Wednesday, June 27, 2007

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

Part Two

After witnessing the terrible impact of Typhoon Durian, it was a most pleasant diversion to stop and meet my 6-year-old sponsored child, Jonnalyn, and her mom here in Legaspi. She’s a charmer, and we had a nice chat, although my “strangeness” did make her understandably a bit shy. The staff had also made it possible for me to visit the sponsored child of a family friend in Kansas City. The friend was concerned about her child since the typhoon…as were many sponsors. After a brief visit with her and her mother, I was on my way.

The Chief of Programs for the Legaspi group, Angie, mentioned that the problem with Typhoon Durian was the amount of rain it brought. She had heard it dumped “half a year’s rainfall” in six hours. I looked up a year’s rainfall for this area: 133 inches. About 65 inches in six hours?

I’m not sure if that’s possible, but I do know that in 1998, over a few days, Hurricane Mitch dumped about 70 inches on Honduras, the only other place I’d seen anything like what I was seeing today. And it would take an incredible amount of water and speed to move the large boulders I was seeing…so, yeah, I think maybe I’ll buy that it was a half a year’s rainfall in six hours.

We then traveled to an area nearby called an “evacuation center.” This is where many of the sponsored families who lost their homes had been relocated on a temporary basis. There I saw many people living in tents, but more encouraging was what Children International’s contribution of approximately $200 of plywood, two-by-fours and corrugated sheet metal could do for a sponsored family and how that could become a surprisingly good shelter.

The other thing that surprised me was the spirit and positive attitude I saw in the people in this center. People whose lives had been changed forever in a nine-hour period.

One of the sponsorship program’s “volunteer coordinators” named Ambet showed us around. She is a delightful woman…so sweet and smiling…so typical of Filipinos. She, like so many people I met there, was effusive in thanking us for all we’d done. On the contrary, I thought, it was these people who had done so much…not the least of which was to once again humble me in the presence of such quiet strength.

Almost everyone we met had a dramatic story to tell. One couple had lost two children, ages 10 and 15. Once again, something I can’t even imagine. Angie also mentioned how, in the hours and days after the storm, it was so heartrending to see people staggering around with black eyes, bruises and lacerations inflicted by this killer storm.

Another young man named J.R. had suffered an injury that had left one leg in a permanently contracted position. Fortunately, he is scheduled for surgery, which our staff coordinated. That, I expect and hope, will be a happy ending, some painful physical therapy notwithstanding.

We then traveled a couple hundred yards to the site of where we hope to build 120 homes for those now living in the evacuation center. The local Governor had stated that the goal for permanent relocation should be the closest available safe site. Zaldy explained that Children International in Legaspi agrees with this goal—so he had identified some land nearby which the owner made available at a most favorable price.

Zaldy was excited because it has electricity, water and best of all, the people will not feel displaced…they will remain in their same neighborhood, surrounded by familiar places and people, able to continue jobs they had before the typhoon. Too often, we see people relocated to distant areas where they feel very alienated…causing them to return and become “squatters” in their previous location, preferring familiarity to comfort.

Here, they will enjoy both. Along with a new house, assuming we can find the money to build them.

After visiting a few other families, Zaldy handed us off to his counterpart in our Tabaco agency, Pio. Pio’s the new guy on the block as far as Filipino CI directors go, having “only” been with the program for three years. But he’s doing a great job, and once again underscores the value of injecting a fresh perspective and energy into a program.

Pio and a few staff took me to the newly completed community center outside of Tabaco. On my last visit in 2006, construction was underway but a long way from finished. It was inaugurated last September, only to have the first typhoon visit it a week later. Then Durian came calling in November and really did some damage to it.

But they’ve rebuilt where needed, in many ways better, and it looks great today. The children and their parents who were there when I visited spoke of how much they loved and appreciated the new center. It was beyond their dreams, they said.

Pio and crew also took us to visit some families whose houses were damaged or destroyed in the typhoon. Again, I was impressed with what they were able to construct with $200 and “sweat equity,” as they call the work provided by the families themselves. I say $200 – but when I asked Pio to confirm that they spent an average of about $200 on materials for what I was seeing, he corrected me by saying they only spent an average of $192! Okay, I was being recklessly imprecise. We have emphasized accountability so much over the last 20 years, I should not be surprised at such a response.

We then saw two “multi-purpose centers” that had been built since the typhoon. Unlike the larger community centers, these small centers serve fewer children and are much more modest.

But don’t tell that to the volunteer mothers who are running them! They couldn’t be prouder of these simple but effective delivery centers. Here, doctors and dentists can visit and perform their exams and children can be fed while others write letters to sponsors. Also, gift distributions such as Special Hug and Christmas gifts are delivered at these centers.

It was great meeting those moms, even though they invariably offered some of their “local flavor” dishes for a snack. Little wonder I wasn’t needing supper after the visits of the afternoon—nothing like leaf-wrapped rice or fried banana to spoil an appetite!

Adjacent to the last center was a school in which 80 percent of the children are sponsored. I met with the principal, who first thanked me for our past support and then appealed for chemistry and biology textbooks. I promised to see what I could do and am confident I (WE!) can do something to meet that need.

As it was late in the afternoon, the children had been dismissed from school but most were still playing and socializing on the large playground. Someone suggested a picture, and one of the volunteer leaders shouted across the playground for all the sponsored children to come get in the picture. I knew terror at that moment I saw myself being stampeded by hundreds of well-meaning students! I urged Juvy, the photographer, to shoot quickly and she did. Crisis averted.

After a few good-byes, we headed back to Legaspi. On the way home, we were near Mount Mayon and the many streams that drain its slopes. It is a beautiful sight from about any perspective, but I concluded, after what I seen on this day, that it is a natural beauty best viewed and inhabited from afar…and those families who put their roots down too close to that beauty can pay a price as steep as the mountain herself.

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


Anonymous said...

I love reading about Jims travels , its always so inspiring, and at the same time he keeps it interesting and humerous , cant wait for the next episode!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first blogger....Jim's writing of the travels to our sponsored children and their countries makes me feel like I'm there with him. Thanks Jim for being a terrific leader and representative for all of us.

I was particularly interested in this story since my child is Fillipino. The pictures and story gave me a much better sense of the country and the people. THANKS again Jim!

So where can we get a CI shirt like Jims??? He had so many different color choices! Why not make them available to purchase on-line with some of the proceeds going into one of the CI funds for special projects. It would be a great tool for telling our friends and neighbors about sponsorship.Just imagine me wearing a CI shirt at the local Royals or Chiefs games....or at little league/socceer games!

Jennifer said...

Aren't the shirts great?

We are in the process of building an online store where shirts and other Children International merchandise will be available. Check our website,, in November.

Thanks for your interest!