Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On the Ground with Jim Cook: Images and Observations from the Philippines

Part One

The Philippines. I’m back. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 21 years since my first visit (check out the photo below), to this nation comprised of over 7,000 islands. It’s also hard to imagine that I would make as many trips here as I have. I lost count a few years ago at 25.

I just arrived yesterday in Manila. I’m now at the airport again, about to make the quick (45 minute) trip to the Bicol region, where we sponsor nearly 40,000 children in and around the cities of Legaspi and Tabaco.

The Philippines, the country where we have the largest number of sponsored children, has always been a favorite visit destination of sponsors. The U.S. presence, with military bases here until a few years ago (Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base), kept the Philippines in the forefront of the U.S. consciousness. Also, I reflected that when I first visited, the prominent role the Philippines played in World War II was a far less distant memory than it probably is today.

One thing about the Philippines: it’s a long, long way from the United States. From where I live in Kansas City, it’s about 26 hours of travel, door to door. It’s kind of tiring.

But it’s worth it. The Philippines is a beautiful country, full of really nice people. Sadly, many of these really nice people are living in really awful poverty, and that’s where Children International and our sponsors come in. Sponsors have been making a huge difference in the lives of the children and the families we’re helping…and the communities…and in some cases, entire islands and villages.

I really look forward to flying to Legaspi. Our staff there is led by Dr. Zaldy Abainza. Zaldy’s tenure with the organization exceeds mine; I vividly remember meeting him on that first trip 21 years ago.

Another reason I look forward to Legaspi is to once again see Mount Mayon, one of the most beautiful (and still active) volcanoes. It is a near perfect cone, rising dramatically from sea level—from the sea itself, in fact!—to a height of over 8,600 feet.

The volcano’s benign beauty belies her somewhat capricious and unpredictable behavior…her eruptions can be deadly.

Legaspi and Tabaco are also known for being in “typhoon alley,” and this well-deserved reputation is seemingly reinforced annually. In fact, one of the primary reasons for my visit is to see damage from a series of typhoons about seven months ago. These typhoons, led by “Super Typhoon” Durian (a super typhoon has winds in excess of 150 miles per hour), scoured much of the Legaspi area and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tabaco.

In its scouring, it obliterated or damaged the homes of many sponsored families. Now, Children International is not an emergency relief organization. We help children, each of whom has a special and distinct sponsor, day in and day out in a way that makes living in poverty a bit less difficult and much more hopeful.

That being said, as one member of the Board of Directors said at a meeting shortly after the typhoons: “These are our people who lost their homes; we have to do something!” I recall heads nodding around the room as the Board designated $1.5 million from our Endowment Fund to provide immediate emergency assistance to the many sponsored families who found themselves with nothing.

In addition, we received some excellent corporate donations, notably from the Fresh Produce clothing and CrocsTM shoes companies, which we were able to ship expediently to those in need.

Many concerned sponsors also sent additional contributions for special purchases that also went a long way toward making recovery faster for so many that were hurting.

So…that’s one big reason I’m here. I want to see for myself the typhoon destruction and what we’re doing to address it.

I landed in Legaspi and met with Zaldy and Pio Salvador, the director of the Tabaco agency. Pio made Children International history with his cell phone and text messaging in the aftermath of the storm!

My plane landed in the middle of a torrential downpour—it was interesting crossing the tarmac with the airline-issued umbrella doing its best to keep me dry…in vain, unfortunately. But Zaldy and Pio felt like I brought the rain and I was dubbed a hero for doing so, as it was sorely needed in the rice paddies in this heavily agriculture-dependent region!

After reviewing the plan for my visit, I ducked out of the rain and into the hotel, eager to get going in the morning.


My first full day in the Bicol area began with a glance out the hotel window to check on Mount Mayon…and it was beautiful to behold. The plume of smoke it was emitting and the rings of clouds adorning it were rose-colored in the early morning light. I snapped a picture that I hope turns out.

After a quick breakfast in the hotel, I met up with Zaldy and some staff and we headed over to the Children International office. The office is in one of our new community centers and it is good space, much improved from the cramped quarters of years prior. The center had just been opened when the typhoon of last fall hit, testing some of the construction. It held up remarkably well, but the roof was damaged and has since been repaired.

We traveled a short distance to see where the river channel from the lahar flow (lahar being the mud and sand and rock from previous volcano eruptions) devoured everything in its path. Everything included a lot of houses, only apparent now by seeing the tops of them, the rest having been filled in by the simply unimaginable amount of “stuff” that came roaring down the mountain on the tragic day back in November.

Besides the enormous quantity of the volcanic black sand and gravel, I was taken with the number and size of boulders that were also carried down the mountain – some as big as Volkswagens.

I talked to an enterprising young man at the scene who was selling postcards of various past eruptions of Mayon and the recent typhoon aftermath. He mentioned that he had been living nearby and lost his mother and a sister. A story I would hear too much on this day.

As we looked up the now-wide volcanic, black sand and gravel river channel, Zaldy pointed out a house. Only the top floor of what was a two-story house could be seen. He said that below that house, after the typhoon, a person’s moaning could be heard for a week. Rescuers dug frantically trying to get to the sound.

At this point in Zaldy’s story I was really hoping for a happy ending…I didn’t get it. They never found the person, who became another of the 600 victims who were buried by the lahar racing down the mountain and were just never heard from again.

Looking at it all, I tried to imagine the sheer terror and horror one would have experienced while witnessing it. My imagination isn’t that good…or bad. But it had to be the most violent, noisy, world-twisting, hell-on-earth that any of the survivors and the ones who died, had ever seen.

That’s all I have time for now. In my next post I’ll talk more about Durian and the way it has affected our sponsored families.

For more photos of Jim's visit to the Philppines, check out his photo album and listen as Jim talks about his trip.


Maria B. - Delaware said...

This is where my sponsored child, Mary Jane lives, and so I am very excited to see the rest of the pictures from Jim's trip. I love to be able to see the country where she lives, and to see what my sponsorship provides.

Lori R said...

Jim - It's always good to read your blogs! It adds so much to the sponsorship experience. Thank you! I sponsor a girl in the Philippines, but luckily not in the main path of Durian last year. But it's still close enough to be affected, and it's troubling to think this happens often. Thank you for this personal touch that we may never otherwise experience. God bless you.

Roy said...

Please pass my thanks on to the people that do the work on the ground

Anonymous said...

yeah!!! 3 cheers for the field workers.... ...good job u guys , u are there day in day out for the kids!
u all deserve a medal!!