How to help kids affected by Yolanda; it changed me

Rupert Ambil

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How to help kids affected by Yolanda; it changed me
'During the course of our discussion, I felt like a pupil being taught the virtue of patience: that there are no small deeds, only good intentions'

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – I have put off writing about Yolanda since my last assignment in November. I have been covering disasters since the beginning of my career in broadcasting and have been at most major news events since 2005.

I have seen, death, despair, sorrow and a wide array of human emotions in my news coverage experience. In all of those times I have found a way to deal with them and to cope so that whenever I come home to my family, I do not carry with me the extra baggage. I tell myself, it’s all part of the job.

It was that way with me until Typhoon Yolanda devastated the place where I spent most summers and holidays as a child, where my friends and most of my relatives live – a place I call home.

The tarmac, which I had repeatedly walked on for 30-plus years, bore almost no resemblance to the tarmac I saw that day. It was different from the tarmac in my memory except maybe for the runway, which was the only thing that remained intact. The fear that gripped me was probably a preview of what lay ahead.

My mind raced with so many questions that demanded answers I would soon find to my dismay. Why was there no news yet about what happened? Where were our colleagues? What has the government done to remedy the situation?

24 hours after Yolanda swept through the country, I was walking the streets of Tacloban, searching for answers, my heart pounding, while at the same time trying to do my job and keeping my emotions in check. The experience was surreal and everything I witnessed that day overwhelmed me. I could not believe that the story I was telling would not get any better; it was bound to get worse.

What a pain it was to be a witness to incompetence in all aspects of response to this tragedy. It was painful to see how such failure removed what dignity was left of the dead that were already beginning to show early signs of decay. It was painful to witness the sick and the injured seeking refuge in hospitals that eventually ran out of medicines and supplies, and the survivors who walked aimlessly through the chaos to find loved ones.

DESTRUCTION. San Jose, Tacloban City.

It was emotionally taxing for everyone on coverage. One of our reporters asked how I managed to work amid all the destruction and the smell of rotting flesh. In reply, I told her it was our obligation to tell the world what happened and how it was our responsibility to those who lost their lives and those fighting to continue living to do our job and to do it well. She confided that she felt we were not doing enough.

There was a general feeling of guilt that we could not do more than just tell their stories because in truth, there was so much that needed to be done. And there is still a lot left to be done TODAY. It was not just the journalists who felt the same way. The aid workers, volunteers, and soldiers of other nationalities shared the heartbreak that we could not do enough.

HELP. US military installation in Tacloban Airport, November 21, 2013.

‘Yolanda changed me’

There was a downpour on my last day of assignment in Tacloban and as I was waiting for the aircraft that would take me back to Manila, I could not help but take it all in – what little was left of the airport terminal and the water everywhere. I kept telling myself that I was used to this, that it did not bother me one bit and I looked forward to seeing my wife and children. Coming home to my family was a respite from all the grief and despair but I was hounded by guilt for leaving when things were still bad. Yolanda changed me.

Once in Manila, I told my wife that we needed to do something for the people there, that we cannot wait for the government to help those who are in need. We have to find a way to make a difference in their lives. We agreed that we should start with the children first because they are the most helpless. I believe that getting them back to school would help them recover from the trauma. Lessons and play in school would give them a sense of normalcy.

Everyone who wanted to help was marketing their efforts to donors not only here in the Philippines, but to the international community as well. How could we compete with that? We incorporated a non-profit organization and named it #Project110813. I asked a fraternity brother who is from Palo, Leyte to be part of the group. He committed to take care of, and find relief efforts for, Leyte. I would focus on finding aid and livelihood opportunities for Samar.

We began by convincing our friends, our officemates, our family to help us. Our first idea was to sell shirts, with the proceeds being used to provide school shirts for the kids in Yolanda-ravaged communities. The concept was simple: buy a shirt for P500, you donate 3 white school shirts for the kids. If you didn’t want to keep the shirt, you could donate it to the teacher. We had enough to produce 50 shirts and test our concept…We sold everything in a matter of days and were able to raise funds to buy 150 school shirts for the kids.

FOR KIDS. First shirt distribution at Barangay Cogon Elementary School on May 30, 2014.

The timing could not be more perfect because it was summer and it was a good time for us as a family to come home to the province. We already knew which school to help, thanks in part to a local from Guiuan.

Barangay Cogon Elementary school had 204 enrollees and barely a few days before the official opening of classes last June, the only thing they had for a classroom was a tent. It was 6 months after Yolanda and they were still using a tent donated by UNHCR for a makeshift classroom. In spite of their classrooms having no roofs and all school structures being badly damaged, they were grateful for what they had. Living in a province ranked third among the poorest in the country, public school pupils from this barangay are the children of farmers and fisherfolk. They are from low-income families and have lost most of what they had in the storm.

Our visit to Barangay Cogon proved to us there is more we can do. Upon arrival at the school, we were greeted by the principal, Corazon Duran, a small woman with a big smile on her face and what seemed an infinite amount of patience and understanding, given her 24 years in early education. The faculty was also there on a weekend, fixing and readying their classrooms and supplies, trying to repair broken chairs with what little they had. The parents had brought their kids and knew there was something good for them. Just seeing them so excited made everything worth it.

Tent classrooms 

A month after Yolanda, these children’s classes were held in classrooms that only had tarps as roofs. And when it rained, they had to move to a part of the room that was most dry. Principal Duran wept as she recounted how all her strength seemed to leave her when she saw the children’s clothes drenched because their classrooms did not have roofs.

Despite this, the kids wanted to go back to school. But one student cried when it would not stop raining, while another one ran home thinking there was another storm coming. UNHCR eventually provided them with a tent where they could hold classes. While it was not big enough for all of them to fit in, they were grateful just the same.

The tent would serve its purpose during the rainy season. But when it was sunny, it got too hot for the kids inside, that most of them ended up getting sick. So they created a schedule that allowed for a rotation of classes in the tent. It was all they had when we first visited the school in the last week of May.

Upon the advice of the teachers, we personally distributed the shirts to the students. When I handed the first shirt to a kid, he smiled and said thank you. It was then that I understood why they wanted us to hand out the shirts to the children ourselves. That personal connection could never be replaced by just something on paper or by merely providing material things. The sincerity in the gesture, the smiles after the exchange, and the simple words of “thank you” and “welcome” made a world of difference.

I felt bad that we lacked 54 shirts to complete the enrollees this school year. We only had 150 shirts at the time and promised Principal Duran and the teachers that we would be back to complete the distribution. I came back last July 28, the day of the President’s State of the Nation Address.

I was expecting them to be preoccupied with what the President had to say, but it seemed I was the only one expecting something big from the yearly speech given at the Batasan. I saw a small building being constructed and 5 temporary classrooms being used. The old structures were still being used despite having a tarp as roof. It was already an improvement since my visit almost two months ago.

Gift of patience

We went straight to the kindergarten class. The smiles and the sound of the morning greeting made me feel there was nothing wrong in this world. I saw in their eyes the hope of the next generation, the promise of something better in the future. I realized why the teachers in these schools strive so hard to keep the school running despite the many challenges they face, Yolanda included. They are here not for themselves but for these children.

After distributing the shirts, I saw the first batch of shirts that we distributed being worn by the students. The shirts were a bit worn out, but the kids proudly showed me that they were wearing what we gave them.

After getting a brief tour of the school, Principal Duran and I sat down to talk about the developments that would take place in the school and the welfare of her pupils. I inquired about the rehabilitation plans of the Department of Education for the damaged classrooms. To which she happily replied, “Construction will start in August and will be funded through PAGCOR.”

Principal Duran and other teachers preparing for the start of classes.

Upon hearing this, I had to suppress my frustration and disappointment but asked anyway about how she felt about the government taking a long time to respond to their needs. She smiled the smile of a person used to waiting, and told me they are not the only school in dire need of the government’s help, and that maybe the reason for the delay was that there are a lot more other pressing concerns that demanded more immediate attention.

In her 24 years of teaching in the public school system, she has learned the art of being patient when dealing with government. I did not press further. I felt embarrassed about feeling so angry when she could find no reason to get frustrated or to complain. At the end of our conversation, she said, “Every bit of help, no matter how small, goes a long way. The kids are happy and they are encouraged to learn. Absenteeism and dropouts are lessened when they see people helping out. They are inspired to go to school.”

In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda, only a small number of children had any interest in going back to school. They had nothing to go back to. But because of the parents’ and teachers’ initiative to rebuild the school and the donations from international aid agencies, local NGOs and private individuals, they became hopeful again.

It got the kids excited to go back to school. With so little being done compared to the magnitude of the destruction, they are thankful nonetheless for what has been given them. 

SMILES. There is hope amid destruction.

During the course of our discussion, I felt like a pupil being taught the virtue of patience: that there are no small deeds, only good intentions. That I should not be frustrated with the slow pace of government in its relief efforts because rest assured, the teachers will do their jobs to mentor the next generation, no matter what.

I’ve learned that to inspire children to continue looking ahead and moving forward, all it takes is a gesture of goodwill and a willingness to help, even one shirt at a time. –

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