, May 24, 2024

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Feeding Bodies, Nourishing Souls

  •   6 min reads
Feeding Bodies, Nourishing Souls
By Pam Pastor

It began with an invitation from Baclaran Church. It was March 2020, and the people at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help had mobilized, preparing food for front-liners and the homeless. Maybe Mae Paner would like to volunteer? “They know I can cook,” Paner told Lifestyle.

Cooking might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paner. The award-winning theater and film actor, author, director and former adwoman is known to the Filipino public as Juana Change, the artist-activist who is ever-present at rallies, a fearless voice against corruption in government. But it was the pandemic, people were hungry and so Paner jumped to action. 

“Even in our family, our expression of love is food. That’s my joy—to cook,” she said.

At Baclaran Church, “Na-excite ako sa tabi-tabing kawang pagkalalaki (I was excited by the rows of massive pots).”

She volunteered for three months, until safety protocols made it challenging. Still, she refused to stop. “There were so many people who needed help. I said, why don’t we start something in my house? It can’t hurt to have an additional kitchen.”

She and five other volunteers began cooking in her home in Makati—and that’s how Kawa Pilipinas was born. Their first beneficiaries were people in hospitals, those stranded because of the pandemic and persons deprived of liberty. “Inside the cemetery, there were also so many people on lockdown.”

Kawa Pilipinas gave out hundreds of meals twice or thrice a week. “We’d get there and we would shout, ‘Biyaya!’ (‘Blessings!’) and people would come running out.” 

Friends who saw what Paner was doing started volunteering and donating. So did strangers who were inspired by the stories she shared on social media. 

“I realized that people during the lockdown needed to do something good, they needed to help. Ever since we started, we’ve never stopped.”


They did not, even when things got hard for Paner. The year 2021 was challenging for her. 

“So much happened. I got COVID in April, I was in the hospital for 10 days, I was forced to move out of my house, my brother died and my nephew was diagnosed with cancer. When it rains, it pours.” 

But she never considered stopping the work of Kawa. “That was our joy. Para siyang bisyo na hindi mo na maalis (It’s like a vice you can’t quit).” 

There are donors who’ve been there from the start, like Jollibee. “It’s been three years and seven months and they’re still giving to us. Tuloy-tuloy.” 

Trust and transparency are important to Paner, so she makes sure Kawa handles donations with care. She raises funds everywhere she goes—even when she went on tour for “Tao Po,” her one-woman-play-turned-documentary about the drug war. 

She also opens her beautiful Malate home to people for Cause Eats, a fundraising initiative for Kawa Pilipinas. For P2,500 per person (she can host 14 to 20 people), Paner will welcome you for a private lunch or dinner and cook for you. Sometimes, there’s even live music—Paner’s friends Kate Torralba and Richard Merck have performed at these events. 

Painted on one wall of her house are the words “House of Love & Abundance.” On another, this question: “What will love do now?”

“That’s the question we should ask every day,” said Paner. So much love goes into the meals that Kawa Pilipinas prepares for its beneficiaries, whom it calls “beloveds”—the homeless, the urban poor, persons deprived of liberty including political prisoners, those affected by natural and man-made disasters, the elderly and children with special needs. 

Since 2020, it has given out over 260,000 meals all over Metro Manila. The “beloveds” in prison call Kawa’s food “pagkaing laya (free man’s food).” 

“They say, ‘You know what separates you from other kitchens? Your food isn’t just delicious, it’s nutritious.’ That’s what we endeavor to do in Kawa. We don’t just cook to fill the stomach. It nourishes the body. It nourishes our souls. Kina-career talaga namin ‘yan,” said Paner.

The mix of volunteers includes professionals, students, chefs, expats, artists. And Kawa Pilipinas has also been life-changing for them. Some of those who started volunteering as teenagers have decided to study culinary arts in college. One has even opened his own food business. 

“He was 14, 15 when he started with us. Now he can easily cook for 1,600 people. He runs his own burger kiosk. Their lives have been transformed by Kawa,” said Paner. 

Full circle

Some have had full-circle moments—like the former beneficiary who has become a volunteer after getting out of prison. “A friend told me, ‘Mae, your recipients aren’t your beneficiaries, the real beneficiaries are the volunteers. This has a long-term effect on them.’ Volunteering has been good for their mental health. They’ve developed confidence, they’ve found meaning in helping others.”

It has been life-changing for Paner as well. She’s found a different kind of fulfillment with Kawa Pilipinas. 

THE PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER honors Mae Paner with a “Women of Power” (WOP) Award.

“You know me as Juana Change, I’m always onstage, criticizing the government. I always thought my love language for this country was my performance. But when you’re talking to politicians, feeling ko sumusuntok ako sa hangin pero wala akong nasasapol (I feel like I’m punching air and I don’t hit anyone). When I do feedings, ‘pag suntok mo, may mga sikmurang nabubusog, may mga mukhang ngumingiti (stomachs are filled, faces break out into smiles). I’ve been speaking truth to power, but now I’d rather speak love to the hungry.”

After moving out of her garage in Makati, Kawa relocated to Pasay, at the Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer. But it has to move again this month. “I’ve been praying, Lord, if you want Kawa to continue, please help me, take us to where we are supposed to be.”

Kawa Pilipinas will find a new home, Paner is sure of it. “The universe is abundant and it provides.” 

And she and the volunteers will keep feeding the hungry. “Some people see me as a very political figure. But when it comes to food, let’s not be partisan. Everyone can join, everyone eats, everyone feels hunger. Food should unite us all.” 

How to Help

Join Mae Paner and Kawa Pilipinas in feeding the hungry. Isang plato para sa isang nagugutom, kayang sagutin ng bawat isa sa atin. Donations may be sent via the following:

Kawa Pilipinas Foundation, Inc. 3061-0877-87


Find Kawa Pilipinas  on Facebook; email kawa.pilipinas@gmail.com.

First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. You can read the article here.

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