It was one of those rare afternoons when I was so ready to call it a day. I just conducted three webinars in a row and I was not in a really good shape to talk to someone so prominent and illustrious as her. I was so flustered as I dialed the number so I kept on praying that I don’t embarrass myself and stutter all the way through the interview.

The lady at the other end of the line greeted me so fondly and suddenly it felt like my day was  about to get better.

“Call me on my landline dear, this will be long,” was the first thing she said to me.  I was surprised. I was expecting to be given  a few minutes of her time  and be instructed to email her the questions. She texted me her landline and I called her immediately.

“ Don’t you worry. Its no bother. I love talking to people about my experience,” she quipped.

Dr. Vivian S.  Sarabia belongs to  “The Sarabia” family  who founded the first optical shop   in the Philippines 114 years ago. She is one of more than 30 family members of the illustrious Sarabia clan who are optometrists and ophthalmologist all practicing in the Philippines.

Pre-pandemic, Dr. Sarabia owns a retail store bearing the Sarabia name in one of the posh malls in the city and was optical provider to BPOs,  major corporations and was known as the eye doctor of the stars. Business was bliss and the future bright.

“When community quarantine was imposed, it felt like someone pushed a pause button and the world was on stand still. All of a sudden, we have to close and remained closed indefinitely. All of a sudden, I have bills, rent and salaries to pay, checks to fund and no income in sight. The first thought on my mind was how do I survive this for my people,” she  related.

Dr. Sarabia  remained undaunted. Instead, she explored ways to keep all her  20 employees on the payroll even though the store was closed.

“ The most important task was to assure my people many of whom have been with me  for so long that they will have food on their tables and what I have they will have too,”she said.

On the first month of the lockdown, Dr. Sarabia allowed all her employees to monetize their leave credits. The next month, she released their 13 month pay while helping them apply for every  government benefit available to them.

She made sure that every month they got something. But as  the lockdown extended , Dr. Sarabia started running out of options and means to keep her employees. Tapping into her personal savings, she  made sure to pay them P1,000.00 every week so that they will have money to at least buy food for themselves and their families.

“When I hired them they have become my family and their families my extended family. I keep telling them na malalampasan natin ito ng magkakasama. Basta magbibigayan lang tayo,” she added.

Donned in personal protective equipments (PPES), Dr. Sarabia accompanied her staff around and offered personal home consultations to friends and their families. It wasn’t much but at that time it was enough to pay her workers a minimum salary.

“Their salaries were cut to a minimum but they did not complain. They were better off compared to some, they used to say. But I believe that in their own little way they were also mindful of my financial situation, “ Dr. Sarabia recalled.

Come June, Dr Sarabia’s fear became imminent. There was nothing left. It was also  during this time that the  malls started coaxing her back and asking her to reopen her mall outlet.

“ I have nothing left. How am I going to pay rent? It was time to make tough decisions. So I took a leap of faith.  With all the courage that was left in me I decided to close the mall outlet and started building a new outlet from the ground up. I didn’t have much, I cannot even afford a contractor to build the new store so I did it myself,” she said proudly.

Dr. Sarabia heard about the Bayanihan CARES Program of the Small Business Corporation of the DTI and immediately took a chance.

“I have never borrowed. I never had a reason to loan for my business. Not until now.  Most of the people I know who have businesses chose to take the easy way out and closed down. I could have done that myself. Just stop the bleeding and turn my back to it all. But my conscience cannot take it. I cannot live thinking there are people I will be letting down,” she explained.

With her Bayanihan CARES loan she was able to take care of all her financial responsibilities so she could restart with a clean slate.

“ If there was one advice I can give business owners during this trying times, it is to accept our realities.  There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help. Sometimes the easy way out is not the best way. We need to find a way to remain open for our people. They are our responsibility,” Dr. Sarabia adviced.

Notwithstanding the pandemic, Dr. Sarabia opened her new store in a new strategic site last August.

“My bank asked me why borrow from SB Corp and not from them? I asked them why can’t you lend like SB Corp if you really want to help me? With the one year grace period SB Corp has allowed me to breathe. That is what I’m most grateful for.  Thank you for allowing me to breathe.”

We talked a bit more about life and everything in between. I didn’t want to let her go. I wanted to keep on talking to her but I realized that we were talking for more than an hour and I already took too much of her time.

In parting she shared with me her most important takeaway from all these experiences.

“Adversity often presents opportunities we shouldn’t miss. Hard times present us with a chance to change course, reinvent ourselves or even find an undiscovered bridge that might get us out of this ordeal.”

After I put down the phone, I realized that I no longer want the day to end. Not yet. Pondering and trying to make sense of all the thoughts running through mind, I realized I also had a   major takeway from the interview. Work is oftentimes hard. The pressure sometimes knocks the wind out of our sails. We may not be able to change the direction of the wind but we can always adjust our sails.

Later that night Dr. Sarabia sent me a message on my personal account. It said…“ One day you will tell your story and how you were able to overcome what you’re going through.  It will become someone else’s survival guide. You are going to be their hope. So don’t lose yours.”

It was the perfect ending to my day.


Published on December 5, 2020