by Amiel Lacorte
APAYAO – Rooted on the values of inclusivity, equality, equity, and relevance in education, Mrs. Chandler Ibabao put her earnest vision for the indigenous Agtas in Apayao through Accessible Education To Agtas or Project AETA.
“It has always been my dream to help them since I was a kid because I have seen their struggles to cope up with life,” Mrs. Ibabao said upon recalling why she came up with Project AETA.
With the desire to provide accessible education to Agtas and to help them preserve their culture by showcasing their talents and skills, Mrs. Ibabao, a teacher at Alem Elementary School in Apayao, implemented Project AETA, her Re-Entry Application Project after gaining scholarship in the Korea-Philippines Teacher Exchange Programme from April to July 2019.
“They are the most deprived indigenous group in terms of education and livelihood,” she added as she explained her dream for them.
Ibabao recalled how she had seen them walking in the streets even under the rain along with their kids just to sell “tukmem” or shells, fish that they caught from the river, and edible fern “pako” for them to buy rice and basic commodities.
Capaninikian, the hometown of the Agtas, has the second largest population among 22 barangays of Pudtol, Apayao. In this small community, the Agtas rely on fishing and hunting as their primary source of living.
Although they value formal schooling, natural disasters and inaccessibility to schools would force most of the students to drop out, relocate and work instead.
“Through Project AETA, I wish to improve the numeracy, literacy and livelihood competencies of Agtas and develop their sense of pride towards their culture heritage by bringing quality and accessible education closer to their homes,” Ibabao further added.
Ibabao shared that most of Agtas found it difficult to adapt to the different culture upon leaving their hometown for education, so they would just simply opt to return to their families again.
With Project AETA, she hoped that this problem hindering every child in the said community to get access to quality education would somehow be addressed.
Spearheading Project AETA, Ibabao aimed to teach the Agtas children to confidently write their own names and read stories; showcase their talents, boost their interpersonal skills, and their self-esteem; and still live in their own backyard to help them produce their own food for their families.
The project started at Capannikian Brgy. Hall on October, 20 2019 during their general assembly. It was then followed by 10 reading sessions consisting of basic writing skills, sound blending, simple word formation, and reading and writing activities that ran from October 2019- February 2020, lasting for two to three hours every Sunday.
But as the project made progress, AETA, which was self- initiated by Ibabao, was hampered with challenges.
“It was difficult to start the project with limited funds at hand, also considering that I do not live within the community. When I pulled off the first session, I had to look for funds for the next session, practically to maintain the project,” she said as she looked back on the struggles she experienced in delivering AETA.
Ibabao believed that miracles happened because when she posted the first session in her social media, people poured out their support through donations and volunteers came to spend time to help the Agtas.
Project AETA went beyond reading sessions and extended its help to the Agtas through outreach programs with the help of government agencies, non-government organizations, and private individuals.
On Dec. 24 2019, with Julie Ann Respicio, her sisters, and a college friend from Laoag, AETA had a simple program wherein gifts were given to the children during the Christmas Eve.
Ibabao also found support from her brother-in-law, Engr. Roderick N. Macariola, who raised funds and donations from his colleagues to host the Pamaskong Handog for the Agtas on Dec. 28. Board Member Kyle Bulut also gave away noche buena packs for the families in the community in the said activity.
And though the pandemic put a pause to Mrs. Ibabao’s efforts, the project will not stop any time soon, as it already forged partnership with Akyat Tulong Adventure Team (ATAT) for another outreach program.
“I have already submitted courtesy letter for ATAT outreach to AGTAS to our local government unit headed by Mayor Hector Reuel Pascua. But the activity which was supposed to be done on March 15-16, 2020, had to be rescheduled to May 2020,” Ibabao said to explain the temporary setback in the project due to the COVID crisis the country is now facing.
AETA is also in close coordination with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in Pudtol for the livelihood skills training for the Agtas.
“In my initial meeting on Feb. 26, 2020 with Engr. Genaro Failoga, NCIP officer of Pudtol, he assured me that the Agtas will be one of the recipients once they get the approval for their proposal on raising livestocks as a livelihood for the community,” Ibabo said.
With Project AETA reaching its culmination in Capaninikian, Ibabao expressed gratitude towards the people that supported her, Director Margarita Consolacion Ballesteros-ICO, SGOD Chief Gilbert F. Villanueva, Principal Caridad C. Manuel, and her husband, Mr. Christopher N. Ibabao.
“It is indeed God’s will that these people, together with the donors and volunteers link their hands to perform acts of kindness,” she uttered with a grateful heart.
But Project AETA still has a lot of things to do and it will not stop in Apayao until its goal of no child being left behind regardless of race and social status has been fulfilled by the caring heart of Mrs. Ibabao.
“Definitely, this project will continue. My plan is to go in a wider scope by including other Agtas in other barangays,” she said with a resolute spirit.