PLUS Project, 2007
Philippines – Learning, Understanding, and Service
This May marked the second trip for the PLUS Program. Accompanying me this time were four SU students, Greg Trunz, Kate Haldeman, Megan Scott, and John Crouch. Also, former SU employee Steve Satterlee joined us on this, another exciting and eye-opening experience in the Philippines. With thanks for all the generous donations of those who support us, and the hard work of those who went, this was a very productive year.
Rovie Lyn Clemente holding her little sister Angeline
One of the things about life in the Philippines is that the best laid plans are subject to sudden change. Frankly, this does not sit well with my fussy German nature, so I have learned to roll with the punches. This year, I was greeted with news that our proposed construction project would have to be canceled. We had planned on building a community center, or pavilion, at the sugarcane plantation so the workers and their families would have a clean place to spend the day out of the sun or rain. My grand plan included plastic chairs and tables, along with shelves stocked with children’s books and chess sets. Well, it turned out that the owner of the plantation did not want his workers living in so much comfort, as it might attract others to his land. And he did not want to have to worry about leveling the structure in a few years when he sells the property.
Needless to say, we were disappointed. We were still able to provide the families there with food, clothing, medication, mosquito nets, and toys, but we would have to look elsewhere for a new project. Fortunately, Father Angelito Pusikit, a Roman Catholic priest who lives and works with the poor (a genuine “people’s priest”) had some proposals for us. We took him up on his first suggestion: The Clemente family consists of five siblings, their children, and a cousin or two, who all live together. Thirty five people in total, they live on the bank of a creek in a house they have slowly built over the past five year. I suppose that might sound nice, until one realizes that the bank is nearly vertical and the creek is full of raw sewage. The impressive structure they have built there is only about 15’X50’ and two stories tall. What makes matters difficult is the flooding that happens during the rainy season when a typhoon hits. The creek rises from about 12 inches deep to about 12 feet deep, entering their first floor and forcing the children to seek shelter at the house of their neighbor (actually Neneth’s aunt, Ate Gaya). Last year, the storm undermined some of their home’s foundation, and washed away part of the house itself. This placed the entire structure in danger of being washed away during the next flood.
The Clemente’s home, with part of the new wall in the foreground.
Father Angel suggested that our project could be to help this family rebuild their home and erect a stone wall that would redirect the water during the next typhoon season. He went on to explain to us that this family had impressed him with their willingness to work hard in order to help and support one another. While only four of the men held full-time jobs, in construction or house-painting (earning about $5 per day), the others worked whatever part-time jobs they could find; the women prepared food each day to sell on the streets, and they had established a little shop on the corner of their lot to sell snacks and kitchen supplies. And, as we discovered later, even the children knew how to help. (I can still picture 10-year old Crystal mixing a big pile of cement with a shovel for her dad and uncles to use.)
And so we set about helping the Clementes to fortify their home. On our second day in the slightly warmer climate of the tropical Philippines, we got to work, and there was plenty of grunt work to do. There were tons of sand to be moved, and several tons of rocks to be carried from the street down to the construction site. While rain water can make sand heavier, it also feels good when working in weather approaching both 100 degrees and 100% humidity. And working right alongside us were the Clemente kids, as young as seven, carrying rocks and helping where they could – not for a few minutes for the fun of working with the foreigners, but until the job was done for the sake of the family. The men of the family then did the more technical work of building the wall.
Rovie Lyn’s turn to be held.
There was other work to do there as well: there were some English and Math lessons for the kids, and tending to children’s cuts and scrapes: Eight-year old Kristin was crying one morning when we arrived. She had just cut her foot on a rusty nail. Here in the States, such an incident is dealt with by heading to the doctor’s office for a stitch and a tetanus booster. Then, the child can just wear shoes and socks for a couple days. That simply is not an option for folks like the Clementes. They placed one layer of gauze (no, not a piece, but one layer of a piece) over the cut and held it there with masking tape. Not owning shoes, she put her flip-flops back on. We were able to clean out the cut with alcohol wipes and antibacterial ointment and put a good bandaid on her heel. The next day we could do the same again, and the cut looked to be healing up well.
The day before we left, we invited the entire Clemente family to Jollibee (the favorite fast-food restaurant of Filipinos… and me) for a surprise birthday party for Steve, who the kids called “Big Joe.” It was a wonderful finale to our time together; as we could all enjoy spaghetti, fried chicken, and dalandan juice (like Lemonade) together in the air-conditioned restaurant. The kids sang happy birthday, gave him cards they had made, and even a few hugs. The next morning we said our goodbyes, amidst a few tears.
Good grief! Is that kid in every picture?
