 2021, not due to Covid-19 but of a lingering ailment, which contributed to the halting of the project.

For two years, the “light” among the organizers, volunteers and children dimmed due to the Covid-19 quarantine restrictions but in the second half of this year, hopes sprung up after ONCAN/BPK decided to revive the project.

Twinkle, twinkle little star

Aidalyn Arabe, BPK coordinator, said on Wednesday with a handful of volunteers still around, they buckled down to work and contacted Brig. Gen. Leonardo Peña, commander of the 302nd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army, to help identify children in the area previously affected by the communist insurgency.

Peña gave the go-signal to the 11th Infantry Battalion to coordinate with ONCAN/BPK to ensure the success of the project.

The organizers also started reconnecting with previous partners, sponsors and donors, and while pressed for time, they forged ahead amid the stumbling blocks they encountered.

“We started fresh, even if at first we just identified only 100 children this time,” she said.

In the previous years, at least 250 children were beneficiaries of Wish Upon A Star project.

Volunteer Jing Arnaez said everything fell into place, bit by bit, even though there were times that they felt like giving up.

It was during this time that they missed the presence of Jambora, whom they fondly called “Baby J” or “Madame Baby”, because her sheer determination to make these children’s wishes come true during Christmas was very inspiring.

Lt. Col. Roderick Salayo, the commanding officer of the Army’s 11th Infantry Battalion in central and southern Negros, said it was a huge challenge for him and his troops to find these children.

“It was not easy because we had to ask the help of the teachers, and go house-to-house and talk to the parents, and some of them were wary about the project and wanted to make sure they were safe,” Salayo said.

Soldiers were also running short on time and resources, considering the distance that they had to travel to reach the children and their families, on top of their mandate of maintaining peace and security.

The children came from Sitio Avocado in Barangay Talalak and Sitio Canggabok in Barangay Nagbinlod, all in Sta. Catalina town; Barangay Dobdob in Valencia; and Barangay Tayak in Siaton.

Over the years, the Philippine Army has played a big role in this endeavor as they had to ferry the children and their chaperones on board military trucks to and from a shopping mall in the city and ensure their safety and security.

Most of the kids said it was the first time for them to step foot in the city, ride an escalator and tour the mall.

The Light of Hope

A Christmas tree with 150 stars was put up in the mall’s lobby, with people coming to pick their choices for the holiday treat.

On Dec. 15, the children arrived early and were given the tour and lunch. A program followed with the gift-giving taking center stage. Refreshments were also served while a fast-food mascot entertained them alongside local song and dance talents.

The wish lists of the children included groceries, school supplies, clothes, toys, bags, shoes, and bicycles, and all of them were provided by their individual sponsors and other sources.

A partner credit cooperative donated some bicycles while other partners also handed in cash.

Salayo, in his message, lauded the initiative saying not only does this give joy to the children but also brings hope for peace in the areas they come from, which in the past was confronted with the presence of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA).

He said the project complements government efforts through the whole-of-nation approach to achieve sustainable peace and development.

The battalion commander is also hopeful that the rural electrification program of the government will finally bring light to these areas.

Following the successful staging of the ONCAN-BPK, the group said they have started discussions on reorganizing to continue its advocacies while paying tribute to Jambora.

“The spirit of Christmas is about sharing love and igniting a light that would forever touch lives. The Wish Upon a Star is initiated to make the Christmas wishes of underprivileged kids from the hinterlands or conflict-affected areas come true,” Arabe said.

“It aims to give these kids happiness and memories that would change their outlook in life and the future for the better. It’s just a simple initiative but can be a catalyst for change,” she added.

Ping Relles Uy, another volunteer, said: “the Star of Christmas signifies the birth of Christ in reference to the gospel of Matthew. And the star is also a beacon of hope, hope for the children at risk: street children, children in conflict with the law, abused children, children from disadvantaged families, orphans, children with disabilities, and children from different Communist insurgency-affected areas in the province of Negros Oriental.”

“The happiness that you can see in these children’s faces upon receiving their gifts reflects the joy that they felt and it is the most heartwarming experience,” she added.

Arnaez thanked the co-organizers and everyone who helped to make this wish come true not just for the children but for ONCAN/BPK.

“I cannot name them one by one because it is such a long list of key players in this event but we all look forward to collaborating with them again next year and in the years to come,” she said.

They are hoping that following the re-organization of their group, they can resume next year “going back to the mountains and bringing their advocacies with them to the children in areas that are still facing threat from the Communist insurgency, and surely, the light will be shining brighter this time,” she added. (PNA)