SARAH Cabante, 12, a ninth grader, joined her friends on a gloomy Wednesday morning to discuss their learning modules at the Happy Forest Kids (HFK) Center -- a learning center located in a remote community in Sitio Catmonan, Barangay Macambol, Mati City, Davao Oriental in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.

The center, just stone’s throw away from her home, serves as a learning sanctuary for indigenous children who have little to no access to essential educational services and learning materials, a concern that worsened during the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

“We don’t have our personal computers and mobile phones, and internet connection here is very unstable. I usually borrow my mother’s phone and use it for my assignments but it’s not always available as she also uses it for work, that is why we go here (center) because it's free and available,” Sarah told SunStar Davao in vernacular.

Like Sarah, children in this upland and coastal community are generally deprived of technological gadgets and strong connectivity, while others remain computer illiterate.

DAVAO. Happy Forest Kids Center-Catmonan has become a go-to learning address to indigenous children in Sitio Catmonan, Barangay Macambol, Mati City, Davao Oriental. In July 2021, the Davao Oriental State University’s (DOrSU) Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (BSIT) Extension Program installed five computers with internet connection at the center under the HFK Computer Literacy and New Normal Learning Program. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

DAVAO. Sarah Cabante, 12, one of the beneficiaries of Happy Forest Kids Center-Catmonan. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

When the pandemic hit early 2020, young learners from this poor community with over 120 children from primary school to Senior High School were greatly affected.

In the Philippines, to respond to the threats of Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Education shifted from face-to-face classes to three modalities: Modular (printed or digitized), online learning, and radio and television-based instruction, or a combination of these (blended learning).

In remote areas like Sitio Catmonan, most schools located here turned to modular learning as going online posed a bigger challenge due to unreliable internet connectivity, or worse, no internet at all in some areas. These poverty stricken areas also had no funds to provide technology-based learning materials and facilities for their children.

But for Sarah’s mother Ruth, even with modular learning, internet access is still essential.

“Some items in their modules are too difficult. It contains no examples and questions are out of nowhere that’s why we need to really search it online. But the problem before (early stage of the pandemic) was I don’t have my smartphone yet. So they need to go to their neighbors to ask for help in answering their modules,” she said.

This is where HFK stepped in. Seeing connectivity and lack of learning materials and gadgets as hindrance to children’s education in the new normal, HFK - Catmonan coordinator/champion and owner of Darrporrt Camping Site, Daruel Porlares pushed for providing computers and internet connection in the area under the HFK Computer Literacy and New Normal Learning Program.

DAVAO. HFK-Catmonan coordinator/champion and owner of Darrporrt Camping Site, Daruel Porlares. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

For residents with mobile phones, they rely on a “Pisonet WiFi” connection, a popular internet service in connectivity-challenged remote communities like Catmonan. It works by inserting P1 to P10 coins in exchange for a 15 minutes and an hour of internet service, respectively.

Adjusting from in-person learning to modular is hard in itself for the children but that burden became heavier with the lack of stable internet connectivity and learning gadgets.

Ruth shared how hard life was at the onset of the pandemic to the point that they have to set aside buying cheap coffee to ensure food on the table. Her family’s income was at the lowest when her husband was unable to get enough money from fishing and when the resort-camping site she was working for was temporarily shut down.

The resort she works for as a trusted caretaker is Darrporrt Camping Site, where HFK center is housed.

“The start of the pandemic was the hardest. It fell during the off-season of fishing so my fisherman husband has no enough income for us and Covid-19 restrictions were so tight that he can’t find side hustles. The resort I was working at was closed for months, my weekly income of P700 was cut to P300,” the mother of four shared.

Ruth said they are struggling to make ends meet that buying a phone or a laptop and installing internet connection for their children’s schooling are far possible given their financial situation.

