It all started more than a dozen years ago. I was staying in the old downtown area of Manila known as the Ermita. I awoke just after sunrise and realized I needed some cash for my travels later in the day. I exited the hotel and turned down the first alley to get to the main street. Halfway down the narrow alley, I noticed a pile of rags on my left about a foot and half tall. I thought nothing of it at first. Some people would say Manila is one big pile of litter. As I passed the pile of rags, I noticed it wasn’t rags at all but about five or six street children. They were all huddled like a litter of puppies lying on top of each other sound asleep. They were clearly exhausted from being up all night begging from the tourists. Where was their mother? Where were the police? I knew there was no welfare system in Philippines, but this was shocking! In a Western country, the mother would’ve been put in jail and the children put in foster care. Having traveled throughout Southeast Asia, this was the worst I had seen in many years. I was angry.
As an ex-international business teacher, I knew very well why the Philippines had fallen behind the rest of the region economically and now had Southeast Asia’s highest misery index. I had spent a couple of summers in Manila and knew what was going on. The free market that had accelerated growth in neighboring developing economies had not arrived in the Philippines. The main reason was that corrupt government kleptocrats controlled by Chinese and Spanish oligarchs were making it very difficult for foreign investment to come to the Philippines. The wealthy elite conspired to keep out foreign competition and were carving up the markets for themselves. As a result, the economy was stagnant. Most of the population was being kept impoverished and forced to work for wages so low that the best and brightest had to leave the country. The Asian Development Bank had been headquartered in Manila for forty years. Charged with solving these problems, their lavish offices are just a few blocks from one of the worst slums in Manila. The ADB is still there and the slum is still there. I knew why the Philippines was still poor when its neighbors were thriving. In the end, however, what good would my anger do for those street kids? That morning I walked on, but I couldn’t forget what I saw.
Fortunately, a few months later I found a direct way to help at least some street children. Through a friend, I discovered the Santo Nino Center for boys in Liloan, Cebu, and their sister orphanage for girls, Our Lady of Divine Providence Home in Talisay. I was impressed with the dedication of Brother Arturo at Santo Nino Center. They were at capacity with 36 boys. The orphanage was located near the beach and they take the boys there regularly. Before each visit, I would swing by the discount supermarket and load up a taxi with 50 kilo bags of rice, large cans of corned beef and other canned goods, bags of sugar, cartons of powdered milk, and anything else they might need.
Sister Corazon Riconalla was the mother superior at the girls’ orphanage. Her degree was in social work. She was authorized to have 50 children but had 54. I observed her over a number of visits. Her management skills were superb. The facility was so clean you could eat off the floors. The girls all appeared to be happy and smiling. Over the years, Sister Cora and I became good friends. I would pay a visit two or three times a year and sit down with Sister Cora and usually Sister Mila, her office manager. She would tell me how things were going and what problems they were facing at that time. Usually their problems were of a minor nature and were nothing that a few hundred dollars wouldn’t solve. The children attended the local public schools. Sometimes they would be a little short of money for uniforms and supplies. I was happy to help. Over the years I have brought many friends and family members there as well. They have all generously helped.
On one of my first visits, when I asked Sister Corazon what she needed, she told me she had to buy more piglets and she needed money for both the piglets and their feed. It seems that in order to supplement the girls’ diet, they had set up a piggery in one corner of their property. They would feed the piglets for about four months and then have a local person come in and slaughter them. Filipinos eat the whole pig, including the squeal.
On my next visit, the girls and the sisters eagerly led me to the pen to show me that my piglets were doing well. Later, as Sister Cora and I sat on the front steps, several of the younger girls came over and sang a little concert for me as a way of saying thanks. They started off with I Have the Spirit in My Heart, and finished with a rousing rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The concert was well worth four piglets and enough to melt the heart of an old Asia traveler.
Occasionally, their problems were of a much greater magnitude. Typhoon Yolanda, also known as Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country’s eastern seaboard on November 8, 2013, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 6,300 deaths. A couple of months earlier a major earthquake hit the nearby island of Bohol. The earthquake put some cracks in the walls of the main building at the orphanage, and the typhoon blew away the atrium covering the patio between the two buildings. Before the repairs could be made, they needed an engineer to confirm that the building was safe.
Fortunately, I had recruited my good friend Will a few years earlier. Will was a retired insurance executive living part of the year in Thailand. For a few years, he had been making regular visits with me to Our Lady of Divine Providence. He agreed Sister Cora was an excellent manager and this was a wonderful way to bypass all of the bureaucracy connected with most charities and make sure the money went directly to help the children. Will and I sat down with the sisters and developed budget to make sure the building was safe and to replace the atrium. We were pleased to see the repairs had been done on our next visit. Unfortunately, shortly after that visit, Sister Cora was transferred to Mindanao to open a new children’s home. For health reasons, I am unable to travel there anymore. I look back on this project as one of the most satisfying times in my life.
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