While most of our time in Lipa City was spent working with the Clementes, we were also able to visit with others as well. This year we distributed over 6000 pounds of rice, which brings our all-time total to more than 20,000 pounds. Clothes and food were distributed to families as well, along with some money to pay for school tuition and supplies. Aiza Larosa’s father is a carpenter, and makes about $5 per day. However, she is going to community college this year with money for books and other expenses, thanks to contributions made to this program. She wants to be a teacher when she graduates. I promised her that we would continue to pay for her education as long as she passes all her classes. I think she will.
After leaving Lipa City, we visited Taal Volcano. The gentlemen in the group hiked to the top while the ladies rode Filipino horses. There was a moment of surprise when Megan’s guide jumped on the horse with her and the two galloped on ahead. This led, of course, to all sorts of teasing later on about her romantic rendezvous with the Filipino horseman. This was also the group’s first experience with Filipinos in a tourist destination, where we are seen mostly as walking dollar signs. Still, aside from my sunburn and Greg’s vertigo, it was a good day.
There was also a quick visit to Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, where my old graduate school colleague Revelation Velunta is teaching. We were given a tour of the impressive seminary grounds and a synopsis of the intimidation, abuse, and extra-judicial killing that is being directed toward activist clergy in the Philippines today.
Then it was on to Manila. While there, we helped out at the Kanlungan sa ER-MA ministry in the red light district of Malate. This is a shelter for street children and young victims of sexual abuse. In the midst of such poverty and abuse, Kanlungan is a haven for these children. The shelter provides for all their needs, including their education. The devoted staff work hard and are committed to helping the children; and there are volunteers, like one young man from the US Embassy who comes weekly to tutor the children. While the living conditions would shock many Americans – 15 girls share a room the size of a typical bedroom in the States – they are immeasurably preferable to the poverty and abuse these children would otherwise live with. They are also able to make a little money by making greeting cards on recycled paper, which they then sell to visitors and others.
While at Kanlungan we did some painting (which is a bit messy when a gaggle of children decide they want to help), piano lessons, repair work, and a lot of playing with kids. There was basketball outside with the older boys and music and games inside with the others… and soap operas in the afternoon, which Kate and Megan felt compelled to watch with the older girls, even if they couldn’t understand the dialogue. (It must be some genetic thing.)
Spending time at this shelter left me with the impression that the children and staff gave us much more than what we brought. However, the financial gifts we have been able to make (Thank you, Justin), along with the time spent with the children, do make an important difference in these children’s lives. What impressed me the most was the staff, men and women who have committed their lives to working with children like these.
Who is helping who?
For people coming to Manila, there are certain tourist destinations to visit. The students were able to see Corregidor and Fort Santiago, but there is one place I know none of us will ever forget: Smokey Mountain. Some of you may be familiar with the infamous trash dump known around the world as “Smokey Mountain” that was leveled several years back. However, right next door there is a new one developing. While some of us had seen massive trash dumpsites before, we had never seen any with thousands of inhabitants. These folks spend their days foraging through the trash, looking for something to salvage and sell. A security guard forbade us from taking pictures of one group of children and teenagers who were breaking apart the remains of a concrete building with small hammers, trying to extract the metal rebar from the cement so it could be sold. Experiences like these defy words, but allow me to share one student’s observations:
“I have been trying pretty hard since our trip to [Smokey Mountain] to think of any instance in my life in which I witnessed worse living conditions. The roads as well as the floors of the homes were mud, the odor was foul enough to make one gag, the homes were comprised of little more than tin and rotting wood and they were packed so tightly that it was difficult to discern one from the other. Children ran around half naked and one could find burning piles of garbage in every direction. My first thought when we rolled in … was that most Americans would be appalled if their dogs lived under such conditions.”
Smokey Mountain, part 2
When I arrived back home, people asked how the trip went. I usually replied, “It was tiring, but it went well.” It was indeed tiring, but we were able to accomplish a great deal. In addition to the invaluable cultural experience that we all shared, we were once again able to make a significant difference in the lives of people who live in abject poverty. You have all read about people who live on less than a dollar per day. We spent time meeting, speaking, eating, laughing, and crying with them. They are just like you and me. Because of the generosity of so many of you, we were also able to help them in many ways. Some of you donated clothes, shoes, or medicine. Others provided us with the funds to feed families, buy mosquito nets, rebuild homes, and send kids to school.
And as I finish this report, I feel the same sentiment as Analyn Clemente-Rupuesto, the 32 year old mother who walked up to me on our last day with her family and said, with tears in her eyes, “I don’t know how to say thank you.” Neither do I.