DAVAO. Ruth Cabante, 33, the Happy Forest Kids-Catmonan center and Darrporrt Camping site’s caretaker, drives a motorcycle to attend to the needs of visitors within the property. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

The province of Davao Oriental, where the Cabante family resides, has an average family poverty incidence of 24.5 percent, a bit higher compared to the national average of 23.7 percent as of the first semester in 2021 according to Philippine Statistics Authority.

Poor rural connectivity

According to the United Nations Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals, over 700 million people around the world remain without digital access as of 2020.

In the Philippines, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and Philippine Statistical Research and Training Institute-led National ICT Household Survey (NICTHS) in 2019 revealed that only half of the country’s 42,046 barangays or villages have telecom operators in the area and only 30 percent have fiber optic cables installed.

ICT-Davao Inc. President Samuel R. Matunog said poor digital infrastructure that serves rural areas amplifies the years-long problem of insufficient digital services in the country. This problem, he said, became more apparent during the pandemic as inadequate ICT infrastructure has widened the digital divide.

“Digital divide” as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is “the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard to both their opportunities and access to ICT and use of the internet for a wide variety of activities.”

“A more reliable and faster internet connection can accelerate economic growth,” Matunog said.

In addressing access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity, Matunog suggested that the government needs to introduce and enforce a policy that promotes accessibility, affordability, and quality of the internet.

Digital learning for indigenous youth

HFK Center, for years, has become a hub for different private individuals and organizations for their outreach programs and activities. The center’s digital inclusion programs are mainly funded through donations from partner organizations and individuals.

In July 2021, the Davao Oriental State University’s (DOrSU) Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (BSIT) Extension Program installed five computers with internet connection at the center under the HFK Computer Literacy and New Normal Learning Program. These computers were donated by Avon Independent Managers Multi-purpose Cooperative.

The program is a collaboration between DOrSU BSIT program, Darrporrt, and Pinoy Konek.

DAVAO. The Happy Forest Kids Center in Catmonan is a two-story wooden center that is open to all children in the community who want to read different kinds of books, use the computers, and connect to the internet for educational purposes. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

“We envision this as their safe place whenever they want to use computers and access the internet, of course, we limit it for educational purposes only. We want them to be responsible users of these technologies,” Porlares said in a separate interview.

HFK-Catmonan has around 120 children beneficiaries, mostly elementary and senior high school students.

Glyssa Claire Cabrera, 11, a sixth grader at Catmonan Elementary School and one of the beneficiaries of the center shared she would usually spend two to three hours in the center to use the computer in answering her modules. Her time spent here is sometimes extended as she also helps her seven-year-old brother, John Ian, on his tasks as the latter still doesn’t know how to use a computer.

Like Sarah, Glyssa also considers the center as her second home as it’s the only resources she can use given their financial situation.

DAVAO. Glyssa Claire Cabrera, 11, a sixth grader at Catmonan Elementary School and one of the beneficiaries of the center, shared she would usually spend two to three hours in the center to use the computer in answering her modules. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

Ruth, who also serves as the center’s caretaker, said 12 students are regularly visiting the center to do their modules while several others are using the facilities every once in a while as some kids have their personal mobile phones to use.

“Those who really have nothing are the ones who visit the center more often, just like my kids. I would sometimes wonder why they’re not at home only to find out they’re at the center doing their modules. The center really helps us to go through these trying times especially for my kids' education,” she added.

She said children are also strictly observing the center’s rules like scheduling and proper usage of computers to better accommodate everyone.

“We really teach them on how to become considerate to others and responsible users of computers and the internet,” Ruth emphasized.

The center was also instrumental in helping other children learn the basics of computers.

In December 2021, a three-day "Digital Literacy Training" was conducted in the center in partnership with DICT-Davao Oriental and DOrSU-BSIT to promote digital literacy among the children in the community.

Dorsu President Dr. Roy G. Ponce said the training was aimed at helping these children be equipped with computer skills that are necessary in the modern world as they are relatively behind compared to kids living in the city proper.

