Helen of Gregory

For nine years, Helen has been roaming the premises of St. Gregory Church in Albay, making friends with and touching the hearts of the strangers she meets. Unlike the infamous Helen of Troy, this Helen doesn’t have a face that can launch a thousand ships.

What she has is a face that can launch a thousand coins.




What She Does

Since 2007, Beda Conel, more known to everyone as Helen, has been going to the church every day to ask for people’s mercy— be it in cash or in kind.

Born on the 16th of October, 1950, Helen has had more experiences in life than most people in Albay. Even at the age of 66, she still tries to support her family in the only way that she can— begging for kindness.

According to her, she is the sole provider of her home as her husband is too old to support them. She has three children—one daughter and two sons—who can willingly support her. However, she adamantly refuses their help as they also have their own families to provide for.

“Nakakalakad pa naman ako kaya ayaw kong umasa sa kanila (I can still walk, so I don’t want to rely on my children),” she said.

That is why every time she goes to church to ask people for even a tenth of their blessings, she never forgets to thank and pray for them. For her, any amount given will always be enough—even five cents!— because those very coins are her lifeline.

Helen can be seen just standing there as people come and go to St. Gregory. Although sometimes she walks around the premises of the church and then sits anywhere whenever she feels tired. Those who are already familiar with her automatically give her money. While those who don’t know her, Helen approaches them with a smile and a humble plea for kindness.

Sometimes, there are others who blatantly ignore her, but she said she still prays for them, as that is what she feels her every day obligation is.

At noon, Helen goes to a nearby canteen to eat lunch. However, she never eats heavy meals. Due to poverty, she is used to eating only biscuits or other light snacks. It is only during breakfast and dinner that she gets to eat rice.

Helen then goes home around 3 or 4 in the afternoon as long as she feels like she has gotten a fair amount that would be enough for them to get by.

However, her two sons are wary of what she is doing. To ease their anxiety, she always tells them this: “Huwag kayong mahiya at huwag n’yo akong pagalitan dahil ayaw kong mangutang na kayo naman ang magbabayad. (Do not by ashamed and do not scold me because I do not want you to borrow money from anyone just to help me.)”

Because her sons have already have their own families, a large portion of their income goes to Helen’s grandchildren’s school fees. That is why she feels a need to fend for herself and her husband.

At the end of the day, she shares what she has earned to her in-laws as sort of gratification.

“Itago mo ang binibigay ko, para kung ano ang gusto mong bilhing miryenda o shampoo may pambili ka, hindi ka na mangutang sa tindahan, kung mangungutang ka man, para sainyo na ‘yun,” she tells them.

(Save this amount I have given you so that you can buy whatever you like with it whether you need money for snacks, or a shampoo without having to borrow anything from the store.)

She asks people for money so she could give them to the people she loves.

The Reason Why

Those who don’t know her story will think Helen is one of the many who use people’s sympathy as an excuse not to work. But Helen is not your ordinary beggar.

When her three children were barely old enough to think for themselves—5, 2, 1 year olds respectively— her husband got into an accident. He was a driver then when a bone in his feet got broken to the point that it needed a stainless remedy.

In short, a tragedy has befallen their family and Helen was left to work.

Because his husband could no longer look for a job, she did everything in her power to earn as much as she can. She cooked and sold local snacks biniribid, baduya, banana que, and nilagang saging among many others so they all could survive. Whenever she sells them, she roams around their community in Victory Village in San Roque village, and in all the other places she could think of. Even the wet market vendors have become familiar with her.

In the morning, would heat and prepare her dishes and sell them across the city. When evening comes, she was either a dishwasher or a laundrywoman. This routine continued for years before another tragedy came.

One morning, her hands suddenly felt tired.

She had herself checked up once and because of poverty, she couldn’t even afford the follow-up check-up and buy the prescribed medicine. What she did was pay someone to massage her hands so she can resume on working. However, no amount of remedial oil saved her from what came next.

Helen acquired a disorder she herself cannot even name. Her hands were immobilized and got twisted, along with the veins.

