Keeping in mind a colleague’s advice, Willie Fernandez set out to create a story that revolves around illegal drugs namely shabu (methamphetamine). The budget came from his pockets, from his lucrative line of work at a production company. As soon as he gathered the materials, he began his immersion into a dangerous world.
After an eternity of delving deep into the things that could kill him, he managed to complete his story. But to this day, the film has yet to debut. Worse, the danger Willie was supposed to study ended up claiming him.
“I already got hooked with drugs and I couldn’t get out of it. It reached to the point of my parents taking notice,” narrates Willie.
His colleague’s advice to “know the story to be made” worked both ways. By immersing himself into the world of illegal drugs, Willie knew what they would do to the healthy human mind. But he didn’t account for what it would do to his.
As a result, he lost his job at the production company. For the next several years, he refused to undergo rehab as advocated by his parents. He took several more jobs, but his passion in film kept haunting him. Soon, he relented and allowed to be taken into rehab where he would spend six months withdrawing from an eternity of illegal drug use.
Willie returned to society in 2016. Seeing the need to continue guiding her son down the correct path, his mother Sita invited him to Tzu Chi’s cash-for-work program. Soon enough, mother and son began working together at the Tzu Chi Great Love Campus in Sta. Mesa, Manila. Willie was assigned to the Cherish Blessings Charity Store, helping sort incoming donated goods, while his mother sorted recyclables at the recycling center.
“Fortunately, he liked it. The next day, he started waking up early and continued to do so day after day. I sensed his eagerness to do such a job, although I asked the other volunteers to keep an eye on him,” says Sita.
She also adds that she saw Tzu Chi Foundation as the one who would help Willie overcome his troubled past, even if it would take lifetime after lifetime. Her son found succor in Master Cheng Yen’s wisdom through her daily talks.
“I thought about inviting him [at the Tzu Chi Great Love Campus] because I know he’ll have a better life here. He’s changed a lot, as well as learned about Tzu Chi’s teachings. He always waits for Master Cheng Yen to deliver her daily talks,” says Sita.
“Such an environment can be found here in Tzu Chi. This can help people like me who want to escape the darkness,” adds Willie.
Since then, the two have been devoting their time in Tzu Chi’s environmental advocacy. Willie’s time in the charity store is helping people keep intact goods away from landfills and dumpsites by selling them for charity. Sita’s work in the recycling center helps keep plastic bottles and the like away from the streets where they could choke waterways and cause flooding. More than that, they found joy in living life within their means.
The life that would lead them to such a realization was blessed with riches but marred by just as many problems.
The Fernandez family enjoyed a wealthy life due in no small part of Sita’s shoemaking business in Marikina City. Every month, her custom-made shoes would net her as much as Php50,000 a month depending on demand. Meanwhile, despite only finishing high school, Willie’s work as a cameraman and sound mixer gets him as much as Php2,000 a day.
Such a life, as Sita narrates, came with strings attached. Willie’s fall into illegal drug use turned out to be one of the family’s problems. Sita herself admits to being boorish and rude, caring little for others’ concerns as long as she keeps her business alive.
“I didn’t recognize anyone but my own money,” Sita says.
Negative karma struck in the form of Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009. Much of Marikina sank under feet of muddy floodwater including Sita’s shoemaking business. She saw the fruits of her labor get washed away in an instant, not to mention their home in Barangay Malanday. Years of perseverance was gone in just a few hours.
Sita never made any attempt to revive her lucrative business. After entering Tzu Chi’s cash-for-work program, she realized that her riches gave way to problems. She believes that it’s better for them to live a simple life, making a living for their needs more than their wants. Both mother and son earn well over Php2,000 a week in total. Willie gives half of his income to Sita to help with the family’s expenses.
“I work here for three days, while Willie works for five. He gets a weekly allowance of Php1,200, half of which he gives to me to help with our expenses. And that’s okay because the most important thing is that I see him a changed, happy man,” Sita explains.
“I’m happy to be working here with my mother. I dreamed of living a simple life and working for it so I’m really happy,” Willie adds.
Money in general isn’t necessarily bad, but attachment to it to the point of losing touch with the things that matter more is. Spending within our means and reducing our needs and wants is a good way to achieve lasting happiness. Even if Willie and Sita now earn much less than their previous jobs, they found their new life to be more fulfilling.
“I’m thankful to Tzu Chi because you helped someone like me recover from the worst disaster a person can face,” Willie says.
Sita Fernandez makes sure the chairs are clean for the benefit of the Jing Si Hall’s guests and residents. 【Photo by Caroline Uy】
Willie Fernandez cleans this table and the chairs around it for the visitors of an upcoming event. 【Photo by Caroline Uy】
Cash-for-work volunteers are sometimes called to Jing Si Hall to conduct general cleaning of the grounds, called “Field of Blessings.” Not only does this maintain the neatness of the volunteers’ second home, it also fills the volunteers themselves with a sense of purpose. 【Photo by Caroline Uy】
The storeroom of Tzu Chi Cherish Blessings Charity Store erupts in activity as regular and cash-for-work volunteers sort through donated goods to be sold for charity. Willie Fernandez (far left) works for five days a week, earning Php250 a day in addition to valuable life lessons from Master Cheng Yen’s daily talks. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Once caring little for others but her own business venture, Sita Fernandez lives a satisfied life making a living as a cash-for-work volunteer. She’s assigned to Tzu Chi Great Love Campus’s recycling center, working for three days a week. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】