ABOVE PHOTO:University of Illinois-Urbana students take a break from the their "Bayani Challenge work in Albuerte, Leyte. Pictured from left are Edrian Padua, Jason Lamano, Walbert Castillo (PSA Philantrophy Chair), Eric Ordonez. Walbert Castillo helps in building GK homes for typhoon victims in Leyte.


UIC student: How I discovered my Filipino roots through

"Bayani Challenge" in Leyte and Cebu

By Walbert Castillo


As a Filipino-American, I am culturally unaware of my own ethnicity. Sadly, I feel this lack of understanding of one's culture runs deep in the minds of many whose parents have immigrated to America.

Sometimes all it takes is a leap of faith to delve into one's culture. This leap of mine started when I joined the Philippine Student Association (PSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later to become its philanthropy chair.

I became the liaison for members to reach out to non-profit organizations as well as find opportunities for volunteering. Several of these non-profits/organizations included American Cancer Society, Swann Special Care Center and the Philippine Red Cross.
All my life, I have always carried the biggest of dreams and with this year being on board, I wished to achieve goals not only for the organization but also to better myself.

Every November, PSA typically holds a conference called FACT (Filipino Americans Coming Together), which is a conference geared towards college/high school students designed to promote self-awareness, leadership and professionalism through the act of appreciating one's culture.

Early November last year , everyone at FACT was speaking about a super-typhoon that was on its way to the Philippines. This typhoon was going to be recorded as one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever surface in history.

As Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda ravaged Central Philippines, it struck our hearts. The worst part was, we could only stand there and watch as this deadly vortex took the lives of thousands. That following weekend, I, along with the board, raised around $3,000 for the victim of the disaster.

Seeing people constantly pray opened my eyes to a brighter outlook on life. One of the biggest motivators in my life was seeing people come together to reach a common goal and that's what FACT 2013 meant for me.

As PSA's philanthropy chair, I understood something had to be done. Through intensive work, development and planning, I directed and coordinated a volunteering service trip to bring PSA members to the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan.

I reached out to Gawad Kalinga in Chicago, then, I was able to finalize my traveling itinerary. GK Executive director Glenda Genio informed me about the "Bayani Challenge" and set my team up to volunteer in Leyte and Cebu. This was my perfect opportunity to bring back home a perspective unknown to the naked eye.

Immersing in the Philippines through Gawad Kalinga's Bayani Challenge was absolutely one of the greatest decisions I have ever made thus far in my life. To constructing and painting houses within the local communities of Leyte and Cebu, to planting mangroves in order to improve protection against future natural disasters and being compassionate in understanding the needs of toddlers (Paraisong Pambata), I would not have had it any other way.


Above Photo: GK Founder, Tony Meloto, (3rd fr. L) with the Benedictine University Gawad Kalinga volunteers July 8 at Little Quiapo Restaurant. The group volunteers every Christmas vacation in a Bacolod GK Village.

I am completely overjoyed that I was able to have Jason Lamano, Eric Ordonez, Edrian Padua and Carina Padua along my side on this journey. Without any of them, I would not have been able to successfully finish our part in the Bayani Challenge.

Through this experience, I intend to create a documentary to not only spread awareness to the current-day status of the Philippines but also share the beauty of our relief efforts. Thus far, I have been interviewing many of the citizens that have been caught in the destruction of the Typhoon, especially those from Tacloban, Leyte (the island that was impacted the most by the typhoon).

I will be editing and finishing up the documentary to present towards members of the Philippine Student Association and hopefully, to even a larger audiences back home. Tying it altogether, I learned that resilience is key.

As one of the villagers in Ormoc, Leyte told me, "The Typhoon was a wake-up call from God in disguise." Through the combined relief efforts of individuals in her community as well as those volunteers from all over the world, she discovered a sense of pure goodness in humanity.

Immersing myself within these communities, I witnessed the kindheartedness, enthusiasm and determination of these young kids, teens and adults who were devastated by the typhoon. Even though they didn't have much to offer, they did their utmost best to make sure we were fully accommodated with our needs.

Seeing millions of volunteers from different parts of the world come together for the Bayani Challenge reminded me of FACT at UIC-Urbana. No matter whether you are a Filipino-American or a native-born Filipino, what makes us strong is our ability to come together as one, to be resilient in our own way. That gives hope in all of darkness. It makes one grateful for God's grace despite the challenges in this world.


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