THE BEST VALENTINE GIFT EVER!
By Ana de Villa-Singson
The best Valentine gift! There are many deserving finalists for that accolade. While each Valentine gift given from the heart becomes a cherished and beloved best, only one that I know of was compelling enough for me to write this story. I chanced upon an extra-special Valentine gift while interviewing Loudette Zaragosa Banson several years ago. Her 2004 Valentine’s gift from her husband, Jan-B, is a gift that continues giving ,even now, 18 years after she received it. This is the rather remarkable story of her rather remarkable “best Valentine gift ever!”
Way back in 1987, the Manangs living in stench-filled waterways and catwalks of Malibay had a dream. While participating in a leadership formation workshop run by Sr. Mary Carmel of the Assumption-run San Juan De Nepomuceno School (SJNS) in Malibay, they dreamed of having homes where they could stretch their legs without their feet sticking out of the door and where their children could grow up unafraid of quarreling neighbors. Guided by the SJNS social worker, they formed a cooperative and began a 20 year quest to own land and to build their homes. In Cavite, they found Buhay na Tubig, rice fields stretching over a hectare, the promised land where they hoped to build their homes. They needed Php 3 million to buy that land. Hat in hand, with hope in their hearts, they appealed to countless government bureaucrats and even had an audience with President Aquino. The wheels of government grind slowly but the Manangs were patient; and in 1992, they were granted a loan of PHp 2.4 million and became land owners.
In 1992, they also met a young auxiliary missionary of Assumption. Loudette entered their lives. They became like a close knit family and Loudette would fondly call them “Nanay”. At this point, the Nanays were desperately trying to build homes on their land. And their hopes became Loudette’s hopes, their dreams became hers. Loudette secured a partnership with the newly-launched Gawad Kalinga. Gawad Kalinga would build the homes, they would even build the first 50 homes for free with a grant from HSBC, but they would only build the homes if the title of the land was with the landowners.
Sadly, the title was mortgaged with the government’s housing authority and would be released only if the entire loan plus all the accumulated interest were paid for. Time was ticking too, they had to pay in full or the mortgage would expire. They tried all schemes, approached many groups, but failed. Along the way, the cooperative was dissolved, funds were embezzled. They were in disarray. With their land on the brink of repossession and their hopes dimmed by desperation, their dream of being titled homeowners was quickly fading. Said Loudette: “ I felt like Don Quixote.” Tilting at windmills, trying plan after failed plan, time was running out and in February 2004, Loudette “had a lightbulb moment! The land was going to be forfeited and we wouldn’t be able to claim the land back anymore. I had to work fast. After so many years, I felt [that] this was our last chance. I had to help them. They were like my children. We were really close. We strategized and prayed, the super glue that kept us together. And so, I told my husband about it and he knew that I had a passion for housing. And he felt that we were really blessed; we had more than we needed. So that was his gift to me, the amount needed to claim the land. It was the best Valentine gift!”
The best Valentine’s gift! Who can dispute that? On February 8, 2004, 12 years after Loudette aligned her hopes and dreams with the Nanays of Malibay, the title of the land was released. On that day, during her customary Bible reading with the Nanays, the reading was about the Miracle of the Multiplication of Fish and Loaves. God’s hand was felt like a caress. That one act of great love and magnanimity, that best Valentine gift of Jan-B to Loudette, became the catalyst for so many more acts of selfless generosity and love.
“Once we had the land, everything started. Gawad Kalinga began. On November 8, 2005, we launched Pusong Assumptionista (a campaign where students, teachers, friends of Assumption aligned to donate Php 50 – 60 thousand to build each home), and it really went fast. We even had to refuse people because they wanted to donate for more homes but there were no more homes to be built…That (Valentine gift) was the tipping point, that was really the moment. It happened in such a beautiful way. There was no mistaking that God was there.” Recalling the outpouring of love and support, Loudette said “Wow! This is probably what heaven feels like!”
With funds on hand and construction in full swing, tragedy struck the Bansons. In June 2006, Jan-B, the generous gift-giver and enabler, suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Then in 2007, Loudette was diagnosed with breast cancer. Loudette discerned God’s message. “He wanted me to share his cross.”
Loudette has carried her crosses since. When we spoke over Zoom, she was in the US, wrapped in 4 layers of clothes to ward off the cold. She was waiting for her doctors’ go signal to fly back home to the Philippines or to travel to Singapore to resume her cancer treatment. It has not been easy. She has many aches and pains but as she always does, she rallies quickly. “There was no doubt in my mind. The land, the homes…this is God’s project.”
The Nanays of Malibay named their village GK Maryville Emmanuel Village. Their village is thriving with little plots of front gardens where children frolic and a second floor mezzanine was ingeniously built in some of the homes. They have a chapel built by Loudette’s mother, the irrepressible Pilar Zaragosa, who at 85 years of age, managed the construction of the chapel, a gift for her beloved daughter. And the Nanays? They dreamed only of a “bahay kubo” but got a “palace” in stead. They are now finally at home.
With Valentine’s Day peeking around the corner, Loudette reminisces on her 2004 Valentine gift. “It was not a personal gift for me. It was our share to help the housing deficiencies in the Philippines, our little share to alleviate poverty in the country. I happened to be the hand to receive it for the people.”
I happen to be the hand to write this story. And it is my great privilege to do so. I think of it as a Valentine gift to me as well. Because the story reminds me that goodness and generosity beget more of the same, that when we work for something and believe in something with all our heart, heaven conspires to make things happen; that each one of us can make the miracle of five loaves and two fish happen. As this Valentine story has shown us, one act of singular love and generosity can open up the floodgates and be the tipping point for an avalanche of love!
Happy Valentine’s Day! Big or small, may you make miracles happen too….and may you fill the world with love while doing so!