SORSOGON – It all started with a Facebook post.
Teacher Noemi Lumbao wanted nothing more than to accommodate the growing number of students at the San Rafael National High School (SRNHS) in Pilar, Sorsogon.
All it had was one temporary school building on the first year. It had no flooring and every time the wind blew, a "sandstorm" would spray sand on everything including books, food, clothes, even children’s eyes.
Another problem was that for the following school year, the school had no room for the incoming freshmen. It also had no toilet.
Noemi decided to create a Facebook account for the school and posted an appeal for help. She explained how many students were expected to enroll in the coming schoolyear and that the school had only a temporary building.
And then, everything changed for SRNHS, which nestles on top of a hill that overlooks the sea, constantly hammered by strong winds and, during "habagat" months, waves crashing against the hillside. It takes 30 minutes of motorized banca ride from the main port of Pilar to reach the school.
SRNHS is not an ordinary school because ordinary schools usually have their facilities built by funds coming from government. Indeed, SRNHS is extraordinary because it expanded and flourished with the help of social media and bayanihan.
Now, SRNHS has three properly constructed buildings with six classrooms. Noemi finally has a proper office, with a proper toilet. The last building came to be after a project proposal for a school building that Noemi submitted to Kalahi-CIDSS was approved.
It was in 2009 when teacher Noemi, then assigned at the Pilar Comprehensive National High School, received the offer from DepEd district office to be OIC of the school that was about to be built.
The San Rafael Barangay Council was determined to have one in their area and a generous resident donated a hectare of land on a hill with a cliff that drops down to the ocean. DepEd officials at first refused to allow a school to be built there and relented only after being reassured that measures would be taken to make it safe for kids.
Noemi went to see the place first before deciding. Apparently, she saw something more than the bare land which only had three “durumon” trees – a native tree with extremely sour fruits, usually eaten by birds – standing in the middle, kept company by the concrete posts the barangay had erected to start a temporary school building.
What she saw was the challenge of building a school from scratch, in a barangay where the only options are to study in the town center and take the boat every day, or walk several kilometers to the nearest secondary school, or simply give up after grade school.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Noemi described how she would usually encounter three to four large boats full of students. But when rainy season comes and waves are too strong, students are forced to stay away from the sea and skip school days at a time.
Money is also a major problem. Students need at least P20 a day for boat fare and lunch, a huge drain for poor fishing families most of whom have more than one kid to send to school.
Knowing these and wishing to give this small village a chance to better itself encouraged people to actively support the school. Among them are kindhearted netizens, OFWs who are natives of Pilar, parents of school-aged children and other residents of San Rafael and nearby villages.
Help poured in
But Noemi, after making the Facebook account, was not comfortable with soliciting money. She spoke to the PTA to get the parents to help as the school’s counterpart.
"Pangit ang laging nanghihingi ng wala kang puhunan," she said. "Dapat bago ka manghingi, may ipinakita ka munang effort."
Many netizens who saw her post were moved. Some donated hollow blocks and others gave cash. Noemi and the school netted more than P70,000. The school had its second classroom by school opening. Noemi posted all the donors in FB and all the expenses incurred.
Later, a priest came to the school to celebrate mass and noticed the “sandstorm.” He found a parishioner willing to shell out P15,000 which the school used to buy materials. The older boys volunteered to help cement the floors.
During her first months as OIC, Noemi and the teachers had no toilet to use. She herself already had urinary bladder operation. She said they just hid behind an umbrella or the kamoteng kahoy. It took half a year before the school had a toilet (read: with a toilet bowl and four walls, but no water and no floor), again with the help of generous supporters.
The school also received in October last year 50 units of computers from the Department of Education. They came with a satellite dish that allows SRNHS to be connected to the world through the web. It also has a small library with books donated by Ateneo de Manila University.
On March 27, the first batch of SRNHS graduates received their diplomas. Of the 94 graduates, 27 were 20 years old and above, way past the normal high school age in the Philippines. For them, high school graduation was a vague dream until SRNHS was built.
Among the graduates were 54-year old Anita Galano Loriaga and son Anjay who studied and graduated with her. Mommy Nitz, as she is called by teachers and fellow students, is a widow who used to sell fish and wash clothes, supporting seven children, the youngest being 10 years old.
When the school first opened, one of her customers, a teacher, kept at her until she agreed to enroll. For Noemi, who already passed the qualifying exam for principal, said getting Mommy Nitz to graduate is worth more than any promotion. For her, she is the school’s greatest achievement.
Noemi explained how it is always extremely difficult to convince school aged kids to not drop out but even more so for someone with Mommy Nitz’s age, who is also a sole breadwinner.
When Mommy Nitz was about to give up during sophomore year because of financial difficulties, the five teachers of SRNHS decided to contribute P200 each every month as some sort of allowance for her. Mommy Nitz at first refused to receive any money but eventually agreed when told she could help around the school.
Mommy Nitz and the rest of the graduates held their graduation rites using the school stage that was finished just a few days before graduation. School programs before this were held at the barangay basketball court which entailed several minutes of walking for students and made them vulnerable to accidents and other risks. Again, bayanihan and Facebook were instrumental
It took a while for the stage to be built because the hauling cost for construction materials is twice as much as the cost of materials themselves. Noemi also said the school decided to prioritize the sound system, power generator, LCD projector, lapel mic – needed to make the teachers heard in classrooms of 80 students – and other needs. Again, all of these including the stage construction, were bought from funds raised through Facebook and residents who supported Noemi and the school.
Still a few problems
Students have to bring 1.5 liters of water in Coke bottles every day for use in the toilets. Noemi said DepEd cannot have a water facility built until the school finds a water source.
The barangay thus started on a deep well project inside the school grounds to address this need. A water tank would then be needed for water storage. For drinking water, the school has to have water gallons hauled from Pilar town by boat since the water in island is salty and not fit for drinking.
Another problem is the continuing shortage of classrooms. Early freshmen enrollees for next schoolyear have already reached 72, according to Noemi, which means two additional rooms.
Despite these however, SRNHS now is a far cry from the school that opened in 2010 with just one temporary school room and no toilet. Parents, teachers and supporters from social media give much of the credit to the 40-year old Noemi.
“It was here in San Rafael that I felt how truly noble the teaching profession is. It gives hope, even just the possibility of better futures. Di ba maganda yun?” she told ABS-CBN News.
It was also Noemi who serves as administrator of the Facebook account of SRNHS, thus serving as a bridge between the virtual and real, between the community of students, parents and teachers of SRNHS and the netizens.