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The Luke Foundation Inc.:
Passion, service, and heroism in social work
by Beatrisha Iglesia

Marie Coleman, a volunteer from Switzerland, accompanies the pupils as they wait for their turn in the reading test conducted by Luke Foundation, Inc. during its immersion activity in Longlong Elementary School in La Trinidad, Benguet -- Beatrisha Iglesia

In today’s world where money seems to be a priority whether one admits it or not, people tend to only care for themselves, their own families, or those within their immediate environment. One cannot easily say, for instance, that caring for oneself or one’s family first before others is wrong because the other way around for the most of us would seem too “ideal,” “unrealistic,” and “unpractical.” But while we think that taking always comes after giving, the people behind Luke Foundation, Inc. believe humanitarian service works best without any monetary reward.

In 1981, two doctors initiated medical missions in different communities in the Cordillera after noting that numerous patients do not avail themselves of the prescribed and necessary surgical operations to treat their visual, hearing, and speech impairments due to surging hospital fees and medicinal cost.

Dr. Ronaldo Paraan, an ophthalmologist, became the first eye doctor in Baguio City after he finished his medical course in 1979. While doctor’s fees are relatively cheaper before, Paraan noticed that some of his patients were not coming back for surgery only to find out after profile checking, these patients belong to low income brackets, having only enough money to make their daily ends meet.

Joining Paraan in medical missions is Dr. Edwin Cosalan, an ENT (ears, nose and throat) specialist. Together with other colleagues, the medical missions spanning five years opened Paraan and Cosalan to the reality that health services remain inaccessible to many Filipinos, especially to people in the hinterlands of the Cordillera.

In 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that poverty incidence in the country was seen at 21.6 percent which is equivalent to approximately 21.93 million Filipinos who do not have enough income to afford basic necessities, including health needs.

Although the figures cannot speak for the current status of the country’s health system, these numbers prove there has been an existing gap in terms of the availability of and access to health servi-ces. The crucial thing is, an individual’s health is not just an isolated problem. Aside from the fact that it is tied to an individual’s literacy and capability to function in society, it is also linked to the health of the community in general.

According to Cosalan, the experiences they had throughout the medical mission brought them to the realization that even though health services are available, these are not within the reach of poor communities. While government efforts are being made to attend to the health needs of poor Filipinos, public health services are not always inclusive of free surgical operations even if the condition requires urgency. In addition, the poor condition of roads leading to remote and mountainous areas hampers the delivery of medical services.

“So basically para bang kulang pa rin kaya nga tumutulong yung mga NGOs (non-government organizations), doon pumapasok ‘yung mga private and non-government organizations to fill the gap ng mga pwedeng kakulangan ng government health system.”

With the lack of doctors, hospitals, and medical equipment in various places in the region, Paraan and Cosalan saw the need to at least somehow fill up the void by voluntarily offering their professional services. As doctors, the prevalence of blindness, deafness, and speech defects among poor members of communities in the Cordillera and nearby areas encouraged them to help and give differently-abled persons hope that they too are important.

“We just don’t cure the disease, we have to make them functional members of the community,” Cosalan said.

Three decades of paying forward

To “pay forward” is to repay an act of kindness by passing on the good deed to other people. More than volunteerism, paying forward is somehow perceived as an obligation not just to a few people but to society which we are all a part of. It may seem idealistic but it is where the founders of Luke Foundation, Inc. began.

As alumni of the University of the Philippines, Paraan and Cosalan shared the same view that it is but right to give back to the people whose taxes enabled them to become the doctors that they have become. Paraan shared he finished college without paying more than P5,000 for the entire medical course.

“We are UP graduates; we owe the government and the people, utang namin sa bayan. What else would motivate us?”

While “iskolars ng bayan” are generally inclined toward the belief that they should “serve the people,” these doctors recognize the fact that before they became doctors, they are humans first and foremost. As humans, Paraan and Cosalan agreed that everyone deserves to be free from poor health conditions by having access to quality healthcare services regardless of one’s class or status in society.

The combined passion and interest to serve the public grew into a dedicated mission of an organization that began to help the poor in impoverished communities some 31 years ago. Formerly known as “Project Luke,” Luke Foundation, Inc. was established in 1986 with a vision of a better world – a society that is more inclusive and respectful to each and everyone’s right to health.

Marian Sanchez, executive officer of Luke Foundation, Inc., shared that the love for service is what ignited and continuously fuels the organization to stay committed to its mission. Equity is at the core of the organization’s principles. Its “bias for the poor” serves as a reminder to its people that those at the lower classes of society also deserve the health services that the rich can afford.

Sanchez said that choosing to stay put in the foundation is a challenging yet fulfilling decision. Coming from an average family, getting a well-paying job that would bring her financial stability is a never-ending issue with family and friends.

