Somewhere in our collective memory is the indelible imprint of a grief-stricken widow — her kind face, her gracious manners, her dignified air, her inner strength. This is the striking image of Leni Robredo that introduced her to public consciousness in 2012.

Right away, one is disarmingly taken by her elegance of character. One can tell that there is something special, something extraordinary about her.

Unbeknownst to her, or to us, she was then on the threshold of breaking out. For, soon after, she would emerge from her cocoon of quietly serving the underprivileged people of Naga.

An urgent sense of duty was compelling her to run for public office. The entrenched political dynasty in her province was unperturbed and derisive; she was dismissed as nothing more than just the widow of the revered Jesse Robredo.

This arrogant viewpoint belittled the formidable work output of Leni in the years before she became a widow. These were the formative years that shaped her social conscience, pulled her into activism, and sealed her commitment to public service. And when she did step up to the plate of local politics, what was initially undefinable about her came into focus — the rarified nobility and substance of character, the quintessential Leni.

Leni was a child of her volatile times, a time when the imperative of radical social transformation demanded activism. As a student in a Catholic school, she was exposed to Vatican II social teachings on preferential option for the poor. As an Iskolar ng Bayan and student activist in the waning years of Marcos’ rule, she embraced the clarion call of paglingkuran ang sambayanan.

As a fresh Economics graduate, swept by the euphoria of People Power in 1986, she was inspired to give back to society by working in a government agency, the Bicol River Basin Development Program.

As a lawyer, she chose to be a grassroots human rights lawyer, bringing alternative lawyering to indigent litigants, farmers, fisherfolk, urban poor, indigenous peoples and womenfolk.

As a congresswoman, she sponsored bills on national food security, anti-discrimination, people’s participation in budget deliberation, people empowerment, full disclosure and freedom of information, anti-political dynasty, and Bangsamoro Basic Law, among others.

As a supportive but low-key political wife, she strategized and managed the election campaign of her husband; and complemented his governance reforms with her parallel programs in NGO work.

As a hands-on mother, the children were prioritized notwithstanding the myriad demands of teaching Economics in college; being a law student, eventually a lawyer; and assuming duties as first lady of Naga. Each phase in her personal and professional life was a testament to serving her family and society to the best of her abilities.

The quintessential Leni is grounded on simplicity, humility, empathy, integrity and courage. Her simplicity, enhanced by her sincerity and warmth, makes her accessible to all. Her humility allows her to seek out her core constituency — ang mga nasa laylayan — and to immerse in their dehumanizing conditions. Her empathy and compassion while listening to narratives of those who struggle through poverty engendered in her to be a catalyst of change for them.

Leni’s integrity in walking the talk particularly stands out. The medium is the eloquent message. She has remained a hometown girl, choosing to go back to Naga to raise a family and to establish a service career in countryside development. Lucrative job opportunities in the US were turned down when the Robredo couple were in Boston for Jesse’s Harvard scholarship.

They knew that their hearts still beat for public service back home. Her lifestyle hasn’t turned upscale, in spite of the six terms of her husband as mayor and her three years as congresswoman.

Her integrity is bound to a spirit of sacrifice and perseverance. She is tireless. This defines her servant leadership. She doesn’t choose the easy way to serve. A cushy seat in an air-conditioned office of a boutique law firm was not the trajectory of her law career. Choosing to be a public attorney comes with long sweaty hours in prison to interview and to counsel those in jail. Alternative lawyering demands being away three to four days from her family to bring paralegal education to far-flung communities. Being heavy with child was not a hindrance for Leni in making these forays to rugged areas with no decent amenities.

As legislator, when Congress has no sessions from Thursdays to Saturdays, it seems she is the only one who hits the ground for regular consultations, covering as many barangays possible till nightfall.

The sacrifices and deep sense of mission bring to the fore her courage. It takes supreme courage not to turn her back on challenges that overwhelm her.

Leni is a gift. She is the wind of change that carries the seeds that will transform the politics of elitist democracy into an inclusive partnership with all sectors as collaborators and partners in development. On May 9, we will know if we have taken ownership of this gift.

Norma Sta. Ana is a doctor of medicine and writes on the side to private audiences. She was asked to be a guest contributor for the “Yellow Pad” column.