In his delightfully whimsical and allegorical 1990 children’s book “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” Salman Rushdie tells of how a precious young man named Haroun journeys to the unseen yet literal Sea of Stories that brought tales all over the world.
That echoes mightily with the tale of another precocious young man, Gig Oca Robles, though his tale involves both the power of stories and the life lived by those who journey to the sea.
The tale begins with a man of the sea—and his daughter. The late Capt. Gregorio Oca spent much of his life helping those who endure separation from their families to earn a viable life as Filipino seafarers, as the founder and chairman of the Associated Marine Officer’s and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP).
His daughter, Marissa Oca, then a high-schooler, pitched in to help the seafarers as well. Marissa is currently the administrator of the AMOSUP community development programs.
“I’m a professional hospital administrator so I was able to help my father build and organize hospital operations back in the 1980s,” she says of the Seamen’s Hospital that has grown from a small clinic to a health institution with branches in Manila, Cebu and Iloilo.
The tale then becomes one about a mother—and her son. Marissa had two children, eldest Mika and Gig.
Born Ambrosio Gregorio Oca Robles IV on August 4, 1990 in Oakland, California, Gig got his distinctive nickname when his sister couldn’t quite pronounce “Greg,” turning it into “Gig.” The nickname stuck.
From early on, Marissa made sure to always read books to her children at night, even if she was very busy. “You have to spend quality time with your kids. You must decide how and my decision was to read them stories at night, because I felt that we could interact a lot better through stories,” she recalls. “The kids, naturally, will grow to be critical thinkers and ask questions.”
Her kids soon began choosing their own reading material. “They would choose the bookstore over the toy store,” Marissa says.
Her son Gig loved finding out new things. “He was very thirsty for learning,” Marissa says. As young as 4, he had already memorized the names of different kinds of dinosaurs. “You would hear these big words from him,” she recalls. “He would have many things to say about people and situations.” He was already reading Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” before his mother did and even “The Da Vinci Code” when it was still controversial to do so. Later, he became interested in Neil Gaiman.
Photographer Mandy Navasero remembers that Gig, an enthusiastic aspiring photographer, joined her photo workshop’s Batanes trip together with Marissa in April, 2007. “He was the youngest in the group along with my daughter,” Navasero recalls. “And he had three cameras around his neck. He was really into it.”
He was also very kind and helpful. Navasero remembers in particular that they had not reckoned on the tide coming in when it did while they were shooting out at sea. “We had to secure these elderly ladies and Gig was the only one among the men to volunteer and help the ladies to safety.”
Navasero says she knew that Gig was similarly helpful to his friends, often dropping them off after class in his car.
A witty and respectful guy who attended De La Salle-Santiago Zobel, Gig also enjoyed Ultimate Frisbee, but not as much as he liked helping other people. There are many stories of how Gig would be the first to step forward and offer assistance without being asked to. He was also the president of his Youth for Christ chapter.
Gig had a bright future ahead of him, says his mother. “Before graduation, I told him, ’you’re going to be a lawyer or a priest, two sides of the same coin,’” Marissa says. A graduating senior, Gig was choosing between attending the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Hawaii in Manoa. “He chose Ateneo, because he was quite nationalistic,” she says. “He was going to take political science and law and would have graduated in 2012.”
Marissa also describes Gig as being playful, one who liked climbing on the roof and balancing on the ledges of their home.
On March 9, 2008, Gig attended his class’s graduation ball party at the Hotel Sofitel in Manila. As witnesses recount it, sometime past three in the morning, the boy accidentally fell from the balcony of the hotel’s sixth floor. They rushed Gig to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, but he did not make it. He was 17.
Marissa still finds it difficult to speak about that day. “I think it’s one of the most painful things a human being can go through,” she says. But she was touched by the subsequent outpouring of support for, and the kind remembrances of people about Gig.
“There are three things you want when you die. First, that everyone would have only good things to say about you. Second, that a lot of people would be at your funeral, and last, that you had been a good leader of sorts. I think he got all three.”
Later that year, AMOSUP would inaugurate the Gig Oca Robles Seamen’s Hospital in Davao City.
But as the year went by, Marissa felt that Gig’s death also brought a new kind of clarity. “The world just became clearer and more brilliant,” she says. She thought about putting up a foundation in Gig’s memory. “If we put up something in his honor, it has to be about books and reading,” she explains.
