BTS, the biggest band in the world that I immensely love, has a song called Anpanman. It’s inspired by a very popular Japanese cartoon character of the same name who helps people in need, not by having extraordinary superpowers, but by sharing a piece of his bread head.
In Anpanman, BTS (which stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan, or bulletproof boy scouts) talk about wanting to help others with all their might, even if they get bruised along the way and even if they give only a piece of bread or a song to make one feel better.
For the past several weeks, we have seen ordinary heroes like Anpanman literally giving bread, vegetables, and so many other food items in community pantries that sprouted all over the Philippines as we marked the second year of the pandemic.
My own ARMY group on Facebook, called Borahae from Manila (BFM), recently had our own community pantry.
I was amazed by how fast everyone moved to volunteer and pitch in soon after BFM creator, Joan de Venecia-Fabul, asked in a post if our group wanted to organize a community pantry. Joan had seen the community pantry set up by the Cavite Army (which was unfortunately red-tagged by the government, whose people didn’t know that Army is the name of the BTS fanbase). Joan thought perhaps BFM could replicate the effort. BFM members replied to Joan with a resounding “yes.”
Charity work is in Army’s DNA, as much as donating silently to their chosen advocacies has become second nature to BTS members. When BFM reached 500 members in March, the group donated to Unicef, which BTS support for its anti-bullying and violence against children campaign.
In a matter of hours, a BFM community pantry core group was formed comprised of Joan, Nikko Dizon, Kankan Ramos, Chita Herce, Pepa Escalante, Byron Francisco, Lia Pablo, Maryanne Mendoza, Andi Dimalanta, and myself. Each of us had an assigned role so that the pantry would run as smoothly as possible. We did almost everything online, down to purchasing the groceries that we distributed. Like most community pantries, we bought our vegetables from local farmers.
In less than two weeks, we were able to raise more than P200,000 in cash, which we used to stock our pantry with vegetables and grocery items
Donations, in cash and in kind, came from everywhere! In less than two weeks, we were able to raise more than P200,000 in cash, which we used to stock our pantry with vegetables and grocery items.
We named our community pantry Magic Shop Borahae from Manila, an ode to BTS’ second official fan song, Magic Shop. It’s a song that talks about finding comfort after living through despair.
Community pantries give families a simple meal a day, which already means the world to them.
BFM decided to have a pop-up community pantry, meaning we would be moving to three different locations in a span of seven days, to represent the seven BTS members, RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. The seven days didn’t happen, but we were able to set up in three different locations—at Gojinko Restaurant in Marikina, at the Mijo Comfort Food Restaurant in Poblacion, Makati, and then in partnership with the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) sisters of St. Theresa’s College QC, who set up their pantry outside their convent along Banawe Street.
Our first day of the pantry at Gojinko, a Sunday, was overwhelming and heartbreaking. We didn’t expect the long lines that we saw. People, hungry and tired, patiently waited for our pantry to open, and for their turn. The line snaked around the block. It was a hot summer morning, and the double masks and face shields made it extra difficult for all of us there. Everyone had to follow safety protocols, but social distancing was a bit of a challenge.
We were supposed to do a two-day run there, but because there were just so many people who lined up, we decided to give all our stocks away on the first day. Still, what we had wasn’t enough. Even if we had served around 1,200 people, according to the barangay, there were still many who went home with a few bars of soap and no food.
According to Pepa, Gokinjo owner, people showed up outside the restaurant the next morning, hoping that we would open that day. Unfortunately, we couldn’t because we were still replenishing stocks.
We had also already committed to be at Mijo Restaurant in Poblacion on Tuesday. Learning from the mistakes we made on our first day in Marikina, we pre-packed food items like canned goods, rice, and condiments. The Mijo owner, Enrique Moreno, and his staff helped us in the preparation and distribution of goods. Enrique, by the way, is no BTS fan, but he approved of the Magic Shop—and I am trying to get him to listen to the song.
Later that week, the Magic Shop community pantry teamed up with the missionary ICM sisters led by Sr. Cora Sastre, ICM district head in the Philippines. Sr. Cora is a BTS fan herself, RM-biased because of the thought-provoking lyrics that the band’s leader writes.
