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How This Filipino Farmer's Son Made it to Harvard

Before heading to college, Romnick Blanco is dedicating a year to inspire other farmers' children.
IMAGE Jinggo Montenejo via townandcountry.ph

If they write about me, people will be happy to read my story for two minutes, feel good, be inspired, and then they will quickly forget. But if they talk about the kind of community I come from, full of hopelessness, poverty, and despair, and talk about how GreenEarth Heritage Foundation is addressing the problems, that will serve a bigger group of people beyond myself, I think that has more impact.

—Romnick L. Blanco, Green Earth Heritage Foundation scholar, International School Manila scholar Class of 2017, Harvard University Class of 2022

This is a story of hope. And, as with most remarkable stories, it started with a dream and many prayers followed by hard work, patience, perseverance, and love. This is the story of Romnick Blanco, the seventh of nine sons of a farmer who grew up in a small municipality in the northern foothills of the Sierra Madre; a young boy who endured a long walk each day on unpaved roads just to get to school. Romnick crossed a bridgeless river, under the scorching heat almost every day, including Saturdays, in an effort to better himself and with the hope that through education, he and his family and their community could have a better life.

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This is also the story of GreenEarth Heritage Foundation, an organization that believes in Romnick and has poured its resources in nurturing his talent with passion and prayer. It is a foundation that is dedicated to transforming lives through organicÂagriculture, in an area where the lack of farm-to-market infrastructure and sustainable countryside opportunities has perpetuated deforestation, illiteracy, and grinding poverty. GreenEarth Heritage Foundation's holistic mission is "to preserve the environment, adhere to sound and sustainable agricultural practices and help in the alleviation of poverty through livelihood, education and community development."

This is Romnick's very own David and Goliath tale to tell: A poor boy who comes from a small, rural town. He describes his impoverished community as a place "where people are living in hopelessness and despair. They believe that no matter what takes place, they will be poor forever. They see no light at the end of the tunnel."

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But Romnick now knows that hope exists and a better life for all of them is possible. He is dedicated to sharing his blessings so that others may experience the hope, too. "This amazing blessing that I have received will be looked upon by many as an achievement, but if I were to be very honest, I truthfully believe that what happened to me was nothing short of a miracle," he says.

Established in 2009, after receiving a land grant of over 100 hectares, GreenEarth Heritage Foundation quickly established programs in order to urgently address environmental destruction, lack of sustainable agricultural livelihood opportunities and poor quality education, in order to help farmers and their children in Romnick's community.

In 2011, Romnick became a sponsored child of the foundation. His benefits as a sponsored child included receiving a monthly subsidy to assist with the ancillary costs of public school education as well as free access to English and computer literacy classes at the foundation's Learning Center, situated right in the middle of their reforestation site and an organic farm. The foundation noticed Romnick's unwavering commitment to learning, and soon, he was outpacing the other farmers' children in English proficiency at the GreenEarth Learning Center. Through the foundation's vision, dedication, and support, he gained a highly coveted five-year scholarship at the country's oldest international high school, the International School Manila.

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"Rom has special favor from the Lord," says Dr. Mylene Matti, founder of GreenEarth and Romnick's foster mother. "He has a destiny to fulfill in Him, thus the Lord is equipping and empowering him now with better education."

A member of the graduating class of the International School Manila 2017, Rom, as he is called by his friends and family, received acceptance and full scholarships to Harvard University, Dartmouth College, Wesleyan University, and New York University at Abu Dhabi. He has accepted the offer from Harvard and will be matriculating in the fall of 2018, following a gap year. âI selected Harvard for all that it represents. Its reputation precedes itself,â he shares. "I love its motto, 'Veritas: I will go where truth leads me.'"

While he was originally accepted for admission this September, he decided to take advantage of a gap year, something that is becoming a popular choice for young adults today. In its admissions letter, Harvard University encourages its incoming students to take a year of deferral because of the benefits it has observed from those who have taken a year off before starting college. "Before I got accepted to any college, I prayed to be able to take a break after high school and so with Harvard's outright encouragement, I decided to grab the opportunity."