While thinking about the foundation’s name, she recalled that Gig’s favorite catchphrase was “amazing!” Then she remembered that his son was always bringing sampaguita garlands home, probably bought from streetkids outside their home. Thus was born, Gig and the Amazing Sampaguita, Inc., or GASFI.
GASFI’s main purpose is to encourage stronger bonds within the seafarer’s family by fostering the habit of reading to children at bedtime. “Twenty minutes at bedtime, read to your child” became its motto. Marissa adds that GASFI also reminds people of Gig’s example and the values he left us with: “humility, compassion, gratitude, nationalism.”
For the foundation’s activities focused on the families of seafarers, Marissa realized that they needed a particular kind of book. “We needed books and stories that connect seafarers’ families and family values,” she says. “So we had a contest because it seemed like there weren’t any books that suited our purpose.”
On the foundation’s launch one year after Gig’s death, GASFI’s biggest endeavor was its publishing program. The foundation’s first book was a book of thoughts about reading from maritime industry leaders with photographs by Navasero called “Read to Bridge Oceans.”
Next came the Gig Seafarer Children’s Books, a contest where the writers of the 10 winning stories received P20,000 each, and got their books published as well.The biggest benefactor of the foundation’s book project is Marissa’s mother Ditas Mercedes Oca.
In 2010, the first set of 10 winners was announced, with writer Sylvia Mayuga being the most prominent. Mayuga’s story, “A Tale of Tong-its,” was later illustrated by artist Joel Chua.
According to Mayuga, the whole thing started out of curiosity. “I wrote the story as an experiment to see whether I could keep to the word limit of around a thousand words,” she says. It took her about three days to finish it. “The idea came from a steady stream of news of hijacking on the high seas. I noticed that many of the sailors were Pinoy and felt great empathy for them and their families.”
Mayuga also expressed support for what GASFI was doing: “GASFI’s creation is a story in itself. I admire both old man Oca and his daughter who lost her son and channeled her grief to doing good.”
The Gig Seafarer Children’s Books contest is held every two years, with the second set of winners recently announced.
Oca says that though the GASFI contest is a beginner compared to other contests for children’s stories like the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and the Philippine Board on Books for Young People [PBBY]-Alfrredo N. Salanga Prize, she similarly hopes that through books, their Foundation could “bring to the fore the issues in a lighter way.”
As an example, she singles out Czarina Vijulet Jusi’s story, “Why My Uncle Martin Can’t Fix my Bike,” where the boy Mico deals with the presence of another man around the house—a man who isn’t his father.
Here’s the surprising element: The books themselves aren’t for sale. “People who are interested can just look at our website (www. Gasfi.org), then they can write us and we send them books. We just ask for donations. Anyone can just write and ask.”
The books themselves are valued at around P3,000 per set, but are not commercially available, says Marissa. The Foundation eventually hopes to place the books on an electronic platform as the first Filipino seafarer’s children’s books in the world.
Aside from publishing the books, GASFI also holds reading sessions in the provinces through their GASFI units and sponsors scholars interested in political science and law courses.
“We also have the book donor program where people can donate books. Our seafarer families in turn can donate these books to their LGUs or local elementary schools, or alma mater, wherever they want to bring the books,” Marissa explains.
Through the memory of one child, other children are learning new things through the books carrying Gig’s name.
Of course, Marissa still misses him. “I am still grieving in more ways than people can imagine, and you never stop,” she says, noting that Gig Oca Robles will forever be 17. She is a big believer in things happening for a reason, and she believes what she has gone through constitutes a child (Gig) teaching an adult (her) a lesson. “He taught me many things,” Marissa Oca says. “He taught me to find more meaning in my life, like being open to people, being there for anyone else, having that sensitivity to need and deep compassion. Without GASFI, I feel that we wouldn’t have been able to concretize many things about who Gig is, nor our work for seafarers, nor bring our message to the country, which is: read to your children every night.”
Each told story flows into other stories—about fathers, mothers and children—running out into the endless sea, 20 minutes at a time, every day, as long as one can imagine. •
For more information, please contact the Gig and the Amazing Sampaguita Foundation, Inc., at tel. no. 526-0524, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.gasfi.org.