Heroes’ kids foundation sheds secrecy
They were unsung heroes.
For over two decades, the noble pursuits of Hero (Help Educate and Rear Orphans) Foundation and the people behind them were shrouded in anonymity.
Even now, Filipinos know little about this organization founded in August 1988 by former President Corazon Aquino and her military chief, Renato de Villa, to support the children of soldiers killed in the line of duty.
The reason: A group of influential business leaders gathered to bankroll the foundation by Hero’s first chair of the board, Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala, had asked for one thing in exchange for their support—that they remain incognito.
“They said ‘we will help but please keep us anonymous. Keep it quiet,’” Hero Foundation’s director for marketing and resource mobilization, Michelle S. Chan, said of the group, whose prestigious ranks included Henry Sy, Raul Concepcion, Andres Soriano III and Washington SyCip.
It was an understandable request. It was 1988, a year when the fledgling Aquino government was grappling with coup attempts and a host of other problems. The business climate was uncertain, and the people were troubled in the chaos and confusion that followed the peaceful Edsa uprising.
The foundation heeded the businessmen’s request. For 22 years, Hero operated quietly as it solicited donations from corporations, forged partnerships with schools and supported more than 2,000 military orphans.
But two years ago, Hero found itself transformed. A changing of the guard was taking place in its board of trustees.
“Many of our original sponsors felt it’s about time for me to retire,” said Chan.
New hero leaders
So a second generation of leaders were assigned to the board. Don Jaime appointed his son, Fernando Zobel de Ayala, Henry Sy appointed Hans Sy, and Raul Concepcion appointed Raul Anthony Concepcion.
As they took the helm, the new Hero leaders felt the need to rethink their vow of privacy.
“They said, ‘It’s the 21st century now. It’s time we shared what we’re doing at Hero Foundation. It’s such a great cause and we can’t keep quiet anymore,’” Chan said.
Thus, for the past two years, Hero has been more limelight-friendly. They have enlisted celebrities like Billy Crawford and Iya Villania to be their ambassadors, organized fund-raising concerts featuring bands like 6cyclemind in the countryside and put up donation boxes at cinema ticket counters in Ayala malls to raise more money.
On Sept. 9, a benefit concert featuring celebrities Piolo Pascual, Nikki Gil, Villania and Crawford, among others, will be held at Naga City Coliseum to drum up support.
Hero board member Aniceto Bisnar Jr., a vice president at Ayala Land, said the time was ripe for the foundation to elevate its profile and start reaching out to the public.
“We feel that it is high time … that we try to promote Hero Foundation so we can get more donations and support for the scholarships, the allowances and stipends that we’re providing the orphaned children of our soldiers,” he said.
Since its founding, Hero has graduated 888 scholars out of 2,261 military orphans it has supported or has been supporting over the years.
Some of the graduates are now doctors, nurses and engineers, according to Bisnar.
One scholar, Ian Pasinos, whose father was ambushed by rebels in 1991, entered the Philippine Military Academy in 2007 to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is now an Air Force officer.
Another Hero scholar, James Pamittan, finished an electrical engineering degree from Cagayan State University in 2009. He now works for Eljin Electric Philippines and handles the Mindanao grid.
“There are 699 current scholars and 41 percent of them come from Mindanao,” where most members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) lose their lives fighting rebels and insurgents, Chan said.
Money from donations is used to provide support, in the form of stipends, to the orphans.
Chan said Hero was not providing for the children’s tuition and other school fees. The government has existing mechanisms to provide full scholarships to military orphans, through the AFP’s Educational Benefit System Office.
“The foundation’s support comes in the form of stipends that are directly given to the families to help them with the cost of books, uniform, meals, transportation, school supplies and sometimes, even [part of] their tuition fees,” Hero said in its website.
Elementary pupils receive P5,000 a year, while high school students get P8,000. College or vocational students receive P16,000 every year.
“Since their schooling is mostly free, this is usually enough for their other needs to stay in school. But we hope to be able to provide more. The No. 1 problem is we don’t have enough funds,” Chan said.
Hero’s main aim is to help the military orphans obtain a college or university degree, or a certificate in a vocational course, “in order to give them a competitive chance in finding good and decent jobs or profession.”
For a long time, Chan said the foundation relied on 15 to 20 “big corporate donors” to fund its activities, including those in its own board. Ayala Land, at one time, gave P2 million.
“But we need to ask more people for help, so we can raise the stipends,” she said.
Bisnar added that they wanted to increase the number of kids they can assist, noting that the AFP is supporting about 3,500 orphans.
“To date, more than 6,000 military orphans still need educational support as hundreds of Filipino soldiers are killed annually fighting lawless elements and insurgents around the country,” Hero said in a press statement.
Bisnar said he believed Filipinos were generous at heart.
“A lot of people really want to help so it’s all a matter of telling them what Hero Foundation is all about,” he said.
In the early years of Cory Aquino’s presidency, providing for the families of fallen soldiers “was a big problem for her,” according to Bisnar.
“Whenever she went around the country, she would go visit the wakes of soldiers who died in action, and the No. 1 question of the widows was, ‘Madam President, how can we send our kids to school when our husbands have already died and no one will take care of them?’” he said.
At first, Chan said, they thought the solution was to hand out doles.
“Within Metro Manila, they gave P5,000 to the widows, but General De Villa (who was Aquino’s Armed Forces chief of staff at the time) said, ‘Madam President, maybe we’re going about this the wrong way.’”
“We’re going around Metro Manila, but what about the widows in Mindanao? In Northern Luzon? It seems unfair,’” Chan quoted the retired general as saying.
What De Villa did was to approach Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala and said, “‘Don Jaime, I have a mission for you. It seems that the soldiers are doing the dying for the business community, for you, for all of us… It’s in the best interest of the business community to support, to help the families of the soldiers,’” Chan said.
“Don Jaime replied, ‘That’s a great idea. I’m going to ask my friends from the business community,’ and he invited 100 of them,” Chan said.
P15M in one night
The 100 business leaders were invited to a dinner at Malacañang. After that evening, they were able to generate P15 million in one night, which was what started Hero Foundation, she said.
Chan said the foundation needed about P6 million for the current roster of about 700 students.
But the long-term goal is to grow Hero’s fund to P100 million in five years. “This way, we don’t have to keep going around soliciting money every year,” she said.
Bisnar said they wanted to spread the message to all Filipinos. “When a soldier dies, there is no more breadwinner in the family. Most of the wives are really housewives who take care of the children,” he said.
Which is why, he said, he feels so gratified whenever the foundation receives letters of thanks from its scholars.
Giving a chance
“We even receive letters from as far as Saudi Arabia, or those who became engineers, and they’re really thankful. They say, ‘Sir we’re really thankful to Hero Foundation for giving us a chance in life. If not for you, sir, we could have been nothing,’” he said.
“Whenever we receive those letters, sometimes, we have a great feeling of accomplishment, that somehow, in some way, we have changed the lives and future of these children,” Bisnar said.