Mark Aethen Agana, co-founding member of the T’nalak Youth Group (TYG) – an organization composed of college students from the Notre Dame of Marbel University (NDMU) in South Cotabato. TYG has devoted itself to help graduating students from public schools make it to college through a specialized tutorial program run by students of NDMU themselves.
While most young people would usually spend their Saturdays hanging out in the mall or spending time with family and friends, Mark chose to dedicate his weekends volunteering as a tutor for the Pathways to Higher Education program (PHE), where he taught English, Science, and Mathematics. Due to his involvement in Pathways, he was chosen to represent the school in the Pathways Youth Conference (PYC), a national congress of student leaders aimed to inspire them to identify problems that affect the youth in their area and urged them to think of concrete ways to address these.
He started volunteering for the Pathways initiative in South Cotabato in 2004, on his freshman year at college, where he was a scholar majoring in Computer Science. As he continued to teach young students and the more he got involved, he realized that he was privileged to be enjoying a college scholarship at a very good university no less, but now, he wanted to share the blessing of quality college education with other talented students like himself.
The seeds planted in him at the PYC encouraged him to do more for South Cotabato. Because of this, he, along with four other volunteers also from NDMU started the T’nalak Youth Group. Their aim was to help academically gifted but economically distressed youth of the country access quality college education in order for them to have better futures.
“We have been given the chance to enjoy a good college education and it is imperative that we use what we have learned to empower others,” Mark says. “It is one way of giving thanks to Him who has blessed us,” he adds.
To raise funds for the young organization, the group would do all sorts of activities, such as sponsor marriage booths for couples, haranas (or serenades) and all sorts of gimmicks hoping to raise funds from their classmates and school mates. The main Pathways office based in Ateneo de Manila also offered a small grants competition to young leaders who would be able to craft creative projects addressing the education challenges in their respective provinces. TYG was one of only 13 youth groups that was awarded a grant that provided the seed money that enabled Mark and the other TYG volunteers to give tutorials to graduating public high school students in Marbel and nearby areas like Polomok, Sto. Niño, Banga, and Surallah in South Cotabato. Together, they prepared public school graduating students for college entrance exams, so that they can get a better chance for having scholarships.
Like all TYG volunteers, Mark does not receive financial remuneration for his services. Instead, he finds joy in seeing his students smile just because they were able to understand a simple math problem. “Or, hear them say ‘thank you’ for teaching them how to click a mouse,” he says. These are what he considers as the ultimate reward for volunteering. Aside from that, the organization has also been an excellent vehicle for him to make friends with people inside the school as well as outside. His work in TYG has taught him how to present and work with their barangays, local Department of Education and the local provincial government. Together, they were able to synergize efforts to create a bigger and more effective impact on their young wards. All these further honed his interpersonal as well as time management skills, preparing him for the future once he steps out of the university walls.
Four years since its inception, TYG has already helped almost 300 students get accepted into college, most of the participants have also been awarded scholarships too!). TYG continues to conduct tutorials in English, Science and Mathematics as well as a Computer Literacy Program every Saturday within the school year. Once a month, TYG also conducts Self-Enhancement Workshops that develop confidence and presentation skills of the senior high school students from Polomok, Sto. Niño, Banga, and Surallah in South Cotabato.
It has been two years since Mark graduated from NDMU and TYG. However, Mark remains committed to TYG and its programs despite the demands of his post-graduate studies and other involvements.
Recently, Mark as well as the group he helped establish - T’nalak Youth Group was featured in a documentary/tribute in EB Heroes, a segment in GMA-7’s show, Eat.. Bulaga!, where ordinary individuals are recognized for their extraordinary deeds. Eat Bulaga believes that by showing the actions of ordinary heroes, they hope to influence positively the lives of millions of viewers.
For Mark, the greatest blessing given to him because of TYG is the chance to influence other people. John Yrick Era, a TYG volunteer attests to this. “Without Kuya Mark and all of the other volunteers of the program, I might not overcome the anxieties of going to college. It made me more confident and strong, so that I could face the academic difficulties and worries in college.”
John Yrick also happens to be one of the very first participants of TYG who has since moved on to take up Accounting at NDMU. He is already in his senior year, consistently landing on the dean’s list, while actively participating in extra-curricular activities. While he used to be the “tutee”, he has now become the tutor, assuming the position of “Math Department Chairperson” in TYG. He is also active leader in the student council. While Mark has served as inspiration to John Yrick, he too is now a role model to more talented TYG public school students to take the same path he and Mark have taken.
By empowering others, and by encouraging more people to continue the legacy, Mark has proven that indeed, simple acts can create huge and lasting positive change. It is not a wonder why this young man was chosen as an EB Hero.
“Not every one of us is given the chance to die as a hero, but everyday, we are given the opportunity to live as a hero.”