September 1, 2021
For Catholic nuns and Buddhist volunteers, Tzu Chi’s handyman is a trusty presence
By Joy Rojas
At the Buddhist Tzu Chi Campus (BTCC) in Sta. Mesa, Manila, there’s never a shortage of things to do for Charlie Centes. On an average day, BTCC’s all-around maintenance man will tune up the foundation’s vehicles, build a cabinet, fix a water closet, change a light bulb—the list goes on and on.
“Whenever I accomplish something at work, I’m happy that I’m able to apply what I learned,” says Centes of what he loves most about his job. The BTCC compound also holds special meaning for him, enough to make him stay with Tzu Chi Foundation for 16 years and counting, and seven years with the original owners of the expansive property.
Now 46, the eldest of seven children cannot recall his childhood in his native Leyte without sobbing. “We were poor,” says Centes, who grew up making his own toys and trading his drawings for his classmates’ paper and pens. If he skipped school often, it was because he assisted his father, a farmer who planted corn and sweet potato for a living.
Living in the densely forested area of Inopacan, about an hour’s walk away from the main road, the family was accused of sympathizing with members of the New People’s Army. To avoid trouble with the military, his father moved the brood to a place closer to the highway.
Studying high school seemed out of the question for Centes, given his father’s modest income. Then an opportunity suddenly presented itself: The Sisters of Mary, a Catholic congregation founded by American missionary priest, Fr. Aloysius Schwartz, visited Inopacan to offer scholarships to deserving children. With the help and encouragement of his principal, Centes was granted a scholarship and studied high school at the Sisters of Mary School in Cebu. Academic subjects were supplemented with vocational courses in automotive servicing, electrical installation and maintenance, and refrigerator and air-conditioner maintenance.
After high school, Centes found steady work, first in Cebu and then Manila in 1996. In between jobs, he stayed at Sisters of Mary Girlstown in Sta. Mesa. Eventually, the 4.5-hectare compound would become his place of work, as he was offered the job of maintenance man.
Besides being able to use his knowledge at work, Centes enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere in Sta. Mesa. “It feels like being in the province,” he says.
With the transfer of Girlstown to a 12-hectare property in Silang, Cavite, the Sta. Mesa compound was acquired by the Tzu Chi Foundation in 2005. The Sisters of Mary nuns prevailed upon their maintenance man to stay with the new owners. He was trustworthy, they said, and would be a big help to them.
For Centes, Catholics and Buddhists are no different. “They believe in the same things,” he says. “Do good to others. Help others.” Since working among Tzu Chi volunteers, he has become more compassionate towards all living things, and empathetic towards his fellowmen.
In September 2011, the farmer’s son from Inopacan, Leyte, became a Tzu Chi commissioner, a milestone that saw him fly to Hualien, Taiwan, for a face-to-face meeting with Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
“I thought she’d be bigger,” he says of seeing her in person for the first time. “But I was so impressed. This tiny woman has done such great things for the world.”
For him, too: Because of Tzu Chi, Centes has found a job that makes him feel useful and taps into his skills. Tzu Chi was where he met his wife, Leonisa, a Sisters of Mary student who was part of the Sta. Mesa kitchen staff before they wed. She and their daughter, 18-year-old Hannah, live in Inopacan, on a property that Centes invested his hard-earned salary on.
“Can I say that I found Tzu Chi?” he asks. “Or did Tzu Chi find me?” he says. Either way, it turned out to be a blessing for both.