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Over the next 12 months, Rom plans to learn practical life skills. He plans to learn how to cook and drive, as well as play the guitar. He also hopes to travel around the Philippines. Not one who cannot give back, he also plans to add more to his 1,500 trees—a Moringa Food Forest he himself established over 5 years at GreenEarth Heritage Foundation. "Trees have a special place in my heart as a farmer's child who grew up in the mountains with various kinds of plants and farm animals. When I entered ISM in the eighth grade, I could no longer plant as often as when I was in the province. But since I really love planting, I would go to GreenEarth whenever I have free time to plant trees. Over the last 5 years, I have planted over 1,500 trees, most of which are the acclaimed miracle tree and superfood of the world, Moringa [Malunggay]. I gave these to my father as my gift to help increase his weekly income."

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In addition to planting, he hopes to be able to conduct a theater class for farmers children and fellow scholars studying in the homeschool program of GreenEarth Heritage Foundation as he loves to act and sing, and has pursued these interests through different activities while at ISM. Rom was awarded "Most Outstanding in Theatre" for two consecutive years, Grade 11 and 12, at ISM.

As Harvard does not expect its incoming freshmen to choose a course of study before beginning their college education, Rom is keeping anÂopen mind until he begins schooling, but lists economics, environmental studies, math, and history as possible areas of interest. When asked what his plans are after college, Rom says, "Right now, my mind is focused on preparing for my next mountain to climb—Harvard. But if I may share what is in my mind—I yearn to see many more farmers' children experience my blessings. If not for my foundation coming to our neck of the woods teaching us to live, hope and dream and backing us up all the way, you would not be writing about me today. There are a number of other farmers' children who are very promising in our community. If only GreenEarth had more resources to look after many of us, my beloved foundation has proven that it knows what to do to help get a farmer's child to Ivy League! I pray more people will consider supporting us in our movement of transforming land, transforming lives."

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For more information on the GreenEarth Heritage Foundation and how you can help, visit greenearthheritage.org.

This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Town&Country.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountry.ph.

* Minor edits have been made by the Candymag.com editors.

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Alicia Colby Sy for TownandCountry.ph
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Today, I am sharing my mother's story. I wish my mother was a constant in my life, like an angel who guards you to sleep and comes right there when you called. But angels come back home too, in heaven where they always belonged, and my mother went back a little early. My mother died when I was 13 years old. My last memory of my mother: Letting go when you are not yet ready is a very cruel thing that one has to ever experience. It is a sudden wave of total sadness and desperation crashing into your very core.

On the 28th of July 2013, we went to a resort in Bataan for the employees’ getaway. My parents own a 7-11 franchise, and it had always been a tradition to give their store clerks a get-together every year. I remember very well the last breakfast I had with my mother. The Sunday morning sky was clear and sunny, and the sea was calm and tranquil as we ate our breakfast on a cottage under the tall palm trees. She shared with us a strange dream she had the other night. She dreamt about an unknown woman holding an ice pick chasing her down on a dimly lit street, then she woke up just before the woman could grab her arm. We never knew what that dream exactly meant and now, I wished I never knew its meaning. After breakfast, my family and our employees decided to take a swim at the beach. The day was nice. The morning air may be chilly but the sun’s kiss on our skins gave us warmth. It was perfect. Everything is fine and the tides are low which made it very enjoyable to swim. We swam a little farther from the shore and we stopped to the point where the water reached our shoulders. We were talking about the good things in life and reminiscing the good old days. Those are the things that I’ve always loved about my family because I never had a meaningless conversation with them.

