Boy Montelibano finds what it means to be a Filipino in a rainforest in Mt. Banahaw

Published May 16, 2021, 9:00 AM

by Deedee Siytangco

COMMUNITY BUILDING Tony Meloto, second from right with his team and community leaders.


Face up to the sun

Breaking in love, light, and hope

Hold still, feel the warmth. —Sandee S. Masigan

“I have heard it before, that many of us arrive at a crossroads and that moment asks a difficult question—“Which way?”

Businessman-turned-social activist and game-changer Jose Montelibano of Bacolod City, more fondly known as Boy, shares his thoughts on his life-changing experiences over the past 17 years, thanks to him joining the movement, Gawad Kalinga.

“The difficulty is not because the choices are mind-boggling,” says Boy. “Mine was not anyway. It did not challenge my intelligence. Instead, it challenged my heart and it challenged my will. The crossroads did not force me to take either of two confusing paths. Both were simple. In fact, one was most familiar, a path I was already on. The other did not seem that strange, either, except I had not yet immersed myself there deeply and for long.”

He chose the less familiar path embracing GK. As a result, in the last 17 years, he lived in two extremely contrasting environments. He would divide his week between Metro Manila and in an upland barangay in a rainforest on the mountains of Banahaw until it became a lifestyle.

“Living in that mountain was, of course, a deeply spiritual and environmental journey. Our barangay there was populated, a few hundred families. It was steadily stepping into the modern world with electricity and lighting and paved roads. It was spiritual because I was deep inside still-pristine nature, and environmental because I had never lived in a rainforest. The most dramatic for me, though, is that I found myself, a Visayan, in the heart of Tagalog country, the Mutya ng Katagalogan.”

Boy fell in love with both the place and the people. For the first time in his life, he was the odd man out. But they were patient and kind to him until they were not strangers anymore but extended family. Seventeen years is a long time to experience what rural Tagalog culture was like, even folk religiosity. The last 10 years were already busy with community projects and upland farming.

“Then, I met the movement Gawad Kalinga started by visionary Tony Meloto and, just like with Mt. Banahaw, I fell in love with it right away. In fact, I thought that my 17 years of experience in the mountain and its community served as a training and immersion program for the next stage of my life. That was 20 years ago, in 2001, when I met Gawad Kalinga and chose, not just to be part of it, but to marry it as my lifelong cause. “

Boy said it was a continuation of his journey “to discover the Filipino, my people, and through them, my motherland.” He has lived for so long as part of a small minority yet thinking he was more Filipino than the majority. “After 17 years of weekends in the mountain it taught me I was Filipino but I did not know the Filipino. After 17 years, ordinary did not mean less valuable, ordinary meant that is common, that it is what binds us most. I was loving the journey and I wanted more,” he says.

The charity part of Gawad Kalinga need not be explained, according to Boy. “There is so much charity in the spirit and form of Gawad Kalinga that it requires no explanation. I loved that essence of charity, but it was not the critical factor that made me want to merge my life with it. It was the charity that had a powerful impulse to be specifically Filipino as well, a faith and patriotism foundation that was and remains irresistible. I understood then that, if one believes in a Creator, my being Filipino was not an accidental or a random incident. It is part of a higher purpose and divine plan,” he says.

Boy Montelibano, back row, right in black and yellow tee and his wife Maria in front row, extreme left in a GK community in Tarlac.

GK started with building communities where needed, in urban areas, rural communities, and neglected areas . It was not for temporary housing but permanent security of tenure for the residents. Under the guidance of workers from GK, homeowners are trained to manage their communities and the people elect leaders among themselves. This has worked so well that resident have expanded into livelihood programs, farming, social entrepreneurship, water and educational projects.

Tony Meloto has quietly retired, but continues to be a beacon to all the workers and volunteers. GK is run now by Luis Oquinena as chairperson and Dar Betcasio as executive director. It has an organic full- time staff of about 150 people and volunteer groups in the provinces with full-time leaders. The organization the people put up in their GK comunities is called “Kapitbahayans. The GK concept has crossed borders into some Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, where it is now entirely run by the Indonesians.

Supportive groups from the UK, US, France, Canada, Australia, and other countries lend their help. “In Gawad Kalinga, I can honor my being a human being and a Filipino, find a clearer and more meaningful existence as a son of the motherland, and accept my duty to care for the weaker members of the family. What else can I ask for?” says Boy, who is also the spokesperson of the Walang Iwanan Alliance and a member of the executive committee of Hopeburst Foundation, wants to make it clear he is not running the GK. “I am a mere worker, a consultant and I head special projects.”