Filipina seafarer advocate tells kids, parents to read together


MONTREAL, Quebec – Seafarer’s welfare is rooted in the foundation of family values, which can be built up through as easy an activity as reading to your children for 20 minutes at bedtime.

This was what Marissa Oca, founder and executive director of Gig and the Amazing Sampaguita Foundation, Inc. (GASFI), exhorted to an international audience of over a hundred who attended the annual North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA) Conference on October 1, 2015, here at Hotel Zero in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

The largest and most diverse gathering of seafarer welfare providers from all over the world, NAMMA invited Oca to be keynote speaker at the event particularly for GASFI’s literacy and reading advocacy, a “doable habit,” she urges seafarers to take up with their families to strengthen the love for reading and bonds between parent and child.

GASFI was set up in memory of Oca’s son, Gig, who passed away in an accident in 2008. She and Gig used to read together at bedtime when he was still alive, and this was an experience Oca initially wanted to share with those closest to her.

From one library in the Seamen’s Village in Dasmariñas, Cavite in 2009, GASFI has grown to be present in nine provinces in the Philippines in hospitals, schools, and seafaring communities through various activities such as film showings, outreaches, medical / dental missions, book donations, read-alouds, feeding programs, and distribution of learning materials.

GASFI also publishes originally-authored and illustrated books for children of seafarers. Two series have already been completed. There are 20 titles all in all, 14 of which have already been printed, and three titles available on Amazon.

Volunteers of GASFI activities include maritime cadets and schools, who then bring these to their own provinces, hopefully spawning the values of literacy in their own communities and their future families.

These values are vital to deter materialistic tendencies among seafarer families, who are usually materially rich. “A seafarer in a ratings position vhas an average of USD750 to spend every month, more than double the regular monthly minimum wage in the most expensive city in the Philippines,” Oca said in her speech.

But if given a values-laden foundation, children and spouses of seafarers—who also deal with “the art of waiting” (for the husband, decisions, shore leaves, the arrival of allowances or allotments), and challenges of isolation and reintegration (when husbands come back after months of being away and family dynamics have to be adjusted accordingly)—can flourish.

“As children flourish, so do families. The GASFI advocacy offers a universal message beyond seafaring families. While initially, seafaring families were envisioned to be known and recognized widely, the dream has evolved as a need for them to be a powerful partner in nation-building,” Oca emphasized.

She shared with NAMMA conference participants GASFI’s five-year roadmap, the “broad goal of which is ‘To forge a more solid relation with seafarers and their families,’ that entails a shift from the material motivations of their work to more lasting and life-enriching and uplifting values.”

Among them: more GASFI books, to evolve into a video series with study guides for counselors, teachers and parents, and an interactive app that can simulate the reading experience between father and child even when he is aboard a ship; a Children’s Space in all seafarers’ communities, a learning space wherein GASFI books (the ones published by the foundation and those donated from different sources) are used in reading and related enrichment activities (the first one was established last year in Daanbantayan, Cebu partly as a Haiyan response, with the help of International Seafarers’ Welfare Assistance Network (ISWAN); and for NAMMA and other international organizations to share the GASFI narrative and share its activities in Seafarer Children’s Centers “according to diverse, local cultures” and specific issues particular to location or culture.

Oca’s speech drew resounding applause and enthusiastic feedback from the audience, which consisted mostly of directors of seafarer’s welfare groups, and pastors, chaplains, and priests of various denominations, tasked either by church or self, to service the spiritual needs of seafarers in ports all over the globe. Most of the seafarers they minister to are Filipinos, who make up one third of the global fleet.

Away for several months at a time, often without ready access to communication and Internet despite technological advances aboard ships, seafarers suffer from emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual stress.

Their psychological and spiritual needs are often overshadowed by their touted “hero status,” bringing home USD5.6 billion worth of remittances as of 2014, out of the USD26.92 billion total from all overseas Filipino workers.

“I’ll make sure to tell everyone at home how generous you are in your service,” Oca promised the crowd.

Marissa Oca is the daughter of Gregorio S. Oca, touted to be the father of modern Filipino maritime, and founder of Associated Marine Officers and Seaman’s Union of the Philippines, the biggest seamen’s union in the whole world.