Five minutes into our conversation with Marissa Oca on a hot May afternoon and we knew that this was one tough, driven woman. “I am a blazing fire of passion for work,” she said. “Work has to be done.” The toughness and the drive she apparently got from her late father, Capt Gregorio Oca, whose steely character and negotiating skills made him a maritime union leader to reckon with even outside the Philippines. But the passion is all her own and it is deep-rooted.
Ms Oca heads the Gig and the Amazing Sampaguita Foundation Inc (GASFI), whose “Twenty Minutes at Bedtime, Read to Your Child” programme seeks to promote the love for reading amongst seafarers’ children and strengthen family ties. She set up the organisation in memory of her only son, Ambrosio Gregorio (“Gig”) Oca Robles. Gig was president of the Youth for Christ in his high school and had a fondness for the national flower, sampaguita. In March 2009, just before graduation day, he accidentally fell to his death from a hotel balcony at the age of 17.
The tragedy gave Ms Oca a sense of mission, a zeal that continues to cut like a knife through her entire being. Initially a book donor project, GASFI has published 10 children’s books which are anchored on traditional Filipino values and mirror real-life situations often faced by seamen’s families. Ten more books are in the pipeline. Translating them from English into the various Philippine languages isn’t on the horizon for now. “No money,” Ms Oca explained. Although it can count for logistical support on the Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) founded by her father, GASFI is autonomous and has to solicit donations from other sources.
Involvement with seamen and their families came naturally to Ms Oca. When she was about four years old, her father, then a supervisor in a stevedoring firm, would drive her around the piers in his jeep. In 1993 Capt Oca appointed her administrator of AMOSUP’s community development programme. Ms Oca remembers the old man as a “very practical, candid” person. “He was very real. He struck a balance,” she said.
For Ms Oca, though, it’s not just balance that seems to matter but diversity. An economics graduate of the University of California in Santa Barbara, she went on to obtain a master’s degree in hospital administration from the University of the Philippines. She is in the process of developing a degree programme on leadership for the Maritime Academy of Asia & the Pacific (MAAP), AMOSUP’s training arm. Her foundation is also looking to launch a project to help Filipino cassava farmers. That she has boundless energy isn’t surprising. She learned early on the importance of seeing beyond oneself and reaching out to others. “After a while,” she said, “it’s not about money.” ~Barista Uno
NOTE: This is an ongoing series focusing on women in the maritime world, which is still very much dominated by men. It is hoped that other women will draw inspiration from their dreams, struggles and achievements. Please search our archives for more portraits of maritime women.