What is happiness for you? While the question sounds simple, there is no simple answer. That’s because happiness comes in many forms. For Maria Cecilia Alcantara, happiness can indeed come from a bottle, even as it can also be seen on the grateful faces of people, whose lives they have managed to touch. Alcantara is the president of Coca-Cola Foundation Philippines, and while her job is no different from most CEOs, she says the fulfillment that she gets is priceless.
Coca-Cola Foundation Philippines was established by The Coca-Cola Company and the Coca-Cola FEMSA Philippines in November 1986 shortly after the EDSA People Power, when the spirit of volunteerism was at an all-time high. According to their corporate data, the foundation was established to manifest the company’s long-term commitment of corporate citizenship in the Philippines. Since then, the foundation had been involved in numerous successful projects, which revolve around two major aspects of life—water and youth.
Alcantara, herself, describes what they do: “The foundation is all about water and youth, and these two are most important to us. Water, firstly because it is the main ingredient of Coca-Cola, and in the community, it’s just as important, because if there’s no water, there’s no life.” In other words, she said the foundation’s existence is all about making sure that communities that have the least access to water will have access to potable water and water for sanitation and domestic use. She adds that they are also “about keeping kids in school, especially in the remote areas and poor communities, giving them access to complete elementary education.”
In particular, she says the bulk of their work on water, through their Agos Program, is providing water systems to communities, who would normally walk long distances to fetch water downhill, and carry them back to their homes. The main technology they use is called a Ram Pump, which is an old technology developed in England centuries ago, but was not perfected then in the field, until an organization in Negros called the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation has found a way to make the system work, so that the communities are able to maintain it on their own. Alcantara beams as she proudly states that the system doesn’t use any electricity or fossil fuel to run, and instead just uses the energy from the water source itself. The Negros-based organization won a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2012, and Coca-Cola Foundation decided to partner with them. Today, Alcantara says, they have helped about 114 communities nationwide—as far north as Cagayan, and as far south as ARMM, since they started in 2012.
Reflecting on the impact of their water projects, Alcantara says, “its amazing how just water from the tap changes the community. A lot of them are so happy because to them, their last priority is bathing,” and the availability of water to them changes their lives.
Coca-Cola Foundation’s second main project for the youth is named the Little Red Schoolhouse Project, which started out by building three-classroom school buildings in remote areas, where schools are usually multi-grade. She describes the multi-grade system as where kids of two or three different grade levels are in one classroom, because their population is small. This is mainly to help government address the shortage of classrooms in public schools. They have also been co-presenters of the TAYO Awards Foundation and the National Youth Commission in the Search for the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations since 2006.
Alcantara shares that due to all the numerous projects that they oversee and monitor, they have found the need to upgrade their own office systems to cope. With a laugh, she reveals that they are only about four people in the foundation, performing multiple tasks. That’s why they were so happy to have partnered with NetSuite, which updated their systems and migrated all their data to the cloud in 2014. This makes their tasks so much easier, Alcantara says, because they can spend more time on other priorities as well.
The lady executive says she is grateful for the work that she does, and wants to be able to ensure sustainability for their projects. Several years down the road, she says she sees herself perhaps helping more in the advocacy for good governance, transparency, and better sustainability for other NGOs.
Personally, she says, her priority will always be her family. And with kids already grown up, she says she and her husband like to drive by the countryside whenever they can. She also enjoys biking around their village and doing pilates as an exercise, even as they both serve in their local parish during weekends. For her, it’s about having a life well-lived, pursuing one’s passions and advocacies, while at the same time nourishing one’s own spiritual pursuits.