August 31, 2021
Inspired by Tzu Chi, a former scholar embraces volunteerism
By Joy Rojas
Ronnel Ojas is busy chopping ingredients for a misua soup that he is going to serve for lunch. Not a lunch for himself and his family, though, but a lunch for neighbors, pedicab and tricycle drivers, junk collectors, and anyone who happens to be walking in front of his home along Balubad Street, Nangka, Marikina. While being offered a free cup of soup throws some people off, few can say no to the home-cooked treat. In less than an hour, the soup is gone.
“We all know that during this pandemic, a lot of people in our community lost their jobs. We started this community pantry and kitchen out of the abundance of the heart: to help members of our community who lost work by giving them food that they can serve on their table,” he says.
Inspired by the community pantry movement launched by Patricia Non on Maginhawa Street, Quezon City, in April 2021, the 26-year-old Ojas started his own community pantry and kitchen in Nangka soon after. Using donations and pledges solicited through social media (as well as his own personal resources), he prepares easy-to-make snacks and viands for distribution at least twice a month.
“You can see what’s lacking in terms of government support,” he says of volunteerism’s appeal. “When you’re engaged with the people in your community, you identify exactly what they need. As a new millennial or youth, you get to think of ways to provide help and fill in what’s lacking in your community.”
“What also inspires me to do volunteerism is the fulfillment of seeing people happy,” he adds. “When you see people smiling and happy, you become happy too.”
It was Tzu Chi Foundation that ignited Ojas’s desire to serve the poor and needy. In 2009, Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) left many homes in Marikina, including the Ojases’, submerged in flood and rainwater. Once the flood subsided, the city was a sorry sight. Homes and businesses were ruined beyond repair; debris and mud were everywhere.
Ojas, the eldest of three siblings and the son of a factory worker mom and father who works in farming and fishery in Camarines Norte, participated in Tzu Chi’s “Cash for Work” program, helping clean his community’s streets for a fee. “At first, my intention was to earn,” he admits. “But as time went on, I could feel the joy of helping people. That became my fulfillment, not the money, as long as I could help and give my heart out to the people.”
In addition to the “Cash for Work” initiative, Tzu Chi offered scholarships to deserving students. Ojas, then a third year high school student at Nangka High School, presented his requirements and was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of Tzu Chi’s scholars. After completing high school, he went on to study at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Sta. Mesa, Manila, graduating with a degree in Bachelor in Banking and Finance. “Tzu Chi shouldered everything,” he says. “From tuition to allowances and books.”
Today, Ojas works as a quality assurance supervisor for a financial technology company. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from doing what he can for others. Aside from running his community kitchen and pantry, he was appointed treasurer of the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK), the youth council of his barangay. Given the pandemic, most of SK’s projects are online—from singing and poster-making contests to webinars on HIV awareness and voter’s education.
The Tzu Chi scholar also gives back to his benefactor by volunteering his time and effort. As a facilitator in Humanity classes, he engages with the new batch of scholars, asking how they are and what they learned from the sessions.
But his biggest contribution is serving as a role model to his generation. Through his community pantry and kitchen, he has made willing volunteers out of his 16-year-old sister Nicole and their cousin Chloe Palaming, 14. Once shy, the two now knock on neighbors’ doors asking to borrow bowls where they can serve the misua, then hand soup in paper cups to random strangers passing by their street.
“Don’t look at yourself as someone who’s young and has nothing to contribute. Look at yourself as empowered to help others, empowered to lead others,” is Ojas’s message to people his age. “Don’t look at what your standing is in the community. Look at what your community needs and what you can do as a member of the youth.”
Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si aphorism “Do not underestimate yourself, people have unlimited possibilities,” rings true for this former Tzu Chi scholar, who journeys towards selfless giving with his limited resources but unlimited compassion.