A few moments later, we heard a panicking call for help from one of our store clerks. It was Rachel. She was struggling to keep her head above water. She was already drowning but the odd thing was, she was only a few feet away from us. At first, we thought she was just playing around until we felt the sand in our toes dissolving like powder. It felt like as if the seafloor submerged deeper. I remembered sighting the shore and it seemed so close yet very far away. We were all panicking at that time. No one knew how to swim except my mother so without having second thoughts she swam towards Rachel and called out to my father, “Yung mga anak mo! Dalhin mo sa pampang yung mga anak mo!” and I never thought I already heard my mother’s last words to my father. I was paddling like a dog, gasping for air, as I say a little prayer to God to take us all back to safety. I felt my father grabbing our swimsuits, trying to lift our bodies so we can breathe even though he was also struggling to keep himself alive. Once I felt my toes touch the ground, there came a veil of relief that covered my whole body. As soon as my father and my sister made it to the shore we started calling out for help. There were no lifeguards on duty at that time, no personnel, nor guards. I saw my mother already floating in her stomach. We sighted a boat sailing nearby, we waved our hands and called for their attention. They almost ignored us because they cannot comprehend what we were trying to relay but the good thing was a passenger in the boat noticed my mother and Rachel in the water.

My mother’s body was laid on the shore. She was unconscious and her whole body was pale as white. My father performed CPR but my mother couldn’t get the water come out of her mouth because the food she ate earlier got stuck in her throat and blocked the passage. A concerned tourist offered his car to deliver my mom in a nearby health center or a clinic of some sort since the hospital was miles away from the beach and she needs immediate care. My father told us to stay in the hotel room and prepare mom’s belongings so that if she wakes up she has fresh clothes to change into. My sister and I finished packing our things and waited for our father to pick us up from the hotel. I was crying and I couldn’t stop myself because I was afraid to lose my mother. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be if I lose her that day. Moments lasted until we heard a knock on the door and it was my father, crying, and apologizing to us. He hugged me and my sister tightly and saying, “Sorry, anak, sorry hindi na uuwi si mommy, sorry hindi ko nasagip si mommy”. And that was the moment I felt sinking into the ground. I never knew what to feel at first. I was numb because my worries were now actually a reality that I have to live in. I was at shock because I am now one of the kids in those cliche teleseryes who lost a mother at an early age. We went to the health center to settle everything. The clinic was very small and it sure did lack equipment. He told us to stay in the car. I wanted to see my mom, but I know he never wanted us to see her like that. I didn’t know what to feel. I was having high anxiety levels that my stomach is churning and I wanted to vomit. I got off the car and entered the health center to find the restroom. When I was finding my way around, I passed by the emergency room. I saw my mother lying in a foldable bed, lifeless, her hands dangling from the side of the bed, she has violet bruises on her skin, and her body was partially covered with a white towel.

That is when it sunk into me that she’s dead and never coming back. My father asked the others to just commute back to Manila because what we need right now is comfort from our family. The drive back home was one of the most painful memory I had as a kid. My father was in the steering wheel crying his eyes out. We drove from Bataan to Pampanga. We went home to my grandmother’s house, the nearest house that we can call “home” because how are we still going to be “home” without her?

Once we reached Pampanga, we stopped over to the gas station and my father made some calls to our loved ones to tell them that my mother passed away. He then called my aunt to help him arrange for the funeral. We got home and my grandmother hugged us and told us to get some rest. Already tired of crying, I went to sleep for a while. I woke up and for a second, I thought everything that happened the other day was all just a dream. That she was there in Manila, sitting on the couch reading some furniture magazine, waiting for us to go home. But that’s how cruel life is, right? I got up and weirdly, I felt sands in the bed. It was gray, just like the ones on the beach. I thought maybe it was just dirt but it was a fair amount to believe that maybe she visited us before she left. - ?

- The part of how I conquered the grief of her passing is shared in my personal blog. I felt the need to share my story with everyone since she's the woman I look up to. Feel free to visit my personal blog too when you have the time. I love writing my stories. Thank You! link: http://qkathreece.wixsite.com/kathreecequizon/post/breaking-waves

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