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“She wanted to meet a military man from PMA but she instead found an artist from PIA”.

“Though it has its dose of blood, sweat and tears, it eventually transcended into “I will Survive.” The life story of Helen Reyes Tibaldo is far from a bed of roses but definitely not a road to Calvary.”

After the signing of Executive Order 100 creating the Philippine Information Agency out of the former National Media Production Center by President Corazon C. Aquino in December 1986, this government information arm was tasked to take part in the advocacy campaign for Muslim Mindanao and Cordillera’s bid for regional autonomy. Then PIA Director General Dr. Benjie Lozare thru Regional Operations Secretariat head Charles C. Leung assigned Helen C. Reyes as the area coordinator for PIA-CAR and immersing her to the events happening in the region like the peace talks between the government and then Fr Conrado Balweg.

The implementation of Executive Order 220 creating the Cordillera Administrative Region and subsequent establishment of regional governing bodies such as the Cordillera Regional Assembly (CRA), the Cordillera Executive Board (CEB), and the convening of the Cordillera Regional Consultative Commission (CRCC) became the eventual reasons why PIA Central Office sent a Project Officer and a coordinator to the uplands of North Luzon.

After a change in leadership, PIA’s new Director Garth Noel Tolentino saw the need to involve PIA not just for the IEC campaign for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao but in the Cordillera as well with the drafting of the Cordillera Autonomy Communication Plan which became the basis of PIA-CAR’s advocacy for the proposed Autonomy Organic Act. Said IEC involved the use of popular media such as print, radio and TV but it also engaged the upland communities through indigenous communication channels like the “tongtongan” or person-to-person form of dialogue with stakeholders complemented with other PIA services such as the Special Media Division’s puppet show unit were deployed including the mascot Islaw Kalabaw.

Having been sent to provincial sorties during her Ministry of Human Settlement (MHS) days, living in the outskirts is not foreign to Helen who vividly recalls what her former MHS-KKK-Public Information & Assistance boss Jo Cabazor and MHS-ROG head General Rafael Zagala always said “die in place if you have to die in place in line of duty”.

The New Region

Helen was practically uprooted from PIA Central to serve as the erstwhile Officer-in-Charge for Baguio and soon as the regional head when Excelsior Cabauatan Danguilan left CAR to serve his own region, the Cagayan Valley as its Regional Director.

It was during the 1988-1989 autonomy campaign period when Helen practically spent months to almost a year in Baguio and in some remote places in the Cordillera. Since Ilocano was the basic dialect spoken in most of the public forums and consultations, Helen tried her best to blend and interact with the locals and public officials and she also has taken fancy of carrying a rattan backpack called “Pasiking” on her back whenever she travels to the boondocks. Helen was also amazed that the natives were more conversant with English rather than Tagalog in the forums that she attended. At one time, she was the guest of honor and speaker in a public consultation in Sagada and among her experiences includes riding in a bullet riddled helicopter that fetched her from Baguio City’s Loacan Airport.

Towards the end of 1989 at the height of the massive campaign for the draft organic act, I managed to finally recoup my courage and face the lady from the province known for its Balisong fan knife and proposed my love and desire to wed her. It was a whirlwind romance for two public servants trying to balance personal matters with the demands of work and in no time at all, a grey vintage bridal car approached the Church of the Our Lady of Atonement or more known as the Baguio Cathedral and bells rang in succession. It was indeed a historic event not because it was a special day for me and Helen but it was also the time in Philippine history when the coup d’etat turmoil ended with the rebel group completely defeated by the Philippine government on December 9, 1989....our wedding day. It can be recalled that the most notorious and damaging coup d'etat against the government of Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino was staged beginning December 1, 1989 by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines belonging to the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) and soldiers loyal to former President Ferdinand Marcos. Metro Manila then was in a state of disturbance in what was referred to as the Christmas coup but Usec. Noel Tolentino, then PIA Director General went up to Baguio and witnessed our wedding as a sponsor which immediately after conducted a Management Conference.

Our wedding was perhaps the most photographed and most applauded event at that time and I shared it with Helen at the cathedral as we say our “I dos”. It was also a rare moment when newsmen became the subject of fellow journalists. It was also the only wedding where Kidlat Tahimik, the father of Filipino Independent Filmmakers served as a sponsor because he cannot say no to a fellow artist he calls Artibal.

Work continued after the wedding and there was no honeymoon to Hong Kong or even Boracay. We addressed Tolentino as “sir” and we never called him “ninong” as most couples do to their wedding sponsors. It was business as usual when it comes to work related tasks aware that we could be under the scrutiny of watchful eyes.

Despite the media facilitations and interpersonal consultations ventilating the programs and provisions of the draft organic act that assures the attainment of regional autonomy, Cordillerans rejected the first organic act (Republic Act No. 6766) during a 1990 plebiscite. Despite her efforts to establish rapport and make her presence felt as the envoy or messenger of President Cory Aquino’s field office, some highlanders who claim to have full knowledge of the concept of autonomy questions Helen’s integrity as she is not an IP belonging to any of the Igorot or Cordillera tribes. A lawyer who claims to be the titular head of CAR even went as far as storming the office of PIA Director General Honesto Isleta (B/Gen. Ret.) in Quezon City demanding that Helen be replaced by a “native Cordilleran”. According to witnesses, there was an altercation inside the DG’s office and moments later, the self proclaimed upland leader was seen leaving the premises. Since her appointment as head of the region’s government information agency, Helen proved that she is not only a Cordilleran by marriage but she is also one by heart. During her two pregnancies in the early 90s, Helen never experienced any maternity leaves that accrue to government workers because of the nature and demands of her work.

As to Cordillera’s failure to attain autonomy up to this time, observers noted that the failure of the two first autonomy laws lacks understanding and appreciation of autonomy including the inadequate information drives. Others say that it failed because people either paid little attention to the Cordillera crusade, or had paid too much attention to the sidelines that were engaged in celebrity politics.

When PIA was establishing the Community Development Information Centers (CDICs) in the remote towns as an extension office jointly undertaken with LGUs in the early stages of CAR as a separate region, Helen’s also convened the government information officers of line agencies that later became the Association of Government Information Officers-Cordillera. This move was to help beef up and popularize the information services of government line agencies in the new upland region.

The Big One

It was around 3:46PM on daylight saving time (DST) when the big quake happened in North Luzon badly affecting Baguio City, Nueva Ecija and Cabanatuan areas of Central Luzon. Helen was nine months pregnant and about to deliver via caesarian section on that fateful day of July 16, 1990. We thought the world was about to end as the surface wave magnitude of 7.8 terribly shook our former PIA office along Otek Street. The unthinkable happened as buildings collapsed and the earth rocked to and fro. We really called on all the saints and angels for safety. For a moment, I ignored my newsman’s instinct to shoot an incident as my main concern then was Helen and the baby’s condition and safety. Thanks to PIA’s communication network, we were able to relay news and information about Baguio via the office single side band (SSB) radios that were stationed in most PIA offices around the country.

Four days came to pass without clean water and electricity and we were truly worried about Helen’s condition until there was an opportunity for us to leave Baguio on a chopper. RD Malou Rivera who flew in with donated generators and other relief items came wearing a doctor’s outfit and accompanied us to a waiting US Helicopter at the Loakan Airport. Along with other evacuees and injured patients, Helen and I squeezed inside aided by American servicemen and we were airlifted to Poro Point, in San Fernando La Union. It was there where we finally got a lift to Villamor Airbase on board the DND’s Fokker Plane. Reporters interviewed us and then Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos even got updated by Helen about Baguio’s situation.

Through Helen's perseverance and commitment to serve the office of the President as PIA-CAR head, she became the youngest line agency executive who also served the top honchos during presidential visits and media events. Rubbing elbows with senators down to municipal officials became part of her normal official chores especially that she later learned to master the act of moderating meetings and conferences. Very often, she is called by the city government of Baguio to serve as emcee for its yearly Independence and Charter Day programs. With economics as a background which is an unlikely preparatory course of a communicator, Helen embraced all the challenges expected of her with a grain of salt believing that nothing beats hard work. Her rough sailing start as an agency head later had its rewards as she later became accustomed to the upland people’s way of life. She is also credited for having given birth to the “Hours with CARE Kapihan sa Baguio” in 1994 which is a weekly media convergence that discusses current affairs and community programs.

Interfacing New and Traditional Media

As the long time Public Relations Officer of the Cordillera Association of Regional Executives, Helen also helped establish the organization’s activity ushers and usherettes called the CARE Frontliners whose active roles were seen in major regional events.

Today, one of the most sought after services from the government sector in the Cordillera is the advocacy and promotions program of the Philippine Information Agency that normally involve and tag along the mainstream media from print, radio, and broadcast. The emergence of social media and the adaptations made by Helen’s office to be at the fore front of government advocacy has popularized public service using digital platforms such as online tweets via twitter, instagram posts, facebook updates and daily online magazine. As the Cluster Head for North Luzon that involves PIA regional offices in Ilocos, Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon, Helen supervises the publication of One Luzon E-Magazine. In tie-up with service providers such as PLDT, Globe and Smart as well as communication partners in media, PIA through Helen’s leadership has provided an easier and faster delivery of urgent and important messages such as typhoon alerts, public notices and community billboards.

Realizing the importance of public information in a dynamically growing upland community, the Cordillera Regional Development Council (CAR-RDC) en bank voted that PIA through Helen’s leadership be included as a regular member.

Now as DOST’s Science Ambassador, Baguio’s Outstanding Citizen for Public Information, Outstanding Women Leader (OWL) and active member of various civic organizations, Helen remains as the humble mother figure to the younger members of media organizations of the Cordillera.

Whenever an official from the Office of the President is not around for protocol and communication purposes, Helen would fill in the gap in terms of accreditation and courier of messages from the various LGUs to Malacanang. Together with the PIA-CAR Regional Office personnel, they often serve as liaison and host to summer and yearend events, press conferences and even national summits. Further, the PIA Dap-ay, a convergence area at the PIA grounds patterned from a village outdoor session hall has become a favorite meeting place and venue for the Kapihan.

Helen completed the Cordillera village themed frontage of her office complete with two traditional houses. It may still be a long way to go for a youthful looking and passionate public servant who has already reached the three decade mark in her career path and while there are challenges and opportunities knocking to her door, Helen will always say “l will cross the bridge when I get there”. (PIA)