Anthony Olaes: Honoring a Commitment for Change
For fifteen years now, Anthony “Tony” Olaes has been giving back to the community through Gawad Kalinga (GK) USA in truly inspiring ways. Aside from leading personal initiatives as a businessman, Tony served as GK USA’s chairman and currently sits as one of the organization’s board members.
Having that background, it would be easy to assume that Tony always had the heart to care for his fellow Filipinos. However, Tony’s path towards the realization of his destiny – being an instrument of change for Filipinos in need – was not that straightforward.
Growing Up American
Despite living in a Filipino household and eating delicious Filipino food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Tony led a very American life outside the four walls of their home.
While his father always mentioned how beautiful the Philippines is, his words fell on deaf ears. Constantly hearing bad things about his parents’ homeland and getting wind of uncles asking for financial support from there, Tony did not have a great impression of the Philippines. In fact, he did not want anything to do with the nation.
“I thought everybody in the Philippines was lazy. I never understood third world poverty,” Tony candidly shared. Being in the U.S., Tony was used to the opportunities and privileges that were widely accessible. Unbeknown to him then, this was not necessarily the case for those residing in the Philippines.
Tony is Filipino by blood, but he did not have a strong connection to his roots. He grew up American and may even have spent the rest of his days as one, if not for a pivotal trip to the Philippines that would change the course of his life.
Establishing the Filipino Connection
“I tell people I’ve only been Filipino for 15 years. It was that epiphany that I had in the Philippines that changed me forever,” Tony said, as he began to tell his story in one of our most recent Kwentong GK episodes where he was the featured guest.
Tony recounted the time when he first stepped foot on a GK village, where its trademark brightly-colored houses sat opposite the slums. Tony had the chance to mingle with the residents and was even welcomed into their homes. Looking around, Tony saw how poor their living condition was, yet they welcomed him with warm greetings and an expression of gratefulness for the work GK has been doing for the community.
“I went into that environment as an American thinking I’m going to be able to do something for [them], but the exact opposite happened,” shared Tony. “They gave me something more valuable than what I could give them… they gave me what it meant to be Filipino.”
This experience left a lasting impact on Tony, which led him to make a commitment: that he will do everything in his power to free his people from a life of poverty.
The Work Begins: The Filipino School
Now armed with a vision, Tony came back to America as a Filipino on a mission. By June 12, 2024, he is determined to make good on the promise he made to his people, and he wasted no time laying the groundwork towards his grand plans.
In 2015, Tony founded The Filipino School, “a place of self-discovery” (https://thefilipinoschool.com). Designed as a recording studio, The Filipino School offers classes that taught Filipino language and culture online. Tony wanted the institution to help other Filipinos not just in San Diego, California where it is located, but also those living in other parts of the world to gain a deeper appreciation of how beautiful the Filipino people are.
Currently, there are two programs running within the school. First is Filgrimage, which takes students on a journey to the Philippines where they can nurture their Filipino roots and find out for themselves what being Filipino means to them. The other is The Filipino Story, an animated series that is being developed to showcase the creativity of Filipino artists and tell the storied history of the Filipino people.
One of the values that Tony hopes to instill in global Filipinos through The Filipino School is “bayanihan”. He had no idea that what he once thought was something that pertained to a dance troupe will someday become a guiding principle in his life. He shared, “In the Philippines, someone taught me that word and they started to explain that it’s about Filipinos coming together, and while they’re coming together, all things become possible because they did it together.”
With this, he came to the realization that he hails from a heroic race; after all, “bayanihan” touches on two other distinct and powerful Tagalog words – “bayan”, which means “nation” or "community"; and “bayani”, which is “hero” in the vernacular. “Bayanihan is the spirit of heroism. It is uniquely us,” said Tony. “[In GK], you can see it manifested in all these people coming together to build these villages, and it wouldn’t be possible if it was just one person.”
Coming Full Circle
For Tony, embracing his identity as Filipino was a learning journey. “My dad would always say the Philippines is beautiful, and I never believed him, and now… I know,” he mused. “The beauty of the Philippines is in our people… my people. So that’s why I fight for them. Because if I were in their position, I would want someone to fight for me, too, and my family. That’s what I live my life for,” he adds, and with conviction.
In everything that Tony does, he does not and refuses to lose sight of his goals with an end date in mind. By June 12, 2024, he vows to honor a commitment he made 15 years ago, in a seemingly hopeless place that opened his senses to the plight of Filipinos he feels proud to now call as his fellowmen. A lot can happen between then and now, but with someone like Tony Olaes whose heart is as big as his dreams, nothing is impossible – and nobody can tell him otherwise.