Clara Marie Caingat is one of four children of a poor family in Barangay Nangka, Marikina City, a suburb of Manila. Her father is a construction worker who earns a below-minimum wage; her mother works as a helper in the house of their cousin. She has three younger brothers, 17, 15 and 10, who are also studying, each with their respective needs.
Hers was one of hundreds of families who lost many of their possessions to Typhoon Ondoy which struck Marikina on September 26, 2009. Because of a shortage of money, her family could not afford her tuition fees for the following school year and she was unable to enroll.
From her early years, she has been an outstanding student, realizing that education is the only escape from poverty. At home, she has many medals won during academic competitions at primary and secondary school. She is a born leader and achiever. She has always been battling with poverty.
In her class at college, she had to copy all their lessons page by page from the books of her classmates because she did not have the money to buy her own. To maximize the allowance that only covers her transport, she skipped lunchtime and breaks while her classmates took theirs. Later on, she received a free lunch in exchange for tutorials to her classmates.
Change of Fortune
Her luck changed after a visit by Tzu Chi volunteers to their home. The foundation started work in the typhoon-affected areas of the city with a cash-for-work program, which has continued until now, in partnership with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development. In preparation for a large-scale distribution of rice on July 3, 2011, volunteers visited poor families in the city to decide who should receive 20-kilo sacks of rice imported from Taiwan.
They came to the Caingat house. "Clara's medals caught the attention of the Tzu Chi volunteers,” said her mother Belen. “The cash-for-work program has been of great help so she can pay for her unsettled accounts in school. I am very happy because my daughter strives to work out whatever her parents could not provide."
The next month, Clara joined the cash-for-work program and worked with it until June this year. It allowed her to earn money and pay the Php 21,000 worth of debt she had incurred during her last school year. During this period, she also took part in the foundation’s charity missions organized by its social services department in Jing Si Hall, Quezon City. She helped to prepare for relief distributions and joined in disaster relief operations in far-flung places like Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City and in fire relief missions around Metro Manila.
"When I worked in Tzu Chi, I learned the teaching of Master Cheng Yen, 'wealth cannot be measured by the properties you own but your lack of complaints.' I realized then that I am so blessed compared to others,” she said. “While my only problem is that I cannot afford to study, others have nothing to eat and many do not have a place which they can call home."
Her work in the foundation has taught Clara to deal with people from different walks of life, something quite new to her. "She was very shy and not used to dealing with people,” said her father Teofilo. “She has changed after working with Tzu Chi."
Jenemy Samson, one of Tzu Chi's social workers, said that Clara had been a patient learner although they initially found her unsociable. "At first, she rarely smiled and was so silent. When she became familiar with our work in Tzu Chi, she came to understand how important our smiles are for the beneficiaries of different cases and needs. She learned to work like a true social worker, with the goal of easing the worries of our patients," she said.
This June Clara enrolled in Far Eastern University as a returning second-year student. She is one of the nearly 500 scholars in Metro Manila to benefit from the educational assistance program of the Tzu Chi Foundation, Philippines for school year 2012-2013.
She said that the opportunity given by Tzu Chi made her feel the value of persistence and of enjoying the fruits of her own hard work. “I thank Tzu Chi for the chance to help the needy, even just by giving them a smile, the only thing I can offer for now. I will miss the work I did with Tzu Chi. It saddens me to go but I will certainly come back. I want to graduate first so that someday I can also help more people, other than my family," she said.
Her experience in Tzu Chi has not only given her the chance to earn and save enough money to pay her debts. It has also inspired her with the joy of charity that will be forever in her heart. In the future, she will surely face more challenges but, as Master Cheng Yen says, nothing will ever be impossible with confidence, perseverance and courage.
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