The children of Buyong, an impoverished village on the Philippine island of Mactan, have the extended family of Janet and Ernie Zaiser to thank for 28 years of educational scholarships, food, medicine, clean water and communal indoor toilets.
It might sound like an expensive undertaking, raising enough money to feed nearly 700 children every day at Buyong Elementary School – the only free feeding program for an entire school in the Philippines.
Well, guess again. The school feeding program and other good deeds organized by Janet Zaiser, 82, and her children run on a budget of about $7,000 a year.
Sponsors, including friends, retired school teachers, school groups, church clubs and neighbors, chip in to raise the $26 a day it costs to provide the children a meal that helps them escape malnourishment and improves their classroom performance.
“We just use word of mouth to get sponsors,” Zaiser said. “This is just a little miracle that’s been going on for 28 years.”
It all started in 1982, when the Zaisers’ daughter, Martha, took a break from college in Japan to go diving off the coral reefs of Mactan with friends. Martha, 19 at the time, was feeling lousy with a head cold one day and stayed on the beach, where she met a young village girl, Nora Erbito.
“Why aren’t you in school?” Martha asked. Turns out Nora and many other children in the village couldn’t afford public or private school.
Martha returned to Tokyo and recounted Nora’s plight to her parents, who lived in Japan from 1969 until 1990, when they moved to South Sound. They agreed as a family to set up a modest scholarship program so Nora could go to high school.
The program quickly expanded to eight children, then 12, then 28. Long lines of children would appear every year when the Zaisers returned to Buyong to dole out scholarships in the form of weekly allowances.
“In 1986, we started asking teachers for recommendations,” Janet Zaiser said. That also was the year the family started the school food program.
Also in the early years of the homespun philanthropy project, another sibling, Paul Zaiser, started playing a more active role because Martha moved to California to continue college.
Paul fell in love with the children and village of Buyong and, in 1991, left his teaching job in Japan to live there. He helped the village families form water systems and build three communal toilets they call comfort stations. He helped organize a system to collect the trash. He wrote letters for villagers, taught children how to use computers and coordinated school improvement projects at the elementary school.
“His house was like a community center,” his mother said. “The children would gather there to read magazines and play music.”
Paul Zaiser planned to stay two years in Buyong but ended up staying there the rest of his life – which ended tragically and prematurely in 2003 when he died from a brain infection, his mother said, choking back tears.
The Buyong Scholarship Program could have ended then and there. But Janet Kaiser and her extended family have kept it going, continuing to visit the island every year for about three weeks to dispense funds for food and medicine purchased by trusted villagers the family has met over the years.
The annual visit also is a chance to visit a handsome, modest garden and plaque the school community built in honor of Paul. It’s where his ashes are scattered and the memories of all his good work come alive.
By the time the food and medicine programs supplanted the scholarship program in 2008, 65 students had received a high school education and 31 had gone on to college, thanks to the generosity of the Zaisers and their supporters.
Most of the students return to their villages, and several have been real successes – an industrial engineer, a civil engineer, an architect, a policeman, a dive shop operator and a disc jockey, to name a few career paths.
Janet, who receives moral support from her husband, doesn’t know how much longer she can keep the Buyong support program going.
“We’re both 82 years old. It was accidental how it got started, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” she said. “I’ve kind of been in a daze for the last 28 years.
“It just goes to show that helping people that are poor doesn’t take a huge budget,” she said. “If I have $5,000, I can do miracles.”
I learned about the Zaiser family from one of their neighbors, Jane Course. Here’s what she had to say about this remarkable couple:
“They have never asked for money. All donations are strictly voluntary, never solicited. They do not seek publicity, are not millionaires, nor are they particularly religious. They are just plain folks who are doing a great deal of good.”
After 90 minutes in the presence of Janet and Ernie Zaiser, I can vouch for what Course had to say.
To learn more about the Buyong program, go to www.buyong.org.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444