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I am not a fan of the American dream, but I’ve always been a dreamer. The thin line between optimism and wishful thinking becomes narrower when dreams fade into the background of reality.
I left the Philippines in 2007 in search of greener pastures in the US. It was a tough decision for me because I never wanted to leave the country. But because my situation then required me to step up to the occasion to provide for my family, I was left with no other option.
My American reality started in a hotel in Nevada where I wore the same blue collar as many professionals like doctors and bank managers from the Philippines, cleaning a minimum of 15 rooms every day. Our typical conversations were, “Doc, pakilipat yung ref.” (Doctor, please move the refrigerator.) or “Attorney, paki-vacuum ang floor.” (Attorney, please vacuum the floor.)
I was not a lawyer then but prior to coming to the States, I was a law student and working as a legal assistant in one of the country’s premier companies. The pursuit of greener pastures required giving up self-entitlement.
I had my opportunities of moving to other jobs. From someone who cleans up hotel rooms to an executive assistant in a business consulting firm, and finally to seasonal marketing department of Target Corp in one of their stores in L.A. My job description put emphasis on devising seasonal marketing strategies, but most of the time, I was lifting in the backroom and unloading boxes from delivery trucks.
When positions become just labels and expectations drown in the ocean of harsh reality, one will have no audience for ranting. In the greener pasture, hard work pays. By God’s grace, I was able to provide for my mother’s medical expenses when it was most needed and was able to help my family have a better life.
Though I did not consider myself wealthy, life in the States was comfortable. Since my feet were programmed to just tread the path from home to work and vice versa, my calendar had not much room to make a lot of friends. In the comfort of my apartment, where I waited the hours to pass me by, I took my dose of life by reading news about the Philippines online.
This simple routine saved me a reasonable amount of money which I used to fund my annual vacation to the Philippines where I recharge in the bosom of family and spend several weeks volunteering for organizations that help out an impoverished community.
A life changing trip
One particular trip changed the direction of my life. While in Mindanao, I saw a little boy walking on a rice paddy dike on his way to school, carrying a plastic bag with his school stuff inside. He walked toward me and suddenly my heart started to race against frozen time. A flashback of my life started playing. The past looked me in the eye.
I grew up in a poor family of miner-turned-farmer parents. They say being the youngest is a privilege, but I tell you, not when you have 8 other siblings.
Growing up, I have had my share of obstacles. Since miners move from one location to another. I and some of my siblings had to live with relatives and even with families not related to us so we could keep going to school.
Going to school meant skipping a meal and walking 10 km a day. Walking had become an inevitable choice because the habal-habal (tricycle) fare can be saved for food. I have a very vivid memory of the times I had to ask for a free plastic bag from a nearby sari-sari (retail) store to put my things in. I had been a regular face in the store because the plastic bag ripped almost every day. Having a plastic bag for a school bag felt awkward for a little kid. In no time, my name had been associated with the plastic bag.
Walking down the beaten path, confined to mountains all around, I saw limitations everywhere. For a child who does not ask for much, I treasured one question – “What’s behind those mountains?”
I grew up in a culture where mining families dig their dreams from the mountains. But the young dreamer in me saw those mountains as border bullies that have been placed between my fears and my greatest potential. Every step I took was one step closer to the hopes that beyond those mountains lay life’s best treasures. Dreaming of an imaginary world beyond the mountains made the daily walks less of a burden and more of an adventure.
With the help of others
I was in 4th grade when I received my very first decent bag, a gift from a distant relative. It wasn’t new, but it made me see things in a brand new light. Receiving that bag made me realize that while I was in the midst of an almost forgotten village, someone was actually thinking about me. It made me feel like someone made an investment in me so it empowered me to do better in school.
Because someone believed in me, I started believing in myself. Having a school bag like my classmates gave me the confidence to dream the kind of dreams that they have, or maybe bigger.
The bag wasn’t brand new and eventually the wear and tear of the daily 10 km walk gave the bag a terminal stage. From 5th to 6th grade, I started carrying my school stuff with my bare hands as I learned the value of taking full accountability of my future.
I finished high school and earned a college degree with the help of relatives, friends and a teacher who adopted me into their families in support of my education. In return, I gladly offered my help in tutoring and running some errands. Because of these people’s investment in my life, I strove hard to excel in whatever I did.
Bred of hard work and my parents’ constant counsel about valuing education as our key to economic freedom, I had carried with me the dream that one day, no poor kid will go to school without a proper school bag.
After 5 years of working in the States and reaping the comforts of living in a first-world country, the image of the boy in Mindanao ignited a long-sleeping passion within me. Suddenly, the comfortable life I was living had no meaning.
I was gripped by the reality that the boy I saw in Mindanao was just one among thousands, perhaps millions. I believed my life would not be worth living if I did not do something for these kids. I realized I had to do something bigger than myself.
So I resigned from my job in L.A. and decided to go back to the Philippines and start a business that would champion education for the poor.
Was I afraid? Yes. Very. But I harnessed that fear into faith.
Faith made me believe what my mind could not conceive. Fear has been a constant reminder that I am not capable of doing anything without God. Fear activated faith.
I had no background in business, I didn’t have that much money to start with, and I had no security in the event of failure. When everything else was voting against me, faith voted for me. And I counted that as an advantage.
Bag of dreams
After conceptualizing the business model of the company, I shared my vision with two friends and we founded the company BAG943 in July 2012. BAG943 is a mission-driven business that incorporates social responsibility by adhering to a “Buy One Give One” promise through a social arm called Bag of Dreams Project. For every BAG943 purchase, another bag is given to an impoverished child from its pool of adopted public schools across the country.
The Bag of Dreams Project distributes bags quarterly with the help of volunteers. On its first year, the company has been able to give over 1,300 bags in 11 public schools.
What I am doing right now is a product of what people did for me.
The pursuit of greener pastures was a journey back home. It helped me rediscover my values and my deepest passion to champion education for the Filipino youth.
The greener pasture isn’t where life is most comfortable. For me, life’s greatest treasures are found when you give up your comfort zone to make a difference in other people’s lives. In doing this, I realized that the greener pasture I once knew is nothing compared to the thriving community of generous givers and kids being one step closer to their dreams, one bag at a time.
The Filipino youth is worth believing in. It has happened to me. It can happen to these kids. The greener pasture is not a place you go to. It is a world you cultivate to grow. – Rappler.com
Josh Mahinay is an ex-OFW and a returning resident from Los Angeles who “retired” at the age of 26 and founded BAG943, a social entrepreneurship venture. He is not ashamed of growing up poor, and is more proud that he changed his life because of education. Today, he is paying forward the generosity of those who helped him succeed through his young company.