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Third Engineer Vernie Chan has been helping his fellow stranded seafarers by delivering food packs to those who need it. 

Vernie Chan, a seafarer since 2004, was set to leave on March 14, 2020. His joining port was Puerto Bolivar, Ecuador. Then COVID-19 came, and nations all over the world closed their borders. From an excited joining crewmember, Vernie became a stranded seafarer, full of uncertainties.

He was not alone. His fellow seafarers, his kabaro, were in the same situation, and Vernie knew that it would get worse. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he channeled all his frustrations, his anxieties, and his empathy for his kabaro into service.

The situation of stranded seafarers

Manila hosts the majority of the manning and shipping agencies in the country. Because of this, seafarers are centralized in areas such as Malate. When the pandemic came, thousands of them were stranded in their boarding houses and dormitories.

Ilonggo seafarer Vernie described the setup of their everyday life. “Siksikan po kami. Yung iba po, mga pasakay na sana. Yung iba naman, nagti-training. Ang masaklap, yung iba po ay mga kadeteng naghahanap pa lang ng kompanya. (It’s crowded where we live. Some of us are set to join our respective ships. Some are taking their training. What’s distressing is that some of the stranded seafarers are cadets still trying to find a company)”.

When the national government imposed the quarantine, the economy was greatly affected. People lost their jobs, businesses, and properties. Transportation was also paralyzed, so the stranded seafarers had no way of going home to their respective provinces. Vernie and his board mates worried about how long they could survive when they ran out of money.

Because of the situation, the Ilonggo seafarer decided to reach out to different organizations for aid. He was able to reach and ask help from Gregorio Oca Leadership and Development (GOLD) Foundation, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), Marino Party List, IST One, seafaring families in the community, and the local barangay.

The everyday life of a volunteer

At five in the morning, Vernie would begin his day. He would pick up the food packs delivered to him by OWWA. By noontime, he would get the supplies for lunch. And around nine in the evening, dinner packs were set to arrive. He would deliver those items to each of the five boarding houses hosting stranded seafarers in Barangay 724, Malate, Manila. Sometimes, his board mates would offer some help, but most of the time he worked alone.

He delivered the food packs daily– rain or shine. And his act of volunteerism was not all fun, nor always appreciated. He once delivered dinner to a group of seafarers, soaked to the bone from the torrential downpour. One of the men was upset at the late delivery, and told Vernie that they were not dogs that were fed past dinner time. But no matter how upsetting and frustrating it was for Vernie, he told himself to be the better person – he had to understand because he can.

During his spare time, Vernie also volunteers to help the barangay medical team. He was a former Red Cross Volunteer back in college, and he is happy to help by take the body temperatures of the residents coming to the Barangay Health Center. One memorable time, he facilitated the transportation of a woman in labor. He looked at it in the light of safeguarding life and allowing it to thrive, especially in the time of a pandemic.

The motivations of a seafarer-volunteer

Vernie is no stranger to city life. Although he hails from Iloilo, he was born in Manila, the second of eight siblings. His father, Boncock, was a taxi driver, and his mother, Virillia, was a food vendor. Life back then was financially challenging. He recalls that when his mother got sick while his father was out to work, they tried to ask help from their relatives, but to no avail. Such childhood experiences were etched in his mind, and he promised himself to always give to others whenever he could.

His siblings often advise him to stop volunteering because of the risk of exposure to the virus. Although he understands where they are coming from and the gravity of the danger in what he does, he persists. He only makes sure that he wears a face mask and follows protocols to avoid getting infected.

When asked as to why he persists in volunteering despite the danger, he says that he sees himself in the situation of the stranded seafarers. He remembers the time when they needed help, and no one offered it. This is his way of paying tribute to his parents, who taught him well, and to pay it forward.

A call for Bayanihan

As Manila graduates to General Community Quarantine, the situation became lighter. According to Vernie, last June 20, OWWA already ended their food packs delivery. Overall, they were able to help around 100 seafarers in their barangay alone. Although some of the stranded seafarers were able to leave or go home already, there are still those who remain stranded and in need of help.

He encourages his fellow seafarers to continue to look out for one another and extend a helping hand. In these challenging times, when almost all of us are affected, it is through kindness that we can all survive.

Third Engineer Vernie Chan is an epitome of benevolence and empathy in action. And we hope that stories like this will create a growing number of modern-day heroes helping not just one another but also anyone within reach.

As what our seafarer-volunteer keeps telling his four children and his cadets, “Regardless of how big or small your capacity may be, whenever you can, help. Just help.”

Elijah Jose Barrios

Elijah Jose Barrios is a 24-year old Third Officer, Teacher, and Course Developer. He advocates for child literacy and youth empowerment through his involvement in different organizations.  He considers himself an appreciator of any form of art and usually puts all his realizations into writing.