A Beacon of Compassionate Service
BY KAYDEE DELA BUENA
GOING BEYOND HER RAGS-TO-RICHES STORY, CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, PAMPANGA MAYOR VILMA CALUAG IS BRINGING HER OWN BRAND OF GOVERNANCE AND LEADERSHIP THAT’S BEST DESCRIBED AS “SERVICE ROOTED IN COMPASSION.”
On June 30, 2022, Mayor Vilma Caluag made history by becoming the first female mayor of the City of San Fernando in the province of Pampanga.
Her path to victory was far from easy as the mother of seven bested four other candidates, securing 57,486 votes in a tightly contested race. Formerly the chief of Barangay Dolores, she also served as the president of San Fernando’s Association of Barangay Captains.
Interestingly, public service was not a role Caluag initially aspired to pursue. In fact, she had taken up AB Literature at the University of the Assumption in San Fernando, Pampanga, with dreams of becoming something else entirely. However, life led her to become a successful entrepreneur instead, building an impressive portfolio of diverse businesses. Over the years, she and her husband established St. Nicolas College of Business and Technology, Mother Teresa of Calcutta Medical Center, Kings Royale Hotel, a commercial building, and a poultry farm, among others.
FROM PERSONAL SUCCESS TO SUCCESS FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY
With the success of Caluag’s business endeavors—especially their school and hospital—her constituents could more clearly envision a better life and future, with the city flourishing under her leadership. If she could achieve it for herself, she could do it for the entire community.
While her initial interests lay elsewhere, the call to serve and fulfill her duty to her country and community became too loud for Caluag to ignore. She admits, “I may not have initially sought this path, but I’m committed to it.” Perhaps her husband, former Barangay Chairperson Melchor “Ngongo” Caluag, played a role in persuading her to run for public office.
Caluag tested the waters and ran for mayor in 2019, just before the pandemic. She took her loss in stride and conceded to the winning candidate. The will to serve, however, remained burning inside her. Fueled by this, she emerged victorious in her second mayoralty run, which was an equally tight race.
RISING FROM THE BOTTOM
Caluag’s background may differ from that of other public servants, but her understanding of the needs of the poor and vulnerable is profound. She reflects, “People say my family lived a ‘simple’ life, but that’s not how I’d describe my childhood. We were definitely poor.” Raised in San Fernando with her siblings, her family made a living by selling ice. Their business thrived during the summer but struggled during the rainy season, forcing them to tighten their belts. She vividly remembers their home in Dolores Village being flooded, leading to long illness due to wading in stagnant water for extended periods. “Not a year passed that I didn’t get fungal infections because of the flooding.”
As a child, Caluag contributed to the family’s income by selling candles to cemetery visitors during All Saints’ Day and baskets of fruit for the New Year. It was a challenging childhood, but her unique experiences honed her resourcefulness and ability to spot overlooked opportunities.
She admits that her particular background shaped her perspective on public service. She saw it as an opportunity to use her resources and position to help the poor, understanding their struggles intimately. She explains, “I witnessed poverty and experienced its implications in my own life. The poor had to beg, losing their dignity. For example, those seeking help just to bury a family member had to go from office to office, enduring the indignity of begging during their time of grief.”
“Mahirap ka na, lalo mo pang mararamdaman na mahirap na mahirap ka (As if it were not enough that you are poor, you get to feel that you are dirt poor),” she says as she shakes her head. “In most cases, when the poor get sick, they just succumb to the illness and die. Why? Because they’re poor. They do not get medical care because they do not have money.”
For Caluag, no one should have to beg for a dignified life or death, especially when there are leaders and a local government duty-bound to uphold these human rights. Her commitment is clear: “Kahit mahirap yung tao, hindi na nila mararamdaman na mahirap sila (The poor would no longer feel that they are poor).”
HEALTHCARE FOR THE MOST VULNERABLE
Health services are a cornerstone of Caluag’s platform, leveraging her experience managing a hospital to provide accessible, affordable, and, if possible, free healthcare to her constituents. Besides offering free burial services, the city funds free chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients and provides free medicine for senior citizens, with plans to expand services and widen medical coverage.