Glyssa, who was also one of the participants in the training, said her knowledge about computer literacy and digital skills were improved.

Ruth’s son, Aquil, also learned the basics of computers through the center.

“Before, he would just tag along with his brothers and sisters going to a computer shop in the next village but they won’t teach him because they can’t spare a minute for him due to limited time and budget. But when HFK’s computers were installed he was very excited and he learned in no time. He does his modules now, he now knows how to google also,” Ruth recounted.

Alumni gives back

HFK-Catmonan was established in October 2019 within a tourism-related property (Darrporrt) to promote sustainable tourism, environmental care, and education, especially to the younger generation.

“Right from the very start, when we opened our tourism attraction (Darrporrt), it was already part of the plan to help the community where we operate,” Porlares shared adding that most of the people residing in the area are part of the Mandaya tribe, the dominant tribe in Davao Oriental.

The former seminarian also said through the years HFK became a volunteer hub where people can support after-school care programs for children.

“Here, we just provide an area and community for rich-learning activities. The most important thing is that in all the activities and services here we can send the message to these innocent and promising children that education is important,” he said.

The two-story wooden center is open to all children in the community who want to read different kinds of books, use the computers, and connect to the internet for educational purposes.

But HFK-Catmonan was not the first founded center, in fact, it follows the organizational and operational model of Happy Fish Kids Center in Sitio Taganilao, Brgy. Tamisan, Mati City, Davao Oriental, which was founded by Ponce some 15 years ago.

HFK-Taganilao has already produced around 20 professionals who were then beneficiaries of the center’s programs. The alumni have turned teachers themselves.

Russell A. Tamayo, 24, now a licensed teacher, is one of the products of HFK-Taganilao. She joined the center in 2008 when she was still in grade 5.

“After school, we spend an hour or two in the center to read books and play. We are also active in participating children’s camps that taught us academic and life’s skills,” she shared.

Since their school library, she said, lacks reading materials like dictionaries and encyclopedias, she and her then classmates would visit the center and read.

She said she always gets emotional whenever she sees their group’s poster before that is now hanging on the center’s walls. She has been with the center throughout her educational journey.

“When I reached High School, I was still part of the group that also tutors the elementary students visiting the center. Sir Ponce would give us allowance for our volunteer work and he also provided us free transportation as road access from our house to the school is quite challenging,” she shared.

Russell also shared they sometimes received additional incentives whenever their juniors improve in reading and speaking after being assessed by the center.

“The visits of various successful personalities in the center to do social work really made an impact on us when we were young as they served as our role models and inspirations. As kids, we aspired to be like them,” she said.

DAVAO. Roy (left) and Russell A. Tamayo, now a licensed teacher and a licensed criminologist, are two of the products of Happy Fish Kids-Taganilao. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

Ponce highlighted that changing the mindset of the underserved communities, like the sitios of Taganilao and Catmonan, is one of the keys in helping these communities improve their living.

“Exposing these children to individuals who are successful in their fields, we know that it can impact them positively and it can expand their worldview. We are showing them that they too can thrive if they’ll work hard,” he said, adding there are more opportunities through education.

“Most importantly, children will understand that they have a future ahead of them, they’ll expand their horizons. It is more of brushing off their deep-seated poverty mentality,” he added.

DAVAO. Dr. Roy G. Ponce, president of the Davao Oriental State University and the founder of the Happy Fish Kids Center, an educational and digital community model. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

Russell’s mother, Raquel, is grateful for HFK -Taganilao as it helped their family send their children to college. His eldest, Roy, the first-ever HFK alumnus who graduated from college with a Criminology degree, and Russell are products of the center. Her youngest daughter is currently a third year college student, also supported by the center.

“HFK really helped in shaping the mindset of the children, that they have the power to reach their goals and earn a degree. Who would have thought that a farmer and an ambulant vendor like me can have children who are now professionals? All thanks to the help of Sir Ponce and the rest of the HFK team,” the 53-year-old mother shared.

