Kuya Rey: A Storyteller’s Story

The Storytelling Project piqued my interest the first time I happened on it. I like stories. When I was young, Papa would tell us tales about farm, soldiers and God every night until sleep rolled over us. We also used to keep two drawers of children’s books in the living room. Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and books that say “Choose Your Own Adventure” were my favorites. The Storytelling Project must be about telling stories, I thought; well, of course. So I researched more and learned that they read books to kids in poor communities. I signed up.

Rey Bufi, a.k.a “Kuya Rey”, Founder of The Storytelling Project, stood at the New Volunteers Workshop with palpable sincerity, passion and humility. One can tell when someone’s heart beats for the poor – his heart does.

Kuya Rey explained how TSP aims to instill in children the love for reading, and consequently, the habit of reading. He emphasized how reading good books can change a child’s life, how children choose to learn from people who love them, and how important it is to be generous with your stories. I couldn’t agree more. I got amazed by his conviction and altruism. I told myself, I should know this man’s story. A couple of weeks after, I found myself sitting with Kuya Rey in a donut shop.

The Origin

Long ago, Kuya Rey wasn’t much of a book lover. No habit of reading. He wanted to become a lawyer, so he took a pre-law course – a major in Philosophy and HR Development. Since this required a lot of reading and writing, he found the tasks arduous. He had to read a page four to five times to understand what it said. Not only that. He had to write a 10-page Reflection Paper about it.

“Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Start with reading books you’re interested in,” said one of his professors.

Taking this advice, Kuya Rey hunted for John Grisham’s novels and began perusing. Few months after, he noticed an improvement. He no longer needed to read a page four to five times, just three to four. He no longer wrote his 10-page Reflection Paper the whole day, just half the day.

Since he enjoyed HR duties and training in college, Kuya Rey decided to pursue an HR career instead of law after graduation. He worked for a big company, and there sprung the idea of TSP.

Kuya Rey became actively involved in an employees organization, “Read to be Smart.” Every summer, for 8 consecutive Saturdays, they would go to public schools and read books to students.

“I had my own campaign that time. I sold ballers and ID laces, and my tagline was, ‘Read more. Learn more. Be more,'” he said.

Kuya Rey saw the value of reading books so much that he researched ways on how to form a reading habit. Once, he got an opportunity to talk to engineering students about reading. He encouraged them to do it for leisure just as he learned in college. He, however, realized that teens and young adults have habits that are long-established enough to not easily bend or break. Probably, he thought, reading habit formation is most effective to kids.

Adventures of a Storyteller

Kuya Rey continued to volunteer for “Read to be Smart” even beyond resignation. He immersed himself in different communities for years, telling stories hither and thither. Eventually, he delved further into existing programs on reading and habit formation, and – together with his wife, Grace Soriano – came up with an own Three-Phase Program (Imagine, Create and Share). Circa 2012, The Storytelling Project officially set sail.

(Here are three of the most stirring TSP stories which Kuya Rey shared to me during the interview. Enjoy reading!)

1. Stories Amidst the Storm

Kuya Rey saw how crucial continuity is in forming a reading habit. This is why, one stormy day in Pangasinan, he was seen walking around the community with a book. Classes were suspended, but not the storytelling session. Damp and all, Kuya Rey went house-to-house and read a story to each student.

Same was the reason why Kuya Rey crossed a waist-deep turbid river in Montalban, one morning. That time, it rained all night and water flowed from Sierra Madre down to the once ankle-deep pristine river which he daily trudged. He didn’t know how to swim. But he found a way around the hill, and finally caught sight of the school. He blew his whistle.

Immediately, the students dashed out and threw a bamboo rack towards Kuya Rey. The stream was too strong that they had to pull him to the shore. When they got to the school ground, he realized that it was almost 9 a.m. which means that the students had been waiting for 1 to 2 hours. He counted them. They were complete. He told himself, These children probably crossed the river too. They didn’t give up, so why should I?

2. Little Authors

Any friend of Kuya Rey can tell how much of a visionary he is. Once, he told his wife, Grace, his dream of publishing a book written by one of TSP’s kids. A couple of years after, they found themselves conducting a Story Writing Workshop for children in Dagupan.

“But I am not a writer,” hesitated Grace.

“Just share what you know,” said Kuya Rey.

