He is a silent, soft-spoken man, the type who would not initiate a conversation just to kill time. But once you engage him in conversation, especially if the topic pertains to agriculture, cooperativism or volunteerism, you would see his face light up and he would start talking animatedly and passionately.

A volunteer for 25 years now

“Many people are marginalized and need help.  The government alone cannot do the work.”

It was this realization twenty-five years ago that started Mr. Marcelo Abela’s volunteer work.  During his term as Barangay Captain in the late 1980s, during which time barangay officials did not receive any allowance, he observed and experienced the sad plight of his fellow residents in Barangay Alapang, La Trinidad.  A native of the Province of  Benguet,  he lamented the fact that people in his barangay, together with those in the far-flung areas of Benguet,  were not prioritized in the provision of basic services.  He observed how the small farmers had to leave their farms for at least a day to go to the town center so that they can avail of government services, and then just to come home even more frustrated and unsatisfied. This gave Mr. Abela the idea of organizing the farmers in his barangay into a cooperative.

Cooperativism as the way to a united and stronger agriculture sector

The Barangay Alapang Multi-Purpose Cooperative (BALMUCO) was established shortly after the 1990 earthquake.  Its main objective was to provide small loans to the earthquake-stricken residents of the barangay, most of whom are farmers.  Another objective of the cooperative was to provide potable water to the residents, who before then were fetching water from far away springs.

Starting with 30 members and a start-up capital of P12,000.00, it rose to a 600-member organization with a capital of P6.5 million.  Aside from offering loans and providing potable water to the residents of Barangay Alapang which then extended to the adjoining barangays, the cooperative is now into the bottled water business as an additional source of income.

Other volunteer activities

            Aside from BALMUCO, Mr. Abela also is an active volunteer of the Regional Agricultural and Fishery Council (RAFC) of the Department of Agriculture. A part of the RAFC  since 2006,  he ended his fourth term as Chairman in July this year.  Before that, he was  Municipal AFC Chairman for two years (1994-1996), then was head of the Benguet Provincial AFC for the next ten years (1996-2006).  The Agriculture and Fishery Councils serve as advisory bodies that monitor agriculture and fishery programs, projects and activities. These councils also serve as consultative and feedback mechanisms from the grassroots level of stakeholders to the decision-makers.  Members of these councils work on a voluntary basis and are not given allowances or honoraria for their work.

Mr. Abela is also an active member of the Cordillera Regional Development Council (CAR RDC).  He is the RDC Private Sector Representative for the IP Sector and is the Co-Chairman of the RDC Committee on Indigenous Peoples Concerns.

As if these were not enough, Mr. Abela is also a tireless advocate of organic farming and believes in the strengthening of the organic agriculture movement in the country.

A challenging yet life-changing experience

“A volunteer’s life is never easy”, Mr. Abela says.  Cordillerans are basically shy and individualistic people.  They would rather do things on their own.  He also observed that many are of the notion that people volunteer because they have political ambitions.  This is why it is difficult to get them involved in volunteer-led programs and projects.

In spite of these difficulties, however, Mr. Abela believes that volunteerism is worth all the hardships, challenges and disappointments.  “There were a lot of times in the past when I got so exasperated with the very people I wanted to help that I just wanted to quit being a volunteer.  But then I get energized again when people thank me for helping improve their plight.”

Volunteerism in the Philippines

Mr. Abela is happy to note that volunteerism has been on the rise these past years.  From the recent environmental disasters all over the country arose thousands of volunteers from all ages and all walks of life.

Asked what advice he can give to the country’s younger batch of volunteers, without blinking an eye, he said “Volunteers should be patient, open-minded, and should do things by example.  We should always walk the talk so that people will see the sincerity in our actions and thus would want to be a part of what we are doing”.  He also cautioned, “But while we believe in what we do and can do, we should also know our limitations and recognize them”.

The veteran volunteer added that government should give more support to the country’s local volunteer sector. Volunteers and their contribution to the development of the country should be given more recognition.  There is also a need to organize the volunteer sector.  Conferences, summits and regional, national, and even international meetings for volunteers should likewise be conducted on a regular basis to keep the volunteers abreast of what is being done and share among fellow volunteers best practices for better program and project implementation.

True happiness

For  Mr. Abela, to be happy is to be able to help someone. “Being a volunteer has taught me to focus not on the material things, but rather on what really matters in life – having a closer relationship with my God, and being able to help my fellowmen.“  (Ma. Emelie G. Daquipil)