“It’s normal for any family member to feel na sinasayang mo ang buhay mo. Everytime na umuuwi ako, everytime na may mame-meet akong mga tao outside the foundation, they would always tell me bakit ka nagii-stay diyan, mag-goverment ka na lang, sayang, ang laki laki ng sweldo, ang daming opportunities. To me, that is one of the difficult ones. Malaki ‘yung impact niya eh, it somehow demotivates you.”

Taking part in the mission to bring health services closer to the poor for more than three years now, life for Sanchez has become a journey of becoming empowered while empowering others.

“It opened my eyes wider to the need for service. It also widened my ears better in terms of hearing better kung ano ang needs ng communities. My experiences has enabled me to hear stories from the ground, to hear stories from our leaders and our trustees, and be able to not just do things but also use my own voice and my own ways to advocate doon sa ginagawa ng foundation,” she said.

Amid the daunting tasks, Sanchez bank on the belief that paying forward begins in a simple initiative that can lead to the creation of positive changes to the lives of other people. As someone who has the passion for social work, she views her job as an avenue to transform a society where people care for each other.

Kahit mahirap siya gusto ko siyang gawin kasi kung hindi ‘yun ginawa ng ibang tao, hindi tayo nandito. Siguro kung hindi ko rin ito gagawin, paano na rin naman ‘yung iba? It’s not that I’m being messianic, pero naniniwala lang ako na kung may maibibigay ka, babalik ‘yan. Hindi man ‘yan sa ‘yo, kundi sa iba, kasi ‘yung ibang tao ibabalik din nila yun para sa iba.”

Simple acts of heroism

Aside from doctors Paraan and Cosalan, there are other 24 volunteer doctors, including anaesthesiologist, pediatricians, cardiologists, optometrists, and surgeons, who are active in helping the foundation fulfil its mission and share the passion of being “bias for the poor.” The social workers and army of volunteers, meanwhile, are the ones giving life to the foundation – sacrificing time and translating the goals of the organization into actions.

Myriam Coleman of Switzerland, who is in Baguio for a one-year volunteer work, helps in conducting trainings in public schools and communities for the prevention of blindness and deafness.

During one of the immersion activities of the foundation in a public elementary school in Benguet, Coleman has observed there are a number of students who cannot read or are having a hard time comprehending words which may be caused by the existence of eye problems at a young age.

Despite the challenges brought by the difference in cultures and being far away from her home, this kind of situations gives Sanchez the motivation to do something for the benefit of those who are left out in society.

“There are many things to do actually. I feel really bad and of course, someone should do something about it,” she said, referring to the unequal access to health services in the Philippines.

While others busy themselves in making big careers, Sanchez has chosen to become a volunteer for the poor not just because of her passion but also because she feels that the world needs her service.

“I think it’s a state of mind. It depends on many things. For this kind of things, it's cases by cases, from person to person. I don’t really mind doing a big career. My own question is, why don’t some people want to have a better world? Why are some people not doing anything to help others improve?”

Redefining success

For its first 25 years, Luke Foundation, Inc. was able to help 18,259 cataract patients, conducted 2,270 cleft lip and palate surgeries, and trained 5,123 health workers and parents across Northern Luzon.

These numbers only show one side of the success story of Luke Foundation, Inc. Instead of focusing on creating quantifiable results, Cosalan said that the foundation puts more importance to the impact made to the lives of their chosen beneficiaries which no number can measure.

According to Sanchez, one of the most favorite success stories of the members of the foundation is the life story of “Manang Linda” – a 50 year-old carinderia vendor who had a cleft lip and palate. Because of her condition, she was bullied and was not confident about herself. The surgery, however, enabled her to speak properly and develop self-esteem, reaching to the point that she even joined a beauty pageant in their locality.

With the intervention made by the foundation, those who felt powerless because of their impairments became confident about themselves and what they can do as equally significant members of society.

 “Success is when you hear how people’s lives changed positively because of an intervention. The medical intervention that we give is not the answer to everything. It is just one way or one ingredient to make people help themselves better. Sabi nga ‘di ba, you don’t give fish to people, you teach them how to fish,” Marian said.

By preventing blindness, treating deafness, and curing speech defects, Luke Foundation, Inc., through the efforts of its volunteers, doctors, social workers, staff members, and sponsors, empowers the differently-abled persons in society one surgery at a time. It sends the message that in a world filled with apathy and inequality, creating an inclusive society begins and revolves in having the passion to help the poor.

Such story gives hope that amidst chaotic and trying times, it is still valid to say that there is goodness left in the world. No matter how small it can be, an act of kindness will always travel far. True enough, becoming a hero is not about having fame or possessing power; it is simply being able to listen, see, and hear without expecting – or wanting – to be seen or heard.

Social worker Raquel Madlon (left) of the Luke Foundation, Inc. assesses the reading ability of a fourth grader through a reading test powered by a software donated by a foreign partner organization of Luke. -- Beatrisha Iglesia

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