We booked our flight into Cebu, Philippines on October 27; on November 8, Typhoon Haiyan hit. When the typhoon hit, we could hardly believe what we were seeing and hearing on the news. It was a devastating storm, the most destructive in recent history. It’s hard to grasp the pain and suffering it caused for millions of people. In the wake of this terrible storm, we questioned whether or not we should still go to the Philippines; we still wanted to, but only if it was appropriate. In the days after the typhoon hit, we learned more about which areas were damaged and which were OK, and found that there were still many places we could go that were OK. We also learned that the tourism board was urging people to visit the country, stressing that tourists visits will have a direct effect on helping to rebuild lives and keep locals in jobs. We resolved that we would still go.
Our good friend Abby, who is on staff with Samaritan’s Purse in Nigeria (where we spent a month volunteering last year), got us in touch with the Samaritan’s Purse (SP) folks in the Philippines. Things fell together just in time for us to spend our first week in the Philippines volunteering with SP in Cebu. The city of Cebu sits between several of the hardest hit areas, but thankfully, did not experience damage from the typhoon. SP had set up an office and warehouse in the city, as a base for relief operations in the region. We spent most of our time at the warehouse. The first task we were given was to take inventory of all the supplies. The supplies were primarily for hygiene kits (bars of soap, detergent sachets, toilet paper, etc) and shelter kits (each kit containing tools and materials to build shelters for four families). The concept of the shelter kits is that one kit is given to a group of four families who share the tools & supplies and help each other build. We helped pack pallets of supplies to be shipped out to areas of need.
We also helped load trucks as they arrived to carry off the goods. One of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon was Tacloban. As limited flights are being allowed into the airport there, goods were loaded onto large trucks in the Cebu warehouse and made their way to Tacloban via ferry.
In my opinion, the most precious shipment that came into the warehouse were the thousands of Operation Christmas Child boxes that arrived from the U.S. and Canada. A special shipment of 65,000 shoe boxes was sent to the Philippines. Each shoebox is filled with Christmas gifts for a child, packed specifically for a boy or girl of a certain age. The shoeboxes will bring smiles to the faces of thousands of Philippine children. I also hope that they bring many children comfort and encouragement, along with an understanding that they are loved and not forsaken.
One of the main tasks at the warehouse the week that we were there was packing nails for the shelter kits. There were many people from the community that came to help.
On Monday afternoon, a woman named Lollette came to the warehouse with a group of young adults to help pack nails. We worked at the same table with Lollette and got to know her as we talked for hours while packing nails. She explained that the group was from her social enterprise “Urban Kamalig Empowerment Program”. It’s a program she started to provide mentoring and training to youth who have finished high school but have not gone to college. Many of the youth accepted into the program have troubled backgrounds. Through the program, they learn how to develop valuable life skills and are taught foundational principles to set them up for success in life (e.g. communication, leadership, time management). The program has a business platform – providing an opportunity for the youth to work and earn money while developing business skills. After successfully completing 6 months in the program, they are given a scholarship to attend college (a college education is critical to obtaining gainful employment in the Philippines). We had the opportunity to visit the program site in Cebu and meet a number of the beneficiaries. They are now in the process of raising money to begin a second site in Cebu and from there, hope to begin developing sites across the Philippines. To learn more, check out this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIacIuacTJM
It’s only natural that God led Lollette to begin the Urban Kamalig Empowerment Program. She’s known in the community as the “mom of multitudes.” In 2007, having already raised four kids of their own, Lollette and her husband took in four siblings whose father had suddenly died. Then, in 2009, they adopted a little baby girl. But this was no typical adoption. They found the newborn baby across the street from their house, in a plastic bag, deserted and left to die. God was watching out for that little baby girl the night she was abandoned – she had wiggled her way out of the bag enough to not suffocate, and although covered in blood, did not get eaten by stray dogs. They named the baby Faith Makana (gift), Maki for short. As a Lollette explained, “Faith” because when God gives or allows you to go through a challenge, He increases your faith in His goodness and strength. And “Makana” because, though she was so poorly wrapped in a plastic bag, she is a precious gift from God. Maki is now a healthy four year-old girl. No doubt God has a special plan for this little girl’s life.
So much has happened in Lollette’s life, that people started encouraging her to start write about it. So a few years back, she started a blog, aptly titled momofmultitudes.blogspot.com. I plan to follow her blog and continue to stay in touch with her.
Our last day in Cebu, I had the opportunity to help out in the SP office, actually utilizing some of my Human Resources skills. As you can imagine, there is a lot of paperwork and documentation that goes into running an effective relief operation. It was a nice change of pace from the warehouse and was certainly better suited toward my skill set.
I discovered quickly the job I definitely wouldn’t want if I lived Cebu…taxi driver. Cebu is the second largest city in the Philippines and the traffic is horrible. On some of the main drags you can easily walk faster than traffic moves; we often opted for walking over taking a cab. However, being a pedestrian has its own challenges. Namely, that there are hardly any traffic lights in the city and although there are crosswalks – cars don’t stop if someone is trying to cross. We were reassured that they will see you and will slow down and go around you once you start crossing. We tried to capture the experience with our GoPro, but sure enough – the time we were filming ended up being our easiest street crossing, so not posting here as it will give you the impression it was easy, which it certainly was not!
A common sight in the streets of Cebu are “jeepneys”, the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. They originated from U.S. military jeeps left in the Philippines after World War II. Filipinos converted the left behind military jeeps into public transportation vehicles by installing two long benches in the back that sit parallel to each other, adding roofs for shade, and painting them in vibrant colors. I stood on a street corner for about five minutes to take some pictures of jeepneys. In just that short time, I saw over 10 go by…all of them uniquely colored and designed.
Our time in Cebu gave us our first exposure to Filipino food. Meals here are traditionally rice based. One of the specialties is lechon belly (pig belly). It’s a fatty meat that they cook on a rotisserie, season with spices and serve with puso (rice wrapped in banana leaves then steamed to perfection).
Language is a bit complicated in the Philippines. There are over 100 different languages spoken across the country. The official language is Filipino, which is essentially Tagalog plus common words derived from English and Spanish. Interestingly, Taglish (a combination of Tagalog & English) is so common, it is one of the language choices on ATM’s. Cebuano is the official language of Cebu, but we found English to be everywhere and spoken by nearly everyone we encountered. As a result, communicating was easy. The only native word I really used was “salamat”, which means thank you. Although an English thank you would certainly do, “salamat” always seemed to bring a bigger smile to the faces I said it to…and I found the people here to have brightest smiles, despite the hardships they have endured.