Written by Pia L. Camagay, Writer, Operation Blessing Philippines / Photo by Frederick Deserva, Volunteer Photographer

Bilma Morota, Angeles Gnilo, and Lolita Morota – the three lolas (grandmothers) at Bariw National High School

CAMALIG, ALBAY – We live in an era when strong women are highly celebrated. Too often, however, our idea of a strong woman is limited to the young, sexy, and powerful heroines we see on TV. We often overlook the fact that strong women live among us and that they come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.

The three lolas (grandmothers), Bilma Morota (64), Angeles Gnilo (82), and Lolita Morota (72) – have experienced evacuating 4-5 times in their lives because of the Mayon volcano’s eruptions. This year, they are once again evacuees at Bariw National High School – the evacuation center that Operation Blessing adopted.

The volcano was spewing out ash the morning we went to Bariw. The lolas’ room was near the open field and offered a good view of the volcano. Mayon is a tourist attraction known all over the world. That day, the volcano looked even more majestic with clouds of ash surrounding its summit. But to Lola Bilma, Lola Angeles, and Lola Lolita, it seemed like nothing out of the ordinary. The three women were just happily chatting outside their room as if it were just any other day.

Lola Bilma and Lola Angeles both suffer from hypertension, while Lola Lolita suffers from coughing due to the ashes. They were patients asissted at Operation Blessing’s medical station. Despite their conditions, the three women showed no signs of weakness. Hardship was something they’ve grown accustomed to.

When we asked them to share with us stories form their past evacuation experiences, Lola Angeles shared about how she once had a miscarriage because of the eruption. She recalls, “Natakot ako kasi ‘yung unang pagkakita ko ng bulkan na maraming [lava]… hindi kalayo! Unang una kong pagkakita, natakot ako.” (I got scared because when I saw the volcano, there was plenty of lava and it was getting close. I got really scared when I saw it). She had bled so much, Her husband brought her to Naga to stay with a relative so she can recover far from the volcano.

Lola Bilma had a similar story. She recalled, “Naaalala ko pa nung 1984… ‘Nung pinanganak ko ‘yung ano ko… ‘yung pang-apat na anak. Halos nagtatakbo nga kami, eh. Buntis ako noon. Medyo nahirapan din sa pagtakbo dahil malapit na ngang manganak.” (I remember back in 1984… when I gave birth to my fourth child. We almost ran. I was pregnant back then. It was a bit hard for me to run because I was due that month).” Lola Bilma stayed at a friend’s house because she didn’t want to give birth at a school-cum-relief camp.

I couldn’t hide my amusement when Lola Angeles revealed that not only were the three of them neighbors in Brgy. Quirangay, they were also sisters-in-law. Lola Angeles is the eldest sister of Lola Lolita and Lola Bilma’s husbands. It was no wonder why they were very close – they have been in each other’s lives for so long and have been struggling with the same hardships together.

Seeing the three lolas together that morning made me realize one thing: empowered women empower women. A truly strong woman extends her hands to help others feel strong as well.

This is a quality we see everyday in the women we know: We see it in our mothers, who sacrifice their time and effort just so they could provide for us. We see it in our sisters, who sacrifice their comforts to send us to school. We see it in our grandmothers, who sacrifice who sacrifice sleep just so they could attend to our needs.

Lola Bilma, Lola Angeles, and Lola Lolita have shown strength even in the face of disaster. As of this writing, Mayon is down on Alert Level 3, while most of the evacuees returned to their respectives houses, some are still stuck in evacuation. But clearly, it cannot be denied that they still need our help.

We have provided these three lolas with food packs, hygiene kits, clothes, medical assistance, and psychosocial activities. But with the rest of other evacuees and those who are affected by the Mayon eruptions,  we want to give them long-term support that would enable them to recover fully.

We at Operation Blessing want to empower more women. We have an on-going livelihood skills training, in partnership with Ang Hortaleza Foundation, to the thirty-three mothers and women affected by the Mayon eruption. They will be undergoing cosmetology training that will eventually provide them capacity to earn additional income for the family.

Help us in our mission to make a lasting impact in the lives of these women, and other women who were affected  by the Mayon eruptions. Kindly go to http://www.staging2.obphil.com/home/give-through-banks/ or call us at +632 477-7802 to 08 to learn more about giving to Disaster Reponse Mayon.