Jessebel’s rags-to-street-food tale

The merciless afternoon sun scorches the awning that protects Jessebel Sahagun’s street-food cart. She has parked the cart outside her friend’s house in Baras, Rizal, 50 km east of Manila.

“In the morning, I wake up at 3 am to prepare the fishballs and hotdogs, as well as the dipping sauce,” the 39-year-old mother of two says. “Then at around 6 am, I fetch water for our neighbors who pay us five pesos per gallon.”

Jessebel Sahagun and her food cart. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

Jessebel Sahagun and her food cart. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

Yet all that is now routine for Jessebel. Even her injured hip — which she has been sustaining since childhood and was not treated because her parents couldn’t afford medical treatment — is neither a hindrance to her. She does feel pain in her upper leg sometimes, but she would rather not pay it any attention.

“That’s how it is. I have to work to earn a living,” she says, smiling and glancing wistfully at her cart.

Jessebel’s situation used to be far worse. Her family was among those seriously affected by tropical storm Ketsana (Ondoy) in 2009. Left with nothing — save for some luck — they were afterwards able to avail of a housing program in Baras. The Sahaguns used to live in Angono (also in Rizal province, 20 km west of Baras) where Jessebel’s husband would fish in the nearby lake, while she would sell his catch.

When they moved into the resettlement village in 2011, the couple started to live on fetching water for their neighbors. They filled gallons at the community pozo (water pump). At best they would earn only P100 per day — so much so that sometimes the family would need the help of neighbors to have their lunch.

Jessebel hands a stick of fishballs to a young customer. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

Jessebel hands a stick of fishballs to a young customer. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

But Jessebel saw an opportunity in making rags from spare cloths, which she would buy near her former place in Angono. She would sew doormats out of the cloths and sold them; in a given month, she earned P2,000. But the business became too expensive to sustain. She needed another enterprise which did not require her to travel so far to buy materials.

With the help of Handicap International’s REBUILD Project — which assists people with disabilities in finding jobs or setting up their own small businesses — Jessebel was soon able to identify a new business: street food vending. That business wouldn’t be as demanding as rag-making, but would likely be more profitable.

Jessebel went through some orientation talks and consultation with the REBUILD Project. Soon she decided to apply for a loan for her street-food business. In November last year, she received the money from the REBUILD Project, with which she bought a cart and her first fishballs, hotdogs, and kikiam (fried seafood paste) for sale.

Today Jessebel cannot say that her family’s life has improved by leaps and bounds, but she says it is significantly better than before. She now earns more — aside from the fact that her husband has also found a less unstable job at a construction site in a neighboring city. This helps a lot in paying her loan punctually.

“My kids can already ask for things which they couldn’t before. Now they can also pay for certain projects in school,” she says, grinning.

Jessebel Sahagun's eight-year-old son sometimes help her cut the hotdogs, ready for sale. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

Jessebel Sahagun’s eight-year-old son sometimes help her cut the hotdogs, ready for sale. Photo: Daryl Zamora / Handicap International

With the REBUILD Project’s focus on holistic development among its beneficiaries, Jessebel is also expecting to have her hips checked. She has also signed up in the public registry of persons with disabilities; this allows her to receive privileges such as discounted prices of medicines, transportation, and some basic commodities.

It is now almost 3:30 pm, by which time Jessebel has to move to a different location to avoid a competitor nearby who opens shop at this time.

One of Jessebel’s kids arrives. When mother and son embrace, you immediately learn what keeps Jessebel — and her cart — going.

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