By Milkah De Leon Barr
None of us were surprised to hear that Gwen Pidlaoan-Harsch graduated summa cum laude in college. She was an Honor Student in high school, and we remember her as intelligent, articulate, goal driven and a hard worker.
For some of us, we distinctly remember her musical abilities. She played the piano, composed songs and sang. Gwen was a member of Singers A – a group of gifted singers from Section 1. Section 1’s Pippin performance blew us all away when we were seniors, and Fr. Reuter referred to them as the Singing Class during the senior retreats. Forty years later, Gwen and other Singers A members recorded “Home” for our Ruby celebration last year. Their video set the bar for our Velada program.
But for most of us, Gwen will always be our formidable, yet somehow warm and cuddly, Corps Commander.
I met her in the summer of ’81 at CMT Officer Training. Those weeks of training, the physical and mental pressure, were intense. I had the unique privilege of being her buddy and got to see up close what happens when a person prepares with excellence and shows up with equal parts of skill and warmth. She elevated our group, even before our Chrysalis, when we emerged from training to become her corps of officers. We all remember Gwen’s hearty and infectious laughter that summer, and especially appreciated it on the chaotic Thursday afternoons during the schoolyear, when we would form platoons for marching drills with our classmates. It was like herding kittens.
Gwen and her family moved to the Bay Area in 1984. In describing that period of her life, she once said, “The years have been rich in changes, challenges and opportunities.” Gwen, as expected, flourished in her adopted country. In June 1991, she joined the Capital Group, one of the world’s largest investment management organizations, where she is now Assistant Vice President.
The upward trajectory of Gwen’s life, however, was in stark contrast to the lives of the Aetas. They were the first inhabitants of the Philippines. They migrated from Australia 30,000 years ago and have lived a simple and peaceful life in the forests around Mount Pinatubo. On June 15, 1991, after months of phreatic explosions and seismic activities, Mount Pinatubo erupted. This was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Its consequences were devastating for Aetas. They were essentially chased down their ancestral forest by the deluge of sulfuric lava. They lost everything.
In the US, Gwen started a family and worked hard to achieve her career goals. She felt blessed to have two beautiful daughters and a fulfilling job where her high caliber contributions were recognized and rewarded. Yet for all her accomplishments and successes, the Assumption ethos of social responsibility was never lost on her.
In 2009 she joined the board of Books for the Barrios, a US based non-profit that collects school textbooks, educational learning aids and devices from US schools, publishers and school children, and delivers them to barrio schools in the Philippines. She is the only Filipino on the board. Her scope is to advise them on cultural matters and sensitivities, especially when dealing with local officials. When asked why she decided to get involved with Books for the Barrios, she replied, “I looked at my two daughters and they have counterparts in remote villages in the province. The only difference is that for my daughters, education is a right. For their Filipino counterparts, it’s not a right but a privilege.”
Books for the Barrios were delivering books and building libraries at Aeta villages when Gwen was introduced to the founder of the Aeta Tribe Foundation, Fernando Briosos.
The Aeta Tribe Foundation mission is simple – to help the Aetas rebuild their forest and their lives. To this end, the foundation, in partnership with the Philippine Department of Health (“DOH”), launched the WASH-N-WOW campaign, a critical humanitarian effort to address the social injustice faced by the Aetas. WASH-N-WOW stands for Wash (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) – N (Nutrition) – Wow (War on Worms).
Once again, Gwen heeded the call to get involved, to help, to make a difference in the lives of others. As a director of The Aeta Tribe Foundation, she helps lead the Wash-N-Wow effort to boost and accelerate water and sanitation projects.
From her California home, she works with Aeta elders and tribal chieftains along with DOH officials to execute the building of water filtration tanks, communal toilets, and handwashing stations to more than 20 Aeta villages. She helps coordinate feeding programs that are already in place in three Pampanga schools, with more in the pipeline, and she manages deworming projects to end parasitic infections in all Aeta villages. Gwen understands that all Aetas’ desire is to get their forest back so that they can live the happy and simple life they once enjoyed before the volcanic eruption. She believes the Wash-N-Wow campaign is slowly accomplishing this.
Gwen visited the Aeta communities in 2019 and in 2022. These were enriching and transformative experiences for her. “It’s a personal Wash-N-Wow for me,” she confessed. “I am washed with gratitude for the honor of knowing the Aetas who teach me that the most beautiful things in life are simple. And I am wowed by the resilience of their spirit, because despite the harshest of plights they live in, they walk with grateful hearts.”
She invites all of us to visit www.aetatribes.org and learn more about the Aetas, get involved, and get blessed with our own wash-n-wow experience.
“The injustice that I saw with the Aetas moved me deeply,” she shared. “They are simply forgotten. The first inhabitants of our land are the last in people’s minds.”
According to Alden Gu of ABC’s For Global Health, “The issues afflicting Aeta communities are interconnected. Deficient economic resources lead to a lack of education; lack of education results in discrimination and marginalization; the Aeta are then forced to work low wage jobs, and the cycle repeats itself: exacerbating health disparities and poor living conditions.” It is astonishing that more than three decades after the Aetas were displaced by damnum fatale, Aetas have the worst healthcare in our country and remain among the least educated and impoverished Filipinos.
We have to believe that in the fullness of time, respect for all human life and dignity will prevail. The alternative is too tragic to contemplate. And until then, Gwen steps forward, an Assumption girl showing up for our Aeta brothers and sisters.
Books for the Barrios. (2023). Books for the Barrios – About. Retrieved from Books for the Barrios: https://booksforthebarrios.org/about/
Gu, A. (n.d.). Socioeconomic Disparities Afflicting the Aeta Tribe of Central Luzon. Retrieved from ABC’s For Global Health: https://www.abcsforglobalhealth.org/white-papers.html
Rosenberg, M. (2023, April 5). “The Mount Pinatubo Eruption in the Philippines.”. Retrieved from ThoughtCo: thoughtco.com/mount-pinatubo-eruption-1434951.
The Aeta Tribe Foundation. (2017). The Aeta Tribe Foundation. Retrieved from The Aeta Tribe Foundation.