When he was a kid, Jeffrey Tarayao had the loftiest of dreams—to become Pope. He had read about the lives of popes at fifth grade and decided early on that should he become head of the church, he would be called Pope Francis, a carry-over from the Franciscan-run school he had attended.
But at 34, Tarayao is nowhere near a seminary nor any Catholic institution. Instead, one can find him in far-flung islands and remote mountain areas where, with sleeves rolled up, he regularly preaches the benefits of sustainable energy to provide electricity to marginalized schools and communities.
Tarayao was head of Meralco’s corporate social responsibility when he decided to reorganize One Meralco Foundation in July 2011 to partner with local communities in sourcing electric power. Barely two years after, the Foundation’s School Electrification Program (SEP) had served 70 public schools and over 10,000 marginalized households, earning for Meralco its first Platts Global Energy Award for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility in New York City in December 2013.
Meralco’s youngest executive was quick to stress community effort and commitment in making the project work.
He recalled working on the project with the community at Brgy. Upper Sepaka in Surallah, South Cotabato, with its mix of Muslims, Christian Ilonggos, and lumads or native Mindanaons. The barangay had not enjoyed the benefits of electricity for decades until it partnered with SEP. Now residents aged 50 to 60 tell Tarayao that it was only in the past two years that they were able to light up their homes at night and have a cold bottle of soda or beer when they felt like it.
Finding a sustainable energy source for the barangay was not easy, said Tarayao. The local government had initially set up solar systems in the area but technical problems and the community’s high demand for power proved insurmountable. The community then turned to the Sepaka River, a narrow but steadily flowing source of water for nearby residents. With the consistent water flow strong enough to drive micro-hydroelectric turbines, the local government knew it was a viable option and invited as partners the Foundation, USAID’s project Alliance for Mindanao Off-Grid Renewable Energy (AMORE), and the Department of Energy. The partners finally put up a 40 kilowatt-output micro-hydro power plant to meet the power demand of up to 300 households.
The community, proudly said Tarayao, has shown its sense of commitment and ownership since it took over the plant which is now being operated and maintained by the barangay’s own “electric cooperative,” complete with line men, meter readers, and local couriers who distribute the monthly billing. A regular household with a handful of light bulbs, a television set and a refrigerator consumes around P100 to P200 worth of power every month.
It’s a success story that Tarayao hopes to duplicate with the Foundation’s active partnership with geographically-isolated schools.
Schools are a sacred institution for this power plant executive who sees them as a great equalizer and a gateway for opportunities toward a better life. Education is the key, said this son of a family driver who barely finished elementary school, and a sales lady who had completed only a vocational course.
For 28 years, Tarayao and his parents Pepito, 66, and Leny, 57, along with his two other siblings lived in a 28 sq m driver’s quarters in the house of his father’s employer.
“We had very modest means but my father’s employers of 43 years, Mr. and Mrs. Limuaco, offered to pay for my schooling from elementary to high school,” he recalled.
The benevolent couple sent Tarayao to private schools in Quezon City for high school, until one of them suffered a stroke and had to ask his parents to take care of his college education. But the Limuacos still offered the family free space and water, and a monthly salary of P5,000 for Tarayao’s father. The family had to pay their own electric bills.
“It was nothing short of a miracle that my parents were able to send me to the University of Santo Tomas,” said Tarayao, who had a devotion to the great Dominican saint, Thomas Aquinas before he even set foot in the pontifical university. Today, he returns to the university regularly to help mentor student leaders.
He had wanted to be part of the university’s church choir, said this gifted baritone, but he wanted to get his degree on time and had to prioritize his studies. As if to make up for that, he now supports singers and the arts in various capacities.
When two more siblings were born to the family, the Tarayao couple took on extra jobs to allow Jeffrey to finish his communication arts degree without him having to work while studying.
His parents’ sacrifices have allowed Tarayao to graduate cum laude and hold several leadership positions in school, which landed him a slot at the Ayala Young Leaders Congress in 2000.
At his first job with a telecommunications company, Tarayao sent his two youngest siblings to school, until both finished college and are now building their own careers.
“The Philippines has been good to me and my family,” said Tarayao who vowed to stay in the country to give back, instead of earning in more lucrative jobs abroad.
He has a mission here, he declared, one that would make education and electrification an empowering tandem in local communities.
Tarayao recalled his visit in mid-2013 to schools in Dinagat Islands, a province in Northern Mindanao accessible via a two-hour boat ride from Surigao City in Surigao del Norte. He knew this was one of the poorest provinces in the country, so he set out with his team to see the situation on the ground.
“Naunahan ako ng awa (I was overcome with pity),” he said. The place was desolate, remote and quite inaccessible. “But I knew it was typical of the schools we wanted to reach out to.”
After deciding on the location of possible partner schools from the list given by the Education department, the One Meralco Foundation (OMF) team makes an initial visit to the community to start a series of consultation with the school, its principal and Parent-Teacher Association, as well as barangay and local government leaders.
Tarayao and his team evaluate not only the feasibility of the project in the area, but also the commitment of stakeholders in taking care of this would-be investment.
“There’s almost no challenge in convincing them about the value of the project,” he said. “The challenge is to guarantee their commitment to participate in the program,” he added. “We want to develop that spirit of stakeholdership, the spirit of ‘may pakialam’(commitment) so the equipment are well-maintained and can last them a long while.”
In the sun-drenched island of Cabul-an in Bohol, electricity provided by the local power distributor runs only at night and is too costly for the residents. The PTA of the Cabul-an High School, with help from the OMF in 2013, put up a charging station to sell its surplus stored energy. The money collected adds to the fund providing students here their school supplies.
To provide electric power to schools, the OMF makes an estimated investment of P750,000 to acquire and install high-output photovoltaic systems which converts sunlight into a continuous electrical charge that is stored in a series of batteries. The stored energy is then converted to alternating current and stepped up to 220V (the standard voltage in households) with the use of an inverter.
For every school provided electricity by the OMF, Meralco’s Employees Fund for Charity donates a multimedia package that cost almost P150,000 and includes a laptop computer, a printer, a widescreen TV, and a DVD player to enhance the learning experience of teachers and students.
This makes it possible for teachers in places like Kibang National High School in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato to skip traversing kilometers of dirt road uphill and downhill just to print their reports. They can also use these digital tools to come up with more engaging visual aids to enable their students to understand complex concepts more easily.
When this writer visited the school’s electrification site, we spent two hours on paved roads and three hours on rough trails to get to Barangay Ned, Lake Sebu, to see how the lives of students and teachers have changed after the installation of solar panels by One Meralco Foundation.
The bumpy ride and the wonderful landscape were nothing compared to the apparent amazement and thrill of the children who were experiencing light, computers, music, a Powerpoint presentation, and movies for the first time. When we arrived, they were watching “The Hobbit,” a reward from their teachers for them having finished their exams.
It was heartening and guilt-inducing as well, to see for the first time how people from the area are only now tasting the daily conveniences that the rest of us take for granted. To have this wonderful experience come from a resource they’ve always had—the sun—makes it even more life-changing.
How does he explain such changes to the teachers and the children, we asked Tarayao.
“I do appeal to their emotions and say, ‘it’s for the children’s growth.’ How will they compete with others when they go to college, if they do at all? They may have the same life as their parents, but at least we should be able to provide them other opportunities,” he said.
On top of installing the facility and the necessary electrical connections around the school, the OMF also shoulders the expense of maintaining the system for a year before turning over that responsibility to the school. The school’s PTA will have to shoulder the cost of the protective case for the battery, which is about 10 percent of the total cost of the equipment.
But then again, we asked Tarayao, if the communities are so poor, why does OMF require the stakeholders to pay for anything?
“We have limited resources,” he said. “We can only cover so many schools, and we want to bring this program to communities or beneficiaries that it can serve most.”
It also breeds respect, he added, for the program when the community owns it. “It’s the right thing to do. Hard work is something we should always value and be willing to pay a price for.”
When Tarayao’s brother and sister finally graduated from college, he quit the first job that he held for 10 years, to take a much-deserved trip to Europe. When he got back to work, he fielded offers from a huge multinational tech company and global food company to work for a Philippine brand. It helped that Meralco’s chair, Manny V. Pangilinan (aka MVP) personally hand-picked and convinced him to j oin and make a difference through One Meralco Foundation.
Tarayao also earned the respect of business leaders outside Meralco, as he wound up his term as chair of the League of Corporate Foundations, the youngest to hold the post. The president of the Cebu-based Coalition for Better Education that builds the capacity of teachers on delivering learning was recently inducted into the Management Association of the Philippines as well.
Between invitations to cocktails and business events, he receives letters from students or teachers asking that OMF help their schools find viable power sources.
“For them to write us validates the values we uphold. They understand and see us offering a better alternative to what they have, and we couldn’t be more inspired to continue what we’re doing,” he said.
Looking back at his initial dream of becoming a Pope, Tarayao shrugged: “I cannot hear confessions, I cannot marry couples, I cannot forgive sins.”
But his job, he added, helps spark change in individuals and communities. It also develops in them a sense of wonder and openness—to alternative sources of energy, to learning, and to better opportunities in life.
Indeed, the way Tarayao is welcomed in disadvantaged communities and forgotten islands—with kids lining up the road and holding up flags to cheer him—he might as well be Pope. •
If you know of a school that needs energy, visit www.onemeralcofoundation.org or contact (02) 632-8301/ [email protected]