What it Takes to Be First: From Adarna House to Adarna Group Foundation, Inc.


What does it take to be first? We like to think that we at Adarna House, the Philippines’ oldest and largest publisher of children’s literature, know a thing or two about this. When we first came out with Adarna picture books almost 37 years ago, there was no children’s literature to speak of in the Philippine publishing industry. We wanted to create that literature for Filipino children. Today, there are enough books being published, enough publishers to form a critical mass, and a growing community of children’s book authors and illustrators to merit the granting of a biennial National Children’s Books Awards by the National Book Development Board and the Philippine Board on Books for Young People. At the Manila International Bookfair, children’s book publishers now comprise a group on the second floor of the SMX.

The challenge to be first continues to drive Adarna House in everything it does. In 2013, together with its laboratory school, The Raya School, it established its corporate social responsibility arm, the Adarna Group Foundation, Inc. (AGFI).  Its vision: Every Filipino child, literate.

True to the Adarna tradition of being first, AGFI works towards its vision through four early literacy programs that introduces babies and very young children to their first books. Unang Aklat, AGFI’s flagship program, partners with local government units and uses the local health care delivery system to educate parents of children 0 to 3 years old about the importance of early literacy and how they can educate their child at home. Doctors and teachers bring lessons on early childhood pedagogy and development to parents and health center staff. Age and culturally appropriate books for children are given for free so that they can discover the joys of reading at home.

Other programs echo the same advocacy: Barangay Early Literacy Program (BELP) is a one day program of storytelling and music and movement activities for children in communities and institutions designed to bring in volunteers who will become future champions of early literacy.  Read sa Rural Heath Unit (RHU) aims to train healthcare workers to take advantage of their pivotal role in the community to spread awareness of early literacy and to equip them as well with skills in effective storytelling. Unang Aklatan helps municipalities put up community libraries that will cater to readers of all ages but with a special nook for early readers.

Being first does not come easy. The past three years have been daunting and AGFI has had to face challenges beyond the experience of any other NGO. But the work done has started to bear fruit.

To date, AGFI, through Unang Aklat, BELP, Read sa RHU and Unang Aklatan has reached 2085 families, 210 local government workers, 35 communities in Luzon, and has given out 5597 books. It has helped put up two community libraries in Bataan and Tarlac. To expand its reach, its partners now include established organizations such as Investment and Capital Corporation of the Philippines Group Foundation and San Miguel Foundation.  

Beyond statistics, there are the testimonials: the municipal health officer who believes that there is no effort too great to see one child learn how to read; another municipal health officer who has included early literacy milestones in measuring the wellbeing of babies in her municipality; the project coordinator who sees the AGFI projects as his way to show his concern for this community.

AGFI is fully aware that its programs form the very first partnerships with local governments units to promote early literacy. Thus, its efforts to implement monitoring and evaluation systems so that its work on the ground will result in replicable early literacy programs for other communities.

Based on the experiences of Adarna House and AGFI, what does it take to be first? A vision, hard work, communities around shared values, and evidence of tangible results.  

By. Emelina S. Almario and Ruth Martin-De Guzman

Anao, Tarlac: The First Unang Aklat Municipality


Anao, Tarlac is known as the Ylang-Ylang Capital of Tarlac. With its total land area of 2,387 hectares, this fifth-income municipality is the smallest in the province and is known for the ylang-ylang flowers it grows. For the Adarna Group Foundation, Inc., it has the added distinction of being its first Unang Aklat municipality.

AGFI first got to know Anao during the term of Mayor Ed Felipe. In its early years in Anao, AGFI launched its Unang Aklat Program and helped set up the municipal library. As Mayor Felipe’s term drew to a close, it was not clear whether the AGFI-Anao partnership would continue.

As it turned out, the partnership not only continued but became stronger. On November 18, 2016, Mayor Betty Lacbayan signed a Memorandum of Agreement for Anao to be an Unang Aklat municipality. This meant that all the babies of Anao would be part of the Unang Aklat program, the Barangay Early Literacy Program would be held for Anao’s various communities, Read sa RHU which gives out free book pockets and books as well as storytelling sessions would be carried out in its barangay health stations, and Unang Aklatan, a corner for an early literacy book collection, would be set up in the municipal library.