In an impressive achievement, the local government unit (LGU) established a dialysis center within Caluag’s first 100 days in office through a strategic public-private partnership (PPP). The government provided the land, while partners developed the facilities. “Hindi kami naglabas ng pera, at hindi kumikita ang gobyerno dito [The government didn’t spend anything, and neither does it earn from this project.] It’s not an issue for us that the LGU will not earn revenue from this endeavor because what’s important for me is that the unfortunate are given the service they deserve,” she beams.
She continues, “It’s really touching when people approach me to share their thanks. Being able to extend their life and improve their quality of life. This is a blessing.” She adds, “Don’t worry that we will not be able to sustain this program. God will continue to pour his blessings upon us.”
In addition to assisting the elderly and the sick, Caluag also has programs that focus on children and students. The pandemic severely affected many schools, resulting in low enrollment rates. Fortunately, through the local government’s subsidy program, the city college, which only had 700 students the previous year, now boasts 2,600 students with a goal of reaching 5,000.
“After tackling the first problem, we are now addressing the issue of classrooms and facilities. We lack school buildings,” she reveals, adding that they have sought additional support from the Department of Education (DepEd) and the House of Representatives (HoR) to ensure that they can accommodate all enrollees by next year.
Caluag recognizes that the city faces a multitude of complex challenges. And her approach to finding solutions is instinctual, guided by her gut feelings and empathy. “Truth be told, I approach issues like a mother. It just so happens that I now have a bigger family, a bigger household, the whole of the City of San Fernando,” she chuckles.
“I do not want to lead na hindi ginagamit ang puso ko (without using my heart). Since I see and understand what the people are going through and have gone through, I do have a genuine regard for their welfare.”
One issue close to the mayor’s heart is the informal settlers along the river, whose presence contributes to flooding problems in the city. While the national government has launched the Sagip Ilog program, she is taking a compassionate approach. When planning for their evacuation and relocation, she asks, “How can we help them establish better lives once we relocate them? They need both housing and livelihood. As they are among the poorest of the poor, they earn less than minimum wage and will struggle to afford even a modest rent of Php1,000.” Similar to their approach to the dialysis center, the mayor and her fellow local leaders are hoping to find other means to provide for the affected residents’ needs.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Caluag’s leadership style is grounded on the lessons of the past, drawing on the successful programs and projects of previous local leaders while discarding ineffective approaches. She also emphasizes seeking expert advice to make informed decisions, acknowledging her limitations and the complexity of some issues. “I treat those who have served before or [other experienced leaders who] are still serving now as a mirror. I adopt the good and let go of the bad.”
When it comes to more complicated issues such as the relocation program, Caluag makes sure that her decisions are made with the best of intentions and backed by appropriate expert opinion. “I don’t claim to know everything and do not overextend my expertise in areas I have no knowledge of, so I listen to the experts. We cannot act without understanding first,” she nods.
Looking at the first half of her term, Caluag recognizes the various areas for improvement, but all in all, she feels accomplished in her team’s achievements. She states, “I’m proud because I’m the first female mayor, and we are part of the history of San Fernando. It’s been challenging, but I’ve seized this rare opportunity to demonstrate what I can do.” With the spotlight on her, she has chosen to focus people’s attention on important issues that demand action.
“We want to be clear in our vision because we don’t want detractors to be given any opportunity to misconstrue what we are doing and what we have done as a result of weak leadership and governance. I hope the citizens appreciate my style of governance,” she shares.
Caluag’s message to her constituents is one of unwavering commitment. “As long as I’m in the driver’s seat in the City of San Fernando, I will do my best to steer us in the right direction. I will not lead you to unstable ground, I will put you in a secure place. As mayor, I will serve like a mother and ensure that all your needs and worries are given attention and will be addressed through our programs. I will not leave you; I will not let you down.”