Catherine V. Luna
This article is part of the series about the community engagement project under the Asia Blue Skies campaign. This project is supported by 3M Global, the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI), and the Integrated Programme for Better Air Quality in Asia (IBAQ Programme). Read the Filipino translation of this piece here.

For almost four decades, the Smokey Mountain has been Ate Cathy’s (ate means elder sister in Filipino) home. Ate Cathy, or Catherine V. Luna, didn’t mind growing up with mounds of garbage everywhere – even when it meant she had to endure the foul smell of rotten materials day in and day out.   


Ate Cathy serves as the community coordinator for the engagement project with Barangay 128 in Tondo, Manila. Barangay 128 is one of the first communities Clean Air Asia is engaging as part of the Manila City’s implementation of its Clean Air Action Plan. 

“In the past, we were surrounded by trash. We could see and breathe the pungent smoke coming from the mountains of garbage, reeking of sulfur and methane. We even ate under mosquito nets before,” she said in the vernacular. 

Memories of the stinking trash now seems funny to her, but it was something she had to endure for a long time. 

“Before, whenever I went out, I would try to make sure that I was neat and tidy enough to go but since I lived in the Smokey Mountain, I still smell like rotten cabbage. The odor sticks to the skin, so to speak,” she said. 

In the 26 years since the Smokey Mountain has been closed, Ate Cathy has witnessed how the area has transformed from mountains of Manila’s garbage to a bustling community now known as Barangay 128 that is not dependent on other people’s waste. 

“When we moved into the permanent housing facilities, we experienced a huge transformation. Fewer people engage in garbage picking activities. Some of them were able to send their children to school and eventually buy houses outside of the Smokey Mountain area. Some remained here, like us.” 

A day in the life of Ate Cathy 

Every morning, Ate Cathy wakes up and prepares her family’s meal. She lives with her daughter, mother, and sister. Ate Cathy owns a small sari-sari store in their unit. The morning is a busy time for Cathy as customers come in and buy supplies and food items early on.  

When there are no customers, she cleans up their unit. She usually attends to barangay - or community -related affairs during the day. Most of the time, she waits for calls for assistance from barangay officials and representatives, or even non-government organization representatives particularly from the Tondo Community Initiative (TCI) as one of their community member volunteers. 

Most of the assistance people from the TCI ask for is access to medicine. She goes from one building to another to check upon those people who ask for assistance if they have enough supply of their medicine. 

Ate Cathy as a community leader 

These days, Ate Cathy takes pride in helping her community – from helping her neighbors access medicine for their health issues, mediating conflicts, to giving advice to teenagers about unwanted pregnancy.  

“I enjoy reading and I take pride in helping people. I feel fulfilled whenever I’m able to help other people,” she said. 

Attending trainings and seminars excites Ate Cathy. She never shies away from an opportunity to learn new things and apply them in helping her community. 

Ate Cathy is the current president of their building’s homeowners’ association. Part of her responsibility is ensuring that government announcements and community enhancement campaigns reach the residents of the building. She also helps organize her community to participate in various projects such as proper solid waste management and disaster risk reduction. 

Ate Cathy told us that her mother inspired her to volunteer in their community.  Her mother used to volunteer for the Department of Social Welfare and Development, providing assistance to those members of the marginalized sectors – the poor, the children, persons with disabilities, and women.  She believes that there’s value in talking to people, particularly the youth, in assessing their needs and helping provide support.  

As regards the community engagement campaign to help improve the air quality in their area, Ate Cathy believes that raising awareness about the issue will benefit the barangay. “We, as a community, would like to learn more about how to take care of our environment and ensure that we breathe better air,” she concluded.