It was during this run that we had almost 1,000 kg of vegetables to give away! We had purchased 200 kg of vegetables for the pantry when we were told that another 700 kg were on their way, donated by Nikko’s friend. I was so excited, because as a chef, I want people to eat nutritious food.
I heard someone in line say, ‘Ay, bakit panay gulay ang pinamimigay?’…many of those who fall in line are used to having noodles and canned goods
So, I was astonished when I heard someone in line say, “Ay, bakit panay gulay ang pinamimigay?”
I mentioned this to Sr. Cora, and she told me that many of those who fall in line in community pantries are actually not used to eating vegetables. They are used to having noodles and canned goods. That hit me so badly, because as a chef, I know that people need to eat nutritious food. Too much processed food can stunt one’s physical and mental development.
As I write this, the Magic Shop Community Pantry is on a break as part of the safety precautions we are also following. We want to make sure that none of the volunteers did not get sick.
We are also aware of the donation fatigue that almost always befalls any long-term outreach effort. This is the reason we are trying to evolve our pantry, and thinking of ways to sustain this BFM project. We still have enough cash left to keep us going.
We will re-open the Magic Shop Borahae from Manila community pantry before or during Festa Week, the week-long celebration of BTS’ anniversary as a band. BTS will eight years old on June 13.
While we’re on a break, I had the chance to revisit my journey to becoming an Army. It was my sister’s children who dragged me into this rabbit hole with the song Fake Love, which they played non-stop on YouTube. While I’ve been a long-time fan of Korean dramas, I never wanted to enter the K-pop world because I had associated it with heavily made-up boys and skinny girls.
But somehow, seeing BTS perform Fake Love got my attention. Like millions of other fans, I only wanted to know the names of these seven awesome artists. While I’m now a devoted fan, my nephews and nieces have moved on to J-pop and anime.
BTS is not just a K-pop band; they are a movement. They speak about social issues in their songs. They talk about mental health, consumerism, and the educational system of South Korea in their lyrics. They put in efforts to make the world a better place through their music, and you can never doubt their compassion and passion.
Some people might think it’s a stretch to say that Army is motivated to help, for instance, through these community pantries, because of BTS’ influence. But the truth is, if you get to know these seven South Korean men and their dedication, humility, social awareness, and courage, you will be inspired to give a little of yourself, too.
We are sending a message that we, the citizens, are more powerful than our government
I grew up seeing my family generously sharing blessings that come our way. I still remember the red plastic bags filled with rice and canned goods in my late grandparents’ house in Ubay Street in Quezon City, which were donated to the families who evacuated after Mt. Pinatubo erupted. My parents had always taken part in the fundraising projects of my alma mater, St Theresa’s College, and they also helped missionary priests and seminarians of Christ the King Mission Seminary. Theresians like me took part in our school’s mission programs.
The irony is, there was a time when helping others wasn’t my calling. What I wanted was a well-paying job and building a career which people would look up to. But things didn’t turn out as planned, and I took a six-month sabbatical.
Armys always say that BTS come into your life when you need them the most. It was during my sabbatical that Suga’s lyrics in his song, Lost, resounded with me the most: “To lose your path is the way to find that path.”
My sabbatical, the pandemic, and Lost made me realize my life’s purpose and discover that being for others is who and what I am as a person. I’m no superhero, but I can be Anpanman.
Organizing a community pantry is a lot of work. You will devote time and a lot of resources, not to mention risking your health if you choose to be in the frontlines. You always need to remember why you are doing this, and what the community pantries are all about. It’s about Filipinos helping each other survive this pandemic. It’s about the lessons we learn the hard way when we choose leaders who fail to live up to their promises. It’s about stepping up and embracing our civic duty. Community pantries were made to prove that a small act can create a big impact. We are sending a message that we, the citizens, are more powerful than our government.
Everyone just wants to help. There’s no agenda—just pure love and compassion for our countrymen.
When you see the smiles through the face masks and hear the muffled “thank you” of all the people who lined up at the pantry, you know that you want to give hope to the people who need it the most.