Updated: Mar 17, 2018
Reflecting on a trip back to a country that changed my life - the Philippines - and the organization that made it possible.
I left Project Leyte in October 2015 after almost a year both volunteering and working for All Hands Volunteers. It was my first project, and typically – like so many others – my initial prediction of staying a couple months was immediately dumped in favour of extending… and extending some more.
Without sounding too melodramatic that first project truly did alter the course of my life and I just knew I had to go back one day. That time came last week when my girlfriend, Evelyn (who I met on project) and I returned to Tacloban.
We stayed, of course, at Yellow Doors Hostel where Jacques and Trixie, who ran the hostel and the infamous Mobile Bar welcomed us ‘home’. It was fantastic to catch up with this wonderful pair, who helped AHV in so many varying ways during the project’s time.
Revisiting each project and walking the streets of Tacloban brought back a flood of happy memories. It was truly special to wander back into 83-C where we built 42 permanent homes and see each one still standing strong with many, many happy homeowners.
At the likes of the Inte family’s house we were warmly welcomed in and promptly fed dried fish and rice, while when we visited the Macatalad household we were amazed to see the extension they had built. Nancy greeted us with astonishment and gifted us two small homemade purses. Their generous nature had not changed during our absence.
There was further emotion when we visited the home of the elderly Hilario Espino and his wife. He continued to stun us with his amazing English and further tug at our heartstrings when he pulled out his All Hands book on how to care for the house and a list of names of all those who worked there. He reflected to us how without the organization he and his family would not even be here today.
There were a lot of visits we felt compelled to make while in Tacloban and one was of course back to our old base in Utap. Guided by the legendary beer ladies Gina and Ofelia we wandered round the old rooms and corridors reminiscing and laughing together. It seems the building will now become a hostel. All Hands reunion and takeover anyone?
We also drove through Magallanes to visit the Barangay Improvement Program projects. I squeezed in a terrible 3-pointer attempt on the still beautiful basketball court, while the rainbow barangay hall greeted us on our first visit - what a breath-taking sight. Still in good condition stood the chapel and both day care centres, but sadly the playground was overgrown and no longer in use.
Everywhere we went people would happily greet us and recognize my All Hands Project Leyte t-shirt with gratitude. It was clear the organization has left a happy and positive footprint throughout Tacloban.
Leaving Magallanes we headed for Santo Nino where we had previously built transitional homes and a transitional kindergarten. It was also where many of our old local staff lived such as the laundry ladies – Delia and Eufemia – and our driver – Allan. All three were stunned to see us there with Delia’s reaction best as she shouted out our names and ran down the street to us.
Interestingly both projects here met different ends. The transitional homes are no longer in use with everyone having moved into permanent homes. A positive conclusion for residents but it seems sad that these adequate
homes, though they would now need some sprucing up, are not being used at all. The kindergarten is still in use, though it is now cramped in next to the concrete buildings of the school.
Another visit was across the San Juanico Bridge to Calampong in Samar where All Hands responded to Typhoon Ruby and began building boats for this cut off community. Picked up by Rosalie and her beautiful family on their All Hands boat was a fitting moment. Much like Tacloban, wandering round here brought back so many memories as we visited our old base, the boatyard, and saw so many of the beneficiaries. Fortunately, we can report back that practically all the boats built and repaired by AHV are still in use with many delighted owners using them. We were even greeted by one, who ran up to us in the street to thank us for our efforts and for coming back to see them.
Unfortunately, the legendary Jindra who worked so hard on our boat building projects and the evacuation center in Hernani was not there at this time.
However, we were able to meet her back in Tacloban for breakfast and a good catch up. She still retained that winning sense of humor and it was amazing to see her again.
While our journey here was exciting and every reunion was special, there remained a tinge of sadness spliced throughout each visit. Practically every family or local staff member we visited had nothing but positive words for us and messages of gratitude, but each admitted openly that their financial troubles continue.
This wasn’t intended for pity but simply honesty with friends and I must admit it was difficult to accept. All Hands Volunteers has provided refuge, hope, homes, boats and so much, but still the hardships in many ways do continue. This is not a criticism of our wonderful organization but simply a recognition that for our beneficiaries and old staff that their lives remain a battle and that they have seen and witnessed things we can barely begin to imagine.
I am reminded of something my own father wrote about me to All Hands Volunteers in that every parent wishes in many ways for them to be better than themselves. And this too is particularly evident in all the communities we worked in. Understandably, their hope is that their children can make something of themselves to ease their financial concerns and better the world.
Leaving Tacloban again was a hard moment, but I know that so long as I visit the Philippines I will continue to go back there, simply to share in those smiles, listen to people’s stories, reminisce on what was a life changing place for me and show each person there that they have had just as big an impact on us volunteers as we had on them.