That is why her daughter-in-law decided to take care of her. She is the one who bathes and changes Helen’s clothes. She patiently feeds her and even endures the situation whenever Helen is being called by nature. Much to the latter’s embarrassment, as she feels like a one-month old baby, she couldn’t do anything about her own condition.

If given the chance to be able to use her hands again, she said she would never beg money off of strangers.

However, as the song goes, even the best fall down sometimes… and Helen was best at providing for her loved ones.

Instead of just depending on her family members to feed her, Helen took the initiative. Her love for her family overrode her pride as an income-earning woman. She begged for people’s mercy, the same ones who have more to give, so that they could survive.

In the end, what could be so wrong with asking for a little help and giving out a little act of kindness?

Background

Unlike any other less-unfortunate people asking for help, Helen has a home to go back to at the end of the day. For 36 years, Helen resides in PNR Oro Site, Legazpi City with her husband and daughter-in-law. The house that currently shelters them is theirs, but the property where their house is built is owned by the government. She asserted that whenever the government needed the property they have no choice but to leave.

When asked where they would relocate if such circumstance happens she simply answered, “Any time na paalisin kami, aalis kami. Bahala na ang gobyerno kung saan kami papalipatin. (Any time they ask us to leave, we will. We’ll leave it to the government whether or not we will have a place to transfer to.)”

Helen’s youngest son works at a hotel as a delivery boy while the older son, who has two sons of his own, works a construction worker. Helen’s daughter, the eldest, lives in Mindoro with her own family.

The last time Helen set food on her hometown Camarines Sur, she said, was three years ago when her mother passed away.

Lack of Government Support

Asking people for money was Helen’s last resort for survival. Before, she tried several times in reaching out to seek help from the government.  But every single time she does, she only receives a check-up and medical prescriptions. X-Ray and Laboratory examinations are excluded of the free service.

As for the medicines, it is provided sometimes but only for her blood regulation, her heart and if she has seasonal illness. While for her long-term ailment, she is required to buy the medicine herself because the government lacks supply of such medications.

She’s gone one place to another to look for free medical support but it is a matter of luck if she receives some or not.

“Palaging walang budget ang gobyerno. Wala akong nakukuha (The government always doesn’t have budget for people like us. I was never given anything),” she answered when asked if she also asks for financial assistance from the government. Helen, a disabled old woman, expressed her small hopes from the government. Every time she goes to the city hall, just a stone’s throw away from St. Gregory the Great Cathedral, she has to wait in line to be entertained and prioritized, “Humihingi ka man o pumunta ka man matagal mo pang makukuha at tsaka ang ibinibigay lang naman ay P100 o P50 hindi yun makakabili ng gamot dahil ang kailangan na budget sa gamot ay P2,000 kaya sayang ang paghihintay dahil marami pa ang humihingi hindi lang ako, kaya sakanila nalang. Sa simbahan nalang ako humihingi ng piso piso. (When you ask for help, you won’t get it at an instant and they can only give P100 or P50. That’s not enough to buy my medicine that’s worth P2,000. There are many of us who ask for help from the city hall. I’ll just ask for help near the church.)”

Nevertheless, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) provides citizens like Helen 12 kilos of rice and three cans of sardines every thrice a year.

“Pag tungkol sa finansyal walang budget ang gobyerno. Kung member ka ng Sagip Kapamilya makakakuha ka ng pera. (If it’s about budget, the government doesn’t have it. If you’re a member of Sagip Kapamilya, you will be given financial assistance.)”

Advice

During the interview, Helen gave a piece of a teary-eyed advice: “Bawat obligasyon ay bigyan ng halaga.” (Give value to each obligation.)

Despite all the unfortunate events that came her way, she stood strong with her faith in God and encouraged everyone to always ask for His support, especially whenever problems arose.

She might have launched a thousand coins, but for those who knew everything she sacrificed, Helen launched a thousand hearts.

You may submit your stories, poems, photos, and illustrations to Ibalio Stories via email (ibaliostories@gmail.com; ibaliostorytellers@gmail.com), Twitter (@ibaliostories), or Facebook (@ibaliostories).




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