DAVAO. Raquel Tamayo is grateful for HFK-Taganilao as it helped their family send their children to college. His eldest, Roy, the first-ever HFK alumnus who graduated from college with a Criminology degree, and Russell are products of the center. Her youngest daughter is currently a third year college student, also supported by the center. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

DAVAO. The volunteers of Happy Fish Kids-Taganilao. Raquel, Flordelis, Marichu, and Amina are grateful for HFK-Taganilao as it helped their family send their children to college. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

HFK-Tagnilao has since assisted some 500 children in the community since it was founded in 2006. The center started with only 20 kids under its roof during its founding year.

Ponce took pride in sharing that of all the sitios within the barangay and even in other villages nearby, Taganilao has the most number of locals who are now professionals.

“I really didn’t expect that out of volunteerism and social media platforms, this project could be sustained. What makes it more inspiring is our alumni are giving back to their community by becoming volunteers themselves,” he said.

For Russell, teaching children living within coastal areas, is like presenting other species of fish other than the one they get used to.

“I was once like them, now that I have the resources to help them, it is time to give back. I hope when it’s their turn to share their knowledge, they’ll also do it to make the center more sustainable,” she said, adding she’ll keep striving for more milestones to remain an inspiration to the children in their community who sees her now as a role model.

DAVAO. The children of Happy Fish Kids-Taganilao posed for a photo op inside the center. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

Parents push back in favor of house chores

When starting the program, Ponce said the center was not spared from birth pains as it faced resistance from the community.

Some parents, he said, are resistant to allowing their children to benefit from various programs.

“Maybe they didn’t see the good intention first. Some parents were not okay with the idea that we are helping their children. Instead of spending their time here learning, they would want their children to do chores and work,” he added.

But after they helped children earn a degree in college, parents in the community are now embracing the program. This claim was proved by Raquel when she committed: Whenever HFK Center needs our help for their activities, we are always ready to help. Usually we volunteer to entertain visitors, clean the center, and prepare food.

With all the interventions made by the center and its partners for students to earn a degree, Ponce however underscored that there are still many who didn’t make it for factors beyond their control.

“Out of the total children we helped, maybe only 30 percent pushed through college and finished school despite the social intervention. Some had to work early to support their family, others are building their own family already. Aside from access to opportunities, it still really depends on the determination of the child,” Ponce said.

The founder also said that while the program has been considered successful within the context of underserved communities where they operate, applying it to other community settings doesn’t assure effectiveness and sustainability.

At present, the HFK program has been replicated in Catmonan; Marilog District in Davao City; and Leon B. Postig town in Zamboanga del Norte.

DAVAO. The regular visitors of Happy Forest Kids Center-Catmonan take a pose in front of a camera with this writer after interviews where done inside the two-story wooden center. (Ace June Rell S. Perez)

Moving forward, Ponce and the champions of each center are still contemplating on whether to formally register HFK as an organization. Currently, HFK works as a non-formal organization dependent on donations.

“I don’t know if we really need to register HFK as a formal, registered organization. At present, we just call for donations whenever we have activities and programs. We don’t keep funds on a daily basis. All are based on donations and volunteerism,” he said.

During pre-pandemic days, the center receives some P200,000 (4,000 USD) worth of donations in a year for their educational and rich-learning activities like children’s camps, sports clinic, arts festival, museum tours, health missions, environment activities, among others. This is on top of in-kind donations poured to the center by its partners.

Meanwhile, as Sarah continues to complete her modules for the week, the determined young pre-teen can’t contain her excitement for the gradual resumption of in-person classes that started early April 2022. For her, this could also mean she can now pursue volunteering to younger kids at the center given the loosened restrictions.

“I also want to be a teacher someday and I hope I can also help the kids in our community be educated through various volunteering works under HFK,” she said. “I’ll be happy when that day comes.”


[This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.]