2:00 AM, Bedroom
The alarm sounds and I am still awake.
I have to get ready for my trip and I haven’t had a minute of shut-eye yet.
3:41 AM, Gate 117, NAIA Terminal 3
I am waiting to board a plane, as part of a Johnson & Johnson team bringing “PLAY” back to Tacloban. I haven’t met the people I will be going with but I am here, excited just the same. I “won” this opportunity by donating toys to the cause. Little did I know that asking Keeto and Lucas to select toys to donate would lead me to this.
I always had this feeling that when the tragedy happened late last year—when the super typhoon Yolanda scattered devastation to some of the provinces in the Philippines—I did not do all that I could to help with the relief effort. I dug deep into my pockets and asked some friends to make sure my donation got to the groups that would actually use them to help out, and I made some efforts to also provide donations in kind. But I felt these efforts were not enough. I wanted to actually go and help out at Villamor, the closest