Grace agreed to facilitate that workshop, and it gave fruit to Super Labandera. The dream was almost within reach. The story was already there. They, however, didn’t have any idea about publication. They know neither an illustrator nor a publisher.

Probably, it was heaven’s will too. Kuya Rey met an independent publisher, an illustrator, and even a Fullybooked employee who helped him get a venue for the book launch. Everything was working according to plan. Except for one thing.

“You’re all invited to Super Labandera‘s book launch, December 14!” he told the TSP volunteers. They were in a van, on their way to Mountain Province. Everyone cheered.

“Kuya Rey, what else can we help you with? Anything you need?”

“Actually, we have no budget for publication yet.”

Everyone laughed. That was November.

It was morning when Kuya Rey and Grace got the final layout of the book. Tears flowed. Grateful, Kuya Rey posted about it on Facebook. On that same day, they were able to release Php 60,000 for the book’s publication. At the back of Super Labandera was a list of people who donated.

On December 14, 2014, Kuya Rey and the TSP team brought the child’s family from Dagupan to BGC. When they arrived at the venue, they were surprised to see how it was almost brimming with people. Several of them were Kuya Rey’s friends.

One of the volunteers happened to sit beside the grandfather of Jim Mark, Super Labandera‘s little author. When Jim Mark was called on stage, his lolo, on the brink of tears, said “That’s my grandson, that’s my grandson.”

“That experience proved that it is possible,” Kuya Rey said, “it is possible for a child from a remote community to write a story. TSP also teaches children to dream.”

3. Teachers of La Union

Soon enough, another project came into Kuya Rey’s mind. This time, they conducted a Story Writing Workshop for the Grade 1 Teachers of Luna, La Union. The workshop was led by Sinerhiya Foundation, funded by University of Santo Tomas. They also got help from MJ Tumamac, an award-winning children’s book author.

“Write a story about your community,” encouraged Kuya Rey.

From this group of teachers, 4 or 5 of them wrote about “armang,” which in Filipino means “alamang” or shrimp. When other teachers heard about it, they somehow chuckled. In their community, most people do shrimp fishing for a living. Armang, however, would often abound their coast that people no longer saw its value. No matter, Kuya Rey saw how much impact these teachers’ story could give.

“This is an opportunity to boost the community’s moral. Who knows? The story might even help promote the product. Or they might eventually have an Armang Festival,” Kuya Rey told the Mayor.

A year or two after that Story Writing Workshop, Kuya Rey decided to ask for MJ’s help to publish Ang Alamat ng Alamang. Luna La Union’s LGU then shouldered a part of the publication’s cost, and distributed copies of the book to different schools in Luna, La Union. The teachers were very happy.

To prepare for book launch, the TSP team adorned the school’s wall with a mural showing an armang and created a video of the story. On the awaited day, the venue rang with joy. The Mayor came, as well as people from UST. From then on, the community no longer looked down on armang; it turned into their inspiration. It became the pride, not only of the community, but of the whole Luna, La Union.

What “Living Well” Means

From a simple desire to inculcate love for reading in children, Kuya Rey’s purpose grew deeper and deeper. He found stories within stories. He also learned more about himself especially during the difficult times.

“I always ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. What I always tell people in all the presentations I give is this, ‘When you’re tired of what you’re doing, always go back to your why.’ And my why? I always think of the children’s smile, of those kids who finally found joy in reading, of those who finally developed self-confidence because of the program,” he said.

I also asked Kuya Rey what “living well” means to him. For a man doing such a selfless job, changing thousands of lives, I was curious how he perceives a well-lived life. This was his answer.

“Perhaps, I can say that I am living according to my heart’s desire. For me, being successful doesn’t mean having a house, a car, or a lot of possessions. For me, fulfillment or success comes when you got a lot of friends to exchange stories with, when you inspire many people, when you’re seeing several places. My wife and I are contented with what we have. What we value more is the memories that we create as a family, not so much the material things that we have. Living well, I think, means when you’re able to do what you truly desire and be happy with your family at the same time.”

Today, The Storytelling Project continues to expand. The throng of volunteers got larger, the territories they reach got wider, and the number of readers got bigger.

And Kuya Rey continues to be a storyteller. He soldiers on, raising a nation of readers. Truly, a storyteller’s journey is, in itself, a story worth-telling.

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