How a simple noche buena project evolved to help rice farmers in Nueva Ecija

Inday Echevarria
How a simple noche buena project evolved to help rice farmers in Nueva Ecija
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how a simple noche buena gift-giving project was able to take on a life of its own and evolve into this

MANILA, Philippines – At the La Salle Greenhills chapel where my choir serves, the Mass always ends with this empowering reminder: be the spark. Be the pebble that creates ripples. Be the change you want to see. 

I am part of Team Pilipinas, a group of volunteers espousing change, initiating projects that benefit underappreciated sectors such as fishermen, teachers, and now, rice farmers.

It was heart-wrenching for us to realize that the same farmers who made sure we had rice on our tables, could not afford to put rice on theirs. Clearly, this problem needed government intervention – but, surely, there was something we could do for their noche buena (READ: A Filipino farmer’s plea: ‘Support us, love us’)

100 families? Kaya ‘yan (It’s possible).  

The original plan was very simple. I asked my choir, Mass Appeal, to sing for a small gathering I was planning for in November. Actress Pinky Marquez, who is part of my choir, readily agreed to sing and emcee. I then bumped into solo artist Reuben Laurente, and I shyly asked if he could sing for our affair. Without hesitation, he agreed. 

When Yen Cabalu of Team Pilipinas voiced her “suntok sa buwan (shoot for the moon)” wish of having Arman Ferrer sing, I didn’t think it would be that easy to get his manager Noel Ferrer to say yes. It was also “suntok sa buwan” when I asked Jim Paredes and Boboy Garovillo to sing “Tuloy na Tuloy” – which, to me, embodied the spirit of focusing on Christ as the reason for Christmas. But to my surprise, they all agreed. Zero budget, 100% enthusiasm. 

UP Manila Chancellor’s Committee for Culture and the Arts offered to help with the venue. Doc Melf Hernandez persuaded Chef Menoy Gimenez to feed us. Then, Mon Eugenio of Myron’s offered more food– lugaw unlike any you’ve ever tasted. 

Last November 16, I invited friends to our party. Although only a handful came – with some blaming traffic as a major deterrent – many more sent their donations. At the end of the day, we happily announced that we had raised enough for a decent noche buena for 100 families. 

Mission accomplished. 

But wait. The Lord had bigger plans. 

Beyond food

A Facebook chat with a farmer’s daughter, Jette, made me want to go beyond the spaghetti and fruit salad goal. In her very short wish list, she had suggested organic fertilizer and seeds. Then, apparently sensing that my intention was for noche buena, she added a bag of rice and a blanket. This idea immediately resonated with me: December this year was going to be particularly cold, and I could visualize those blankets providing a reassuring hug from us, every night, for years to come. 

I honestly didn’t know, though, if I could raise the money. Team Pilipinas, at that time, was busy partnering with Vice President Leni Robredo’s efforts to assist the Cotabato earthquake victims, and I felt like I had already badgered all my friends for the noche buena project. Kaya pa ba (Is it still possible)?

I decided to broach the idea of purchasing blankets on my Facebook wall.  I was surprised at how receptive people were– even Duterte Diehard Supporter friends responded to my appeal, momentarily setting aside political differences. Without me asking, friends started sharing my post on their walls. Friends of friends started sending me their pledges.  

Friends researched blanket prices online, even volunteering to go to Divisoria if needed!  Our mantra, though, was “buy local!” and this applied to both rice and blankets. The inabel blankets, which use a handwoven textile created by artisans in the northern provinces of the Philippines, that we were able to purchase with Dr. Arlene’s help were absolutely gorgeous! 

I was euphoric: noche buena, and a warm blanket. Mission accomplished. 

Lorelei Aquino, another colleague from Team Pilipinas, was tasked to coordinate with the town mayor of Talavera, Nueva Ecija for our turnover. Mayor Nerivi Martinez requested we increase the number of beneficiaries from 100 to 106 families– covering two from each of the 53 barangays. 

While there, Lorelei chatted with some of the farmers, but the stories she heard left her totally drained and depressed. She called me up, crying. When she asked Mang Alberto, one of the farmers there who recently had a mild stroke and should be going to therapy, what he wanted for Christmas, he didn’t ask for food, blankets, or help with his health.  The only thing he wanted was binhi (seeds).  I ended up crying, as well. (READ: [OPINION] When a farmer asks for seeds instead of noche buena)

I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt. Didn’t Jette say, from the start, that the farmers wanted seedlings and organic fertilizer?  I blamed myself for not listening enough. I had to do something but how? My initial computation indicated I needed an amount I had no hope of raising, not in a short span of one week. 

Again, I was proven wrong.  

Two miracles happened. 

The first was media attention.  Both Rappler and the Inquirer carried my appeal, and my article was shared thousands of times. Suddenly, I had a mini army of complete strangers working with me.

A certain Angela Maree embarked on her own fundraising, and raised enough to pay for one sack of fertilizer for each of the 106 farmers’ families. Joahnna made a donation specifically for Mang Alberto’s medical bills. Lydia decided to forego gift-giving this Christmas and, instead, make donations in the names of her friends. Isa, who works with a popular rice brand, is currently arranging for a donation of high-quality seedlings from their company. 

The second miracle was government intervention, both on the municipal and national level. Since this rice crisis only peaked during the second half of this year, many of the planned government measures were only implemented recently, and have not yet reached full coverage. I am not fully conversant on these measures, but as I understand it: 

On the municipal level, government has started distributing free seedlings. As for the fertilizers, Talavera’s municipal agricultural officers were able to negotiate a huge discount on our purchases.  The mayor and her staff wholeheartedly supported us in this endeavor, identifying the recipients, organizing the turnover, and adding their own gifts for distribution.

On the national level, government has announced a cash grant of P5,000 to be given to the farmers worst hit by the crisis. Nueva Ecija is one of the two provinces prioritized for this. They should receive the cash grants before Christmas. 

We distributed one tricycle-load of Christmas goodies last December 14 to each of the 106 rice farmers in Talavera. 

Finally, mission accomplished.

Understand that these farmers felt the full impact of the crisis. Many of them were old– probably in their 60s or even older.  I had expected to see angry and bitter men. Yet, without exception, everyone I talked to was kind and grateful. A smile was etched on every face I saw that day. One woman even said I had reaffirmed her belief in God’s providence. 

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how a simple noche buena gift-giving project was able to take on a life of its own and evolve into this. It must be the Holy Spirit, silently working among us. 

It seems the mission is not yet over. I want to go back soon. We want to bring doctors and dentists to Talavera and check up on the health of Mang Alberto and the other farmers.

Lorelei asked me if we could afford their medicines. I smiled. 

Didn’t He say, “Ask, and ye shall receive?” –

Team Piipinas accepts donations: cash, medicines, hygiene kits, as well as services of volunteer doctors and dentists. You may email or call (0915) 3801977.

Inday Echevarria, 57, is an engineering graduate from UP, and a retired pianist. She believes that all Filipinos should be involved both in nation building and in fighting abuses. She is an active member of Team Pilipinas.