Serving with Love and Empathy
Malabon City Vice Mayor Bernard “Ninong” dela Cruz talks about serving others with generosity and honesty.
By Rosy Mina
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO S. PERALTA, JR.
Even before he joined public service, Malabon Vice Mayor Bernard Dela Cruz had long been called ninong for being a godfather of sorts. He being called ninong started as a joke among his friends in traffic enforcement after he turned down their invitations for six weeks in a row because he had to be a godfather at baptisms and was surrounded by his godchildren at another time. He went along with the monicker, until fate led him to embody his new nickname when he moved to where former Malabon Councilor Lauro Borja used to live.
“He was a good councilor and people would go to him to ask for help,” Dela Cruz tells LEAGUE. People may have grown accustomed to visiting that house, but I was already the one living there. It so happened that I am the type who feels embarrassed to decline when asked for help. If I could, I would gladly help. That is where it started.”
The experience opened Dela Cruz’s eyes to certain realities. Among these are, that many of his fellow residents needed help, and that being an elected official could serve as a way to directly help them. “A friend advised me that if I wanted to help more people, I should run for barangay chairman or councilor,” he reveals.
The above realization prompted Dela Cruz to run for city councilor. He placed ninth in 2004 and seventh in 2007. Confident that he would crack the top 6 for his district which would qualify him for a council seat, he again ran in 2010, but still fell short. On his fourth try in 2013, he prevailed as the No. 4 councilor, and in 2016, he was re-elected as the No. 1 councilor. In 2019, he successfully ran for vice mayor and was re-elected in May. Through the years, Dela Cruz has remained a ninong, as he delivers aguinaldo (Christmas gifts) to his constituents throughout the entire year. The 500 hot meals that he has personally prepared and delivered every day since 2017 as part of the Meals on Wheels campaign are included in his aguinaldo. These are delivered every day except on weekends because these are the employees’ rest days.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
Dela Cruz arrived at the idea of giving away meals after his uncle gave him half a pig. Following that, his cousin gave him chicken. These blessings he readily shared with his needy constituents.
“Ang sarap pala ng feeling na habang namimigay ka, ‘yung mga tao masayang-masaya sila sa ‘yo tapos thank you sila nang thank you (It’s a good feeling that while you’re sharing, you see how pleased the people are and they thank you endlessly),” he shares. Dela Cruz does not reveal in advance where he’s going to distribute free meals, and does not give away tickets for such. He just makes sure to reach as many people as possible in different areas in the city. In his first 100 days as a second-term vice mayor, he was able to serve at least 50,000 people through the Meals on Wheels program. He also established the Ninong Squad in response to incidents of rioting and stealing in the city. The final straw was when his barber’s daughter was raped. “[I thought that] it was high time that I establish a group that can at least aid in reducing crime. And I have spoken [and continuously coordinate with Philippine National Police (PNP) officials. My organization is a force multiplier,” Dela Cruz says. A force multiplier is an organization or group that renders voluntary law-enforcement activities in order to assist the police force in performing its duties.
Malabonians can text Ninong Squad volunteers, who will relay their complaints to the police, fire department, hospital, or other concerned agencies Available volunteers in the area respond to the complaints. The vice mayor himself is personally involved in the squad’s activities. In one instance, a fire broke out at 2:00 a.m. He arrived at the scene immediately and summoned volunteers, who brought his personal fire truck. One remarkable fact is that his Meals on Wheels, Ninong Squad, and fire truck are privately funded by him. “Almost lahat ‘yun hindi galing sa pondo ng lokal na pamahalaan. Sarili ko ‘yun, extra mile ‘yun (Almost all of those are funded personally by me, and not by the local government. Those are part of my personal efforts to go the extra mile),” he says.
ENCOURAGING HARMONY AND PRODUCTIVITY
In addition to the initiatives he spearheads, Dela Cruz makes sure that his main role of leading the city council is properly done. He reports that the discussions on committee leadership, conversations with the local chief executive, and the Executive-Legislative Agenda went well, and that they were able to complete the legislative agenda earlier than planned. It is critical to ensure harmony among Malabon’s 14 councilors in order to get things done quickly, which is why he tries his best to iron out differences that may arise, especially during sessions. This is borne out of his conviction that public service must go beyond political beliefs and affiliations. Asked about the reward he gets for serving the people of Malabon, Dela Cruz declares: “Ang pinakagusto ko sa trabaho ko as vice mayor, ‘yung nakakatulong pero hindi ako naghahanap ng kapalit. Alam ko ang magbibigay naman ay si Lord (What I like the most about my job as vice mayor is that I get to help without expecting anything in return. I know that the Lord will provide).” The Vice Mayor of the Year for 2021, chosen by non-profit group Most Sustainable and Liveable (MOSLIV), offers this advice for his fellow vice mayors: “Be open to learning new things by going to seminars on legislative procedures, public service, and leadership.”
NOTHING TO LOSE, PLENTY TO GIVE
Who would have guessed that Dela Cruz, who has had a successful political career for the past decade, nearly abandoned public service? He could have given up after losing three consecutive elections. He only considered running again after speaking with his friend, then-Valenzuela Vice Mayor Eric Martinez, who said, “Mag-file ka kasi nothing to lose. Sanay ka naman sa talo. Kung matalo ka, eh ano ngayon? Eh kung manalo ka? (You have nothing to lose by filing [your certificate of candidacy]. You’re used to losing, anyway. So what if you lose? But what if you succeed?)” Dela Cruz filed his certificate of candidacy as an independent on the last day and finally became a councilor in 2013, which he considers as one of his proudest moments. “My campaign funds during those times were very limited, so even my tarpaulins were not that visible, so we saw to it that these were strategically positioned in order to maximize their purpose,” he reveals. He cites the pandemic as his most memorable period as a public servant because he had to look for other ways to help because the vice mayor’s budget only covered salaries and office supplies. He prayed to the Lord, then approached Senators Christopher “Bong” Go, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, and Francis Tolentino for financial assistance, which they provided. “The financial assistance really benefitted the people of Malabon,” he says, adding that Go, who also provided grocery items, has been his friend even before they entered politics. “Tapos lahat nung mga suweldo ko nung pandemic, pinambibili ko lang ng mga goods para ipamigay sa tao (I subsequently spent every penny I earned during the pandemic on supplies I could share with the people),” he reveals. He notes the big contribution of the Malasakit Centers in Ospital ng Malabon and San Lorenzo Ruiz Hospital, which was made possible through the help of Go. “All Malabonians are able to receive free medical treatment,” he adds.
EMPATHIZING WITH THE LESS FORTUNATE
Why does Dela Cruz keep on giving and what motivates him to carry on? “We only live once. Minsan lang tayo mabuhay sa mundo. Galingan mo na, ‘di ba? (We only live once in this world. You better do well, right?),” he says. The son of a former household helper continues: “Ipinanganak akong mahirap. Noon nag-aaral kami, nakikisakay lang kami. Ang hirap kaya maging mahirap. Kaya ‘pag nakikita ko ‘yung constituents namin na ganun, nararamdaman ko sila kasi nanggaling kami doon (I was born poor. We only hitched a ride when we went to school. It is not easy being poor. That is why, when I see our constituents in dire situations, I feel sorry for them because I was once in their place).” As an Adamson University management graduate who studied law at the Lyceum of the Philippines University, Dela Cruz strived for success from an early age, even delivering pork to his college canteen as a student. He wants to give better opportunities for his constituents.
“Ang sarap pala ng feeling na habang namimigay ka, ‘yung mga tao masayangmasaya sila sa ‘yo tapos thank you sila nang thank you (It’s a good feeling that while you’re sharing, you see how pleased the people are and they thank you endlessly).” “Pinipilit ko na mag-isip pa ng mga programa na makakapagbigay sa kanila ng mas magandang buhay o makatulong man lang na umangat ang kanilang pamumuhay (I always to think of more programs that can give them a better life or at least help raise their standard of living),” he says. Among the projects he supported as a councilor were the Malabon City First 1,000 Days of Life and the Malabon Tricycle Tour of former Mayor Antolin Oreta III and his wife, chef Melissa Oreta. He and then-Councilor Ricky Bernardo were behind the First 1,000 Days ordinance, which ensured free monthly checkups for pregnant constituents at health centers, as well as free newborn check-ups until the age of two.
“We pushed for it until it was passed by the council. As soon as it was passed, we implemented it in Malabon, and the national government took notice. It is now a national law,” Dela Cruz proudly says, of the ordinaces that served as template for Republic Act No. 11148 or the Kalusugan at Nutrisyon ng Magnanay Act. “Ipinanganak akong mahirap. Noong nag-aaral kami, nakikisakay lang kami. Ang hirap kaya maging mahirap. Kaya ‘pag nakikita ko ‘yung constituents namin na ganun, nararamdaman ko sila kasi nanggaling kami doon.”
He was also the proponent of the Tricycle Tour Ordinance, which takes tourists to Malabon’s century-old churches, heritage houses, and culinary destinations aboard a tricycle. “That is a first in the Philippines,” he
TRUTHFUL AND GENEROUS SERVICE
Dela Cruz, like anyone else, has his detractors, but he simply ignores them. He also stands firm in the face of political temptations. “Perhaps it is because I was not born a politician. Our family is not a political family. I come from a religious family. I am religious and I’m afraid of doing things that would hurt others.” He goes on, “We all know that people equate politicians with corrupt individuals. That is why, since becoming a public servant, I have used my salary to help others. There is nothing left for me. I give away everything.” Dela Cruz sincerely cares about his constituents, but he also wants to motivate them to help others and themselves because the local government cannot take care of everything for them. “Huwag iasa ang lahat sa pamahalaan. Pero nandidito kami. Naririto si Ninong para tumulong, pero magtulungan tayo. Tulungan din ang sarili para mas maging maayos ang lahat (Do not just depend on the government, although we are here to help. Ninong is here to help. Let us help each other. Also, help yourselves so that everything will be better).” As he perseveres in his second vice mayoral term, Dela Cruz aims to continue his brand of leadership marked by service and love. “Kapag wala sa puso mo ‘yung ginagawa mo, pangit. Alam ng tao ‘yun, mararamdaman ng tao ‘yun. Para ka lang nagluluto, ‘pag wala sa puso mo ang pagluluto, hindi masarap (When your actions are not from the heart, they do not turn out fine. People are aware of this and can sense it. It’s similar to when you cook: if it’s not from the heart, it won’t taste good).” Finally, Dela Cruz reiterates how vital it is that public service stem from the heart. “The will to serve must come from your heart. It is easier to think that way. And of course, foremost is you need the Lord to guide you,” he ends.
“Pinipilit ko na mag-isip pa ng mga programa na makakapagbigay sa kanila ng mas magandang buhay o makatulong man lang na umangat ang kanilang pamumuhay (I always to think of more programs that can give them a better life or at least help raise their standard of living).”