Mayor Ed and Mayor Betty have both explained that their support for AGFI stems from their observations that many kids in the Dolores Ongsiako Central Elementary School have a difficult time reading. But even with the support of the two mayors, AGFI would not have succeeded in Anao without Joey Astrero, the tourism officer of the municipality.

A nurse by training, Joey has stewarded the work of AGFI in Anao since AGFI first stepped foot in the municipality. It was Joey who asked Mayor Ed how Unang Aklat could cross over to Mayor Betty. And it was also Joey who explained to Mayor Betty the merits of the AGFI partnership and why it should continue to gather the support of the local government unit and its rural health unit. His involvement in the municipality’s nutrition project had convinced him about the importance of focusing resources on thechildren of Anao.

Anao is Joey’s hometown. Although he left Anao for his high school and tertiary studies, and even tried working out in Metro Manila after his graduation, he decided he wanted to live in Anao because he loves the municipality. He expresses this love through his commitment to the different projects assigned to him.

AGFI is fortunate to have Joey as point person. In turn, he says he hopes that Unang Aklat succeeds, “Sana tuloy tuloy ang programa kasi malaking tulong ito hindi lamang sa mga bata kundi sa mga magulang nila.


I have always wanted to know if there would be an improvement in the lives of women if we educated them, and if we gave their children access to books soon after they were born, ” says Dr. Cristina “Teng” Espino, the lone doctor and municipal health officer in the fourth-class municipality of Samal, Bataan. Dr. Teng usually sees women patients in her public birthing clinic only when they are ready to deliver their babies. The women do not undergo prenatal checkups. “They arrive in our clinic on the day they give birth. They literally bring only themselves. Nothing else, not even money.

Little did Dr. Teng know that AGFI would soon be entering Samal with its Unang Aklat flagship program. After AGFI’s presentation of the Unang Aklat program to Mayor Generosa “Gene” de la Fuente of Samal, she invited the AGFI team to Samal to present the program to her LGU officials. Dr. Teng attended the presentation and expressed her interest in being a part of the program. For Dr. Teng, it was a way of getting an answer to her question about the role of literacy in improving the lives of her patients and their babies.

Unang Aklat was launched in Samal, Bataan, on October 21, 2013 during the mayor’s State of the Children Address. Since then, Unang Aklat has given out 783 age- and culturally-appropriate books to 343 children and 343 parents in the municipality, held 44 sessions on early literacy for parents, and trained 5 health care workers.

The implementation of Unang Aklat in Samal has provided a clear answer to Dr. Teng’s question.  “You could see how thirsty these children were for good, colorful books. You would see a young child pointing at something in the book to his older sibling.” she says. She also noticed that as the mothers learned how to read to their children, they also improved their reading skills and expanded their own knowledge.

If we could only save one mother from ignorance, I would be happy,

Thoroughly convinced about the role of literacy, Dr. Teng requested for assistance from AGFI to set up a reading room in the birthing center. The reading room opened on October 7, 2014 and now serves the babies and children who visit the Samal birthing center for consultation and health services.



Eli Camacho, product development manager of Adarna House and recipient of a 2016 National Children's Book Award for her Haluhalo board book, describes the day she volunteered for AGFI:

Children, books, and toys are a wonderful combination. I was fortunate enough to see this for myself when I joined AGFI’s Barangay Early Literacy Program in Sitio Dueg, San Clemente, Tarlac, last March 7. The remoteness of the place meant that my fellow volunteers and I had to meet well before sunrise and ride a military truck up an unpaved mountain road, wrapped in our hoodies to protect ourselves from the sun and stray branches. Our base for the day was a resettlement community of Aetas who had been displaced by Mount Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991. Armed with plastic bottles, beads, juice, biscuits, and books, we set up an assembly line and prepared to welcome the hundred or so women and children who had registered as participants.

After a short lecture on proper hygiene for the mothers and a storytelling session for the children, it was time for the arts and crafts activity: shakers made out of plastic bottles and beads. I walked around the venue, looking for little children who needed help dropping beads into their bottles. Later on, I kept the line in order when book-giving time came. Watching the children shake their finished bottles and dive eagerly into their books was a real delight. I knew that these toys and books, even if they lacked batteries and touch screens, would fill hours and hours of future playtime. I also realized (as AGFI already has) that it isn’t a long shot to think that a simple shaker and a book can make a big difference in each child’s life.

We ended the day tired, dusty, and wondering when our next opportunity to volunteer would come. We had just been let in on a big investing secret, and knew that the returns would be more than generous.