Faiths Act Fellow, Annette Aguila featured in Philippine Inquirer

Where many a young Filipino would turn to nursing as his or her ticket to the good life, a bank executive became a nurse so she could go as a volunteer to one of the poorest and, until quite recently, most violence-wracked nations on earth.Annette Aguila, Faiths Act Fellow

Annette Aguila, 38, left the safety of the executive suite to immerse herself in the swampy West African nation of Sierra Leone where an international campaign is under way to eradicate malaria, the killer disease.

Trading her business suit for scrubs, Aguila is on a 10-month tour of duty in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown as one of four international volunteers handpicked by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (TBFF) to carry out its “Faiths Act on Health” program.

“Through this endeavor, I can make a significant contribution to Sierra Leone, where life expectancy is only 47 years old. This low figure is significantly linked to malaria despite the fact that the disease can be prevented and is curable,” said Aguila in an e-mail message.

Aguila, a native of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, was among only four volunteers chosen from 45 applicants from around the world.

The three other volunteers serving with her have notable experience in development work: Josephine Muhairwe, a doctor who has worked in Uganda and the United States; Canadian engineer Aatif Baskanderi, and Londoner Banke Adetayo, whose master’s thesis traced the history of global malaria eradication efforts.

A multifaith solution

Started in 2008 by the former British Prime Minister’s foundation, Faiths Act aims to “create a multifaith educational solution that will help eliminate deaths from malaria” through health education and training of local health workers, the distribution of treated mosquito nets and a grassroots information campaign.

The program also hopes to bridge the different faith communities in Sierra Leone, a diamond-rich nation of various ethnicities that has yet to recover from a decadelong civil war that ended in 2002. As the political situation remains volatile, Sierra Leone still struggles to rebuild its institutions, especially its health service system.

The country is known to have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, according to the TBFF, owing to the dearth of medical workers: there are only 102 medics for a population of around 6 million, or one doctor for every 56,000 people.

“If this model works in Sierra Leone, it can be replicated in other countries. I hope that eventually, people will see religious communities as a force for good rather than as a cause of division and conflicts,” said Aguila.

Aguila arrived in Freetown earlier this month, her second time in the country as a volunteer in a period of just two years. She had spent time there in 2009 as a volunteer nurse for the British charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

Second home

“What drew me to the fellowship was my desire to be part of the team leading the campaign against malaria in Sierra Leone, which I consider my second home,” she said.

“This gives me a chance to go back to Makena where I spent 15 months as a VSO volunteer. It thrills me that I am seeing again my former manager, my students, my friends, and most especially the kids in the neighborhood,” she said.

In the next 10 months, Aguila will be involved in training local volunteers and touching base with local health authorities to make sure the malaria prevention program is sustained.

Unhappy with corporate life

Aguila obtained her nursing license three years ago, having quit corporate life two years earlier.

“I spent almost a decade in the corporate world, at first pursuing a career with all the energy and enthusiasm of a young professional trying to climb the corporate ladder,” she said.

“But in my last two years with the bank, I was no longer happy and felt weighed down by the continuous stress at work and monotony of the routine. The main reason I lasted that long was that I liked the people I was working with, many of whom are now my closest friends,” she said.

She also needed a “welcome distraction” from a personal crisis, having just ended a 10-year relationship. She decided to take a second degree, enrolling in a nursing course at the University of Makati.

A natural

According to Aguila, a political science graduate of the University of the Philippines, she may have been unconsciously drawn to the health services field because of her mother’s being a dentist. From childhood, she had been in the habit of assisting at the dental clinic in her free time.

The combination of health service and volunteering was apparently also in her blood: her family raised her in an atmosphere of giving, from church work to helping strangers in need.

“In third grade, a few days before Christmas a very young Mangyan couple with a newborn in the mother’s arms showed up at our doorstep asking for food. Without a second thought, my parents welcomed them into the house,” she said.

“They stayed with us for several days until after Christmas. Oman and his wife Kili are constant visitors at our house not only during the Christmas season but any time of the year,” she said.

Very Filipino qualities

She has brought with her to the country she considers her second home qualities that she believes are very Filipino: resilience, hard work and cheerfulness.

“These qualities are important especially when working in a challenging environment. It pleases me to know that our skills and experience are as valuable as those of our foreign counterparts’,” said Aguila.

“The life of a volunteer can be very challenging but it can also be a very fulfilling experience. You may be surprised to discover that by changing the lives of others, you can actually be saving your own,” she said.

From article ‘Banker breaks mold to volunteer as nurse’ by Tarra Quismundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer

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