I met the Focolare through the Pag-asa Social Center in Tagaytay. I am one of the lucky ones who were given a full scholarship at Pag-asa. True to its name, the social center, Pag-asa, gave me new hope – not just for my studies but also for life.

Everyday, we had formation meetings in Pag-asa Social Center. Although at first, it was quite difficult for me to understand the lessons they were giving, I was fascinated by the life of the people who were putting into practice the Word of God and the spirituality of unity taught by Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare.

After finishing my degree in Education, I served as a volunteer teacher for one year in the social center’s daycare school. There I learned that it was not enough to impart knowledge.

We had to mold our kids to become responsible persons in their families and in society.
After a year as a volunteer in that daycare center, I started looking for a formal job as a teacher. It was hard to leave my volunteer job in Pag-asa because it had become my comfort zone and besides, in its daycare school in Tagaytay, everything was easy because everyone loves … Everyone wants to love.”

Love made me understand

Gemma and husband Aries with their baby Hiara Allison
Gemma and husband Aries with their baby Hiara Allison

At first, I felt that I would be all alone and that life would be hard after leaving Pag-asa in Tagaytay. But I was blessed to be accepted as a teacher at a public school in Laurel, Batangas. There I met my future husband Aries, and was able to settle down with a family of my own.

I told myself, “It’s hard! What will I do? How do I start?” Then I remembered what Chiara once said: not to analyze things or worry too much but to start loving, for we will learn many things through loving. True enough, love made me understand many things, especially in my work and vocation as a teacher.

I remember the difficulties of my first teaching assignment. My students were frequenting the Guidance Office… almost every day and it seemed that that was not enough for them. Their problems were gambling, cutting classes, and damaging school property, plus violent behavior, and other cases too! Chiara had encouraged us “to die for our own people.” I asked myself, “Are these the people whom Chiara was referring to, for whom I should die?” It’s a far cry from the Pag-asa Daycare Center where I came from. But as a teacher, I had to figure out a strategy even though it seemed quite hopeless that time.

Then I suddenly remembered the Cube or Dice of Love we were using in Pag-asa and in the Focolare. So one day, before I started class, I pulled one of them aside, explained how the Dice of Love works. First, someone tosses it. Then as the chosen motto comes up, they had to share an experience about it.

It was difficult at first because the kids were not good at sharing, but as I continued this practice with the Dice of Love, I saw our appointments with the Guidance Office also decreasing. My students started to become better students. They became free and spontaneous in sharing their experiences. I got better acquainted with them and I understood better their situation. Theirs were not easy and they just needed to be listened to.

In one of our sessions, they told me that school was not just about attending classes and studying. They realized that some people also know how to listen to their sad or joyful personal stories. I brought them to the Focolare’s bi-monthly Open City in Tagaytay. They were so happy.

I could see all their smiles during and after that event. They became closer to one another as in a family. They not only enjoyed themselves but also had a very meaningful experience. I was able to lead them to something good. I was happy to be able to share what is essential with these children. After these students had completed a school year with me, we met again sometime later, and they mentioned how they missed our sharing and unity in my school year with them.

Journeying with my colleagues

But of course, in school it’s not just about kids; I also have a big workload and several colleagues. The heavy teaching load given me was quite stressful. At a certain point, I felt that I was “low bat.” So every now and then, I return to the Focolare center in Tagaytay to
be recharged.

With my friends in the Focolare, I feel I am not alone and I regain strength. Then I thought, why not invite some of my colleagues to a Word of Life meeting, to share this life of unity with them. I was able to organize such a meeting every Wednesday.

Gemma in a reunion with Pagasa Scholars;
Gemma in a reunion with Pagasa Scholars

In this meeting, we go over a reflection on a certain verse from the Bible then we share about how we try to live the Word of God day by day, especially at work. This meeting has been very helpful in forming the children in our school.

I am happy that some of my colleagues are joining me for this meeting to reflect on the Word of God and share how we try to apply it in our daily life, even though we come from different churches and religions.

Now, I’ve been a teacher for five years. It’s quite a roller-coaster experience of ups and downs, but there is always great hope in me as we live together the life of unity and God’s word.

“So LIT”

Last March 17, I saw how happy the children and teachers were, for together with some Focolare youth from Tagaytay, we gave a recollection to my almost 800 students and their parents. That spiritual recollection was really well received by many of them.

They had fun in getting to know the beauty of this life of unity which I strive to put into practice. That day, our theme was “Love that Cares” where God’s love brings love to oneself and others.

Gemma with her students in Laurel, Batangas
Gemma with her students in Laurel, Batangas

I was surprised that they choose to stay and listen to the sharing of experiences from our Focolare youth. It was a whole-day activity and I was afraid that they would not return for the afternoon session but many of them came back to participate in the program… Some of the students left impressions like: “We really feel blessed and lucky to have this activity.” “It was the best thing that happened in my life.”

“It’s so LIT!” (a millennial’s way of saying “awesome”)

By continuing to practice the art of loving and the life of unity, I have understood that we can bring new life to those who have lost their way or lost direction in life. Although my students may not have the opportunity to get a scholarship from the Focolare’s Pag-asa Social Center, I realize that I must be the one to bring this spirit of hope to them. Children are thirsty for love so it doesn’t matter if we begin all alone, for we are not really alone.

God is with us and He is Love!

I hope and pray for the Pag-asa Social Center and its programs, so that it may be able to continuously share with many more children the hope that it has given me.

Gemma Villanueva Atienza

Gemma works as a teacher in Wenceslao Trinidad Memorial National High School in Laurel, Batangas. She finished her Master of Arts in Education specializing in English at the Jose Rizal University (JRU). She is married to Aries, who is also a teacher by profession. They have a baby girl named Hiara Allison who is now almost a year old.

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