MANILA – Aspiring pastry chef Mary Jane Balanon was only 15 years old when she gave birth to her firstborn. At a young age, she dropped out of school, gave up on her dreams, and took the first job available to help her husband provide for their family.
Prior to the pandemic, Balanon was a contractual sales lady at a department store in Sampaloc, Manila. But when the pandemic hit the Philippines, she and her husband became casualties of a massive retrenchment caused by an economic slump that shook the Philippines to its core.
“Sobrang hirap po mawalan ng trabaho. Dalawa po ang anak namin, at mahirap makitang nagugutom sila. Wala naman po kaming ibang mahingan ng tulong dahil pati mga kamag-anak namin ay hirap din dahil sa pandemya,” the 26-year-old Balanon said.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 4.25 million Filipinos were unemployed in September 2021, while 6.18 million were considered underemployed.
For breadwinners like Balanon, giving up was not an option. Instead of drowning in debt, she upskilled herself via Virlanie Foundation’s pastry-making program, where she found her “calling.”
“Talagang nagtiyaga akong matutong gumawa ng pastries,” Balanon said. “Nai-inspire din po ako sa mga kasama ko. Mayroon pong biyuda, may PWD, may single moms.”
Jeanneth Odon, a mother of three, had just lost her husband, a construction worker, last January. “Na-heart attack po. Pag-uwi ng bahay, bigla nalang nahilo, natumba, at nabagok ang ulo,” she recalled. Although tragic, Odon said her husband’s death taught her how to stand on her own feet.
“Magmula nang mamatay ang asawa ko, natuto po talaga akong dumiskarte para sa pamilya ko. Tatlo po ang anak na kailangan kong suportahan. Kaya napakalaking tulong nitong pagbi-bake namin sa pangtustus sa pang-araw-araw na pangangailangan ng pamilya,” she said.
“Parang na-empower po ako,” she quipped. “Na-realize ko na ang babae pala ay kayang magtaguyod ng pamilya nang mag-isa.”
Balanon and Odon are just two of the Virlanie-trained bakers who are supplying banana breads for #BrigadangAyalaKaakay. When Virlanie’s Community Programs Manager Emma Solasco informed them about Ayala’s food distribution program—where they were asked to produce breads for 10,000 families a week—none of them winced nor recoiled. They were all excited, in fact.
“First time po namin maka-receive ng ganoon karaming orders. Dati po, 50 banana loaves lang ang ginagawa namin sa isang araw. Pero ngayon, nakakagawa kami ng mahigit 2,000 sa isang linggo,” Odon said. “Sobrang saya, sobrang laking tulong po.”
According to Solasco, #BrigadangAyalaKaakay had an immediate effect to the lives of their beneficiaries. Most of them were already drowning in debt and had sold their home appliances just to survive the pandemic.
“I remember noong sinabi kong ang Ayala kukuha ng bread sa amin, talagang nagsigawan sila: ‘Yes! Pangarap lang namin itong ganito kalaking orders.’ Actually, dream ko rin iyon para sakanila. Tinupad ng Ayala ang pangarap ng Virlanie at ng ating beneficiaries,” Solasco added.
And while sometimes it takes them until midnight to work on the orders, Odon said it’s all worth it, especially when they see fellow breadwinners enjoying the product of their labor.
“Sulit po ang pagod kahit magdamag kaming naghahanda dahil kumikita kami at nasasarapan sila sa mga tinapay namin. Lalo na ngayong may pandemya, hindi lahat nabibigyan ng pagkakataon na kumita. Dahil sa ‘Kaakay,’ kumikita kami ng maayos at sapat para sa mga pangangailangan ng pamilya namin,” Odon added.
Balanon, meanwhile, said she sets aside everything she earns from this gig. “Para po ito sa pag-aaral ng mga anak ko,” she quipped, adding that she would work tirelessly, day and night, so her children would not have to drop out of school like she did.
Yesterday, #BrigadangAyalaKaakay distributed over 1,000 food packs to its Makati-based beneficiaries at Virlanie Center. Art Tan, Group President & CEO of AC Industrials, led the distribution with members of his leadership team.
“I was deeply touched by the stories of breadwinners like Mary Jane Balanon and Jeanneth Odon,” Tan said. “They are proof of how hardworking and determined our fellow Filipinos are to uplift themselves. It’s easy to lose hope when one gets retrenched or loses a loved one during the pandemic. Mary Jane and Jeanneth showed how we can all bounce back through persistent upskilling, diskarte, and malasakit. All we really need is a Kaakay, somebody to offer a hand and open opportunities.”
#BrigadangAyalaKaakay is a 12-week food distribution program that aims to reach 10,000 families or about 500,000 individuals across Metro Manila. Each beneficiary receives a weekly supply of rice, fresh vegetables, canned goods, and bread that will cover four square meals for a family of five. The food distribution program is scheduled weekly from November 2021 to February 2022.