Armed with a dustpan and a long broomstick, her long hair kept in check by a bandana, Bernadette Fedcheck, 48, is an anonymous face that quietly sweeps the streets of Baguio City every morning.
But beneath this modest appearance is a tenacious spirit that has taken life's trials head on and emerged a winner. Fedcheck is truly an inspiration for others like her and last year she was conferred with the title of the best street sweeper not only as recognition of her dedication to her job, but also for her indomitable zest for life.
Things have not been easy for Fedcheck, but as the sole provider of a large family she got accustomed to the hard life. For her, a typical day begins at three in the morning. After completing her chores, she cooks breakfast for her seven children, and then proceeds to work. Back home by noon, she once again plunges into housework - cooking the evening meal and tackling the laundry. After spending quality time with each of her kids, she only manages to wrap up her day by midnight.
Despite Fedcheck's backbreaking schedule, what keeps her going? The awareness that one can only change one's life for the better with hard work and by tackling problems head-on.
And she learnt this lesson early in life. When she was only a schoolgirl, her parents split up and her mother left her and her three siblings to go to the city. Fedcheck's father, a farmer, tried to rebuild their broken home by remarrying. But that turned out be a mistake. "My stepmother was a tiger. I had a stepbrother and she would always play favorites between us," she explains. "Our father could see this, but he kept quiet most of the time. Once, he told me, 'my child, I hope you understand. You can't give me my happiness so work hard and save money for your schooling.'"
By the time Fedcheck reached high school, her stepmother was controlling all the money that came into the house. This compelled the young girl to work in order to study. At times, she would even leave school during the day to go to the nearby fields, where she got paid for every bundle of rice seedlings she could tie together. Some of the wealthier teachers who were aware of her situation even helped her pay her way through the first and second years of high school.
But in her second year of high school, when she chose to run away from home.
Fedcheck was 18 at that point. Soon after, she met her future husband during a trip to the Antamok mines, where he worked as a miner. Two years later, she gave birth to her first son. Through all this, she managed to continue with her studies and enrolled for her first year of college.
Things were going just fine for the Fedchecks when, on January 17, 2000, their world came to a grinding halt. They lost their eldest son to a condition known as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. And just when they were emerging from the shock, another tragedy struck. This time, their youngest child passed away after he was run over by a car. He was only four. The loss of two sons pushed Fedcheck off the edge and she had a nervous breakdown.
"For two years I would merely go through the motions of taking care of my other children," she recalls sadly. "I couldn't even eat." She says it was only her husband's patient nature that pulled them through those trying times. "He had to deal with his own grief as well as worry about me."
It was only when the stress of taking care of the family single-handedly started telling on her husband's health did she snap out of her daze. She realized that she had chip in to bring food home for her seven remaining children. So she took up construction work, and did odd jobs on the side, like peddling bananas and scavenging the streets for bottles that she could sell to earn a quick buck. "I learnt to dig and was good at stonewalling - in fact, everything my male co-workers did, I could do," she shares.
Moving from job-to-job, today, Fedcheck has now settled into being a street sweeper, earning Php 6,808 per month (US$1=Php 44.165), along with an allowance of Php 2,000, a hazard pay of Php 500 and an additional 13th month pay. She is also the vice president of the Baguio City Employees and Laborers Association, an all-woman labor union of street sweepers.
"Even though I never graduated, I managed to get a job as a government employee. I love my work," she says. In fact, it was this very passion for doing good work that won her the title of Best Street Sweeper in 2007, conferred upon her by Soroptimist, an organization of professional women seeking to highlight women's plight in every aspect of life.
According to Annabelle Estepa, President, Soroptimist International, the award is presented to those women, who in their own modest way make the city a better place to live in.
There are 72 street sweepers in Baguio, and Estepa believes that among them Fedcheck has displayed a rare dedication to her job - come rain or shine she always reports for duty. In fact, she even goes a step further and does her bit for the environment by planting trees in her assigned areas. And her painstaking work is evident in the picturesque pine tree park next to the Baguio Convention Centre. The once-neglected dump yard is now a proud landmark of the city. And the people of Baguio can thank Fedcheck for it.
Armed with just a rake, she single-handedly cleared the debris and also did some basic gardening in the park that spans one hectare. Now the project has been taken over by Soroptimist, and they have created magnificent, flower-lined pathways, where citizens come and enjoy a pleasant evening out. "We have to love and protect the earth by planting trees and taking care of them. This way, I am helping to protect life," says a proud Fedcheck.
But she has one complaint against the people of Baguio. Fedcheck says it's frustrating to see people indiscriminately littering the streets. "People act like they cannot see us. They pass us by and throw their candy wrappers on the pavement."
Her suggestion to them: keep your surroundings clean and lead a happy and healthy life. She also has a valuable piece of advice for the women. She feels that women should be independent, earn their own money, and also save for the future. Fedcheck recalls how ashamed she was to spend her husband's money. "He would give his whole salary to me. After all the needs in the house had been met, I would keep aside the rest of the money," she reveals. And, by doing so, today, she is the proud owner of a farm in Tabuk, which is managed by her brother. She has also built a small house there. "It is really hard, but one should not indulge in self pity. Instead, be strong and face up to the challenge," says this proud grandmother of a four-year-old girl.