“do small things with great love.” – mother theresa
It’s taken me awhile to want to write about volunteering on the island of Leyte where typhoon Haiyan (also called Yolanda) hit the Philippines. When we left the project I felt a bit down and it was hard for me to shake the funk I’d been in. Last year when I was volunteering in Haiti I couldn’t help but feel happy working side by side with the families who’s new homes we were building. There was so much excitement and anticipation as you helped to build new walls and put on a roof and eventually splash on some bright paint. Juxtapose that with almost a year later digging through rubble and smashing down walls, pulling out stuffed animals and clothes and school papers. Its was a humbling experience to say the least. It was also a very good lesson. Everywhere you saw the word “bangon” which means rise up. I can’t imagine being so cheerful or hopeful after having much of your life turned upside down. But Filipinos will show you that it is possible and you will never see a more hopeful spirit and positive attitude from anyone.
As we deconstruct their collapsed homes they jump in to help (many times in flip flops and without protective gear), it’s the tools that many of them lack. The kids giggle and everyone waves to you and thanks you for helping them. They would insist we take breaks and bring us drinks and snacks (sometimes full meals) while we know that many are struggling to provide enough food for their families. Why is it that the people who have nothing seem to be the most generous?
Each day your assignment changed. Sometimes you would work on a school or a chapel, a home or a hospital. There were also food distributions into the community. Ezra was asked to do safety, which was the very necessary, but unsexy job of slowly figuring out how to bring down a structure without having it collapse on anyone. I know he felt a lot of pressure with this job, but as always I was very proud of the way he approached the task. It’s a lot easier to jump in with a sledgehammer and brute force, without a plan, than to meticulously bring down a wall and be mindful of your team. We took a course on humanitarian assistance a couple years back and it really opened our eyes to the process and organization that it takes to be successful and effective in the midst of a crisis or disaster zone. One may wonder why not just start rebuilding right away, but there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes which gives us a lot of respect and appreciation for organizations like All Hands. At a base level it’s easy to question the process, but they seem to keep the big picture in mind, and stay long after other organizations have left.
On one of our days off a bunch of us volunteers went to Tacloban where Haiyan made landfall. To say the damage was extensive is an understatement. I’ve never seen anything like it. All the palms, which are a main source of income, were down and huge swaths of land were completely decimated and littered with debris. Even so, as we drove through the countryside and into town on top of the jeepney kids yelled, “I love you” and everyone says “thank you for helping us.” A picture is worth a thousand words, so I will stop writing and show you what it looks like.
I’ve heard that with climate change we will continue to see extreme weather and the Philippines may be a place that will be worst effected. One little girl asked when I was coming back, and I said I wasn’t sure. She smiled, waved and said, “see you next Yolanda” and she may be absolutely right. When talking with a student he mentioned he wanted to play an instrument. I asked if he could learn at school and he said, “no, ma’am, we’re poor.” This was not an uncommon answer to simple questions about school and activities or holiday plans, and further demonstrates how different our upbringings are around the world. Sometimes when traveling it’s easy to see so much poverty and after awhile it begins to feel normal, and in much of the world it is. Going without electricity or running water starts to feel like no big deal, but easy for me to say. I can return to my life back home anytime I want. Seeing a disaster on top of these conditions is that much more devastating and seems to highlight the disparities in life. Why do many of us who have everything, seem to find reasons to complain about everything. Sometimes I wonder why don’t we take better care of each other. If I were in their position would I be so happy? Would I have as much grace and dignity and be as thankful. It’s a good reminder to keep a better perspective in life.
But I know these feelings are ultimately unproductive and there are a lot of individuals and organizations that are doing good work. In our project alone we had volunteers from a dozen countries get to the project with only 5 days notice. We worked six days a week and slept on the floor, took bucket showers and went without electricity – and had a great time. This was a magnet for wonderful people who came with nothing but good intentions. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a room with so many people who have such interesting stories and genuine concern for their fellow man. There are many friendships I feel lucky to take away from this experience.
This experience has created a lot of thoughts and feelings that are continuing to swirl. It seems unfair that people who are already struggling are also having to recover from an earthquake, and now this typhoon. There is a quote by someone (I can’t remember who) that more or less says you need to see suffering with your own eyes or it’s easy to look away. I find this to be true. We will never forget the people we met and the stories they’ve told. It’s impossible to leave the same person. I leave knowing that in many ways I am so incredibly lucky, it’s all just dumb luck. But I also leave knowing that they are lucky too and have something that many of us long for. They have a spirit and sense of community (called Bayanihan) and compassion that seems to be missing from many places around the world. This seems to make them resilient and keep the smile on their face.
Thank you to everyone who made a donation to All Hands. Ezra and I were very touched that our family and friends wanted to help too! Also, I did not take many photos and many of these pictures are from friends. Thanks for letting me share these!