TWENTY one year-old Sirene Villafrea and her two hungry kids did not mind crossing a river, hiking through a mountainous terrain and queuing under the midday sun for hours. For the frail young mother of two, a grocery pack and a free visit to a physician were worth the wait.
Villafrea was one of the almost 10,000 Dumagat natives living within the Ipo Dam in Norzagaray, Bulacan who barely have access to decent health services, education and sustainable source of livelihood. With her husband's meager income from fishing, kaingin, and planting of vegetable crops, healthcare is the least of their priority. Besides, it takes almost an hour, including a half hour boat ride, to get to the nearest barangay health center.
She was grateful when the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), together with the PNOY volunteer doctors, Norzagaray College, and the local government of San Mateo, Norzagaray conducted a health service mission for the residents of three sitios surrounding the Ipo Dam watershed on October 10.
Some 788 Dumagats received free medical and dental services while 600 grocery packs containing rice, coffee, canned goods and juice were distributed to the beneficiaries.
"Wala pong malapit na pagamutan o botika sa aming sitio. Kapag may nagkakasakit sa pamilya, halamang gamot kadalasan ang gamit namin. Kaya nagpapasalamat kami sa PAGCOR dahil may magagamit na kaming gamot at mga bitamina.(There is no accessible medical facility in our sitio. Whenever a family member gets sick, we only rely on herbal medicines. We are thankful for these services given by PAGCOR.
We now have some vitamins and medicines within our reach)," Villafrea said. Apart from the lack of health centers, the natives, according to Jonathan Manuel, 27, are faced with issues on poverty, lack of educational facilities, burgeoning population and deterioration of environmental conditions due to the depletion of forest reserves in the area.
Manuel is one of the two teachers in a government day care center who teaches students from Grades 1 to 6. With only one classroom and one lesson plan for all grade levels, the quality of education in the area greatly suffers.
Manuel added that because it is common for Dumagat females to get married and have children at the age of 14, population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.
According to Dr. Beda Espeneda, one of the 17 volunteer PNOY doctors, indigenous people such as the Dumagats are among the sectors that greatly need government attention. "They need to gain access to basic government services, to be empowered. Because they are a cultural minority, it is not always easy to reach out to them and meld into their culture. You have to earn their trust first," he said.
The volunteer surgeon, whose team has been consistently tapped for PAGCOR's medical and dental missions, added that providing free surgical procedures to less privileged indigenous communities is their ultimate goal. Majority of the patients, according to Espeneda complained of upper respiratory diseases, fever and pneumonia. "But there is also one patient with hernia. So, we asked the local officials here to list down the name of patients with surgical cases because we will come back for them soon," he explained.
Despite the Dumagats' reluctance to undergo surgical procedures, Espeneda is optimistic that they can carry out life-changing missions in the country's poorest communities. "It's not in the indigenous people's nature to subject themselves to medical procedures. But once you have shared your expertise, it will be easier to convince them of these medical needs, which will ultimately be for their own good," he added.
Myrna Nueva Espana, who heads the Nursing Department of Norzagaray College also shared that serving the less fortunate has always been fulfilling. Espana's team deployed 15 volunteer nursing students, two physicians and eight nurses. The local government of Norzagaray also deployed volunteers and municipal health workers for this PAGCOR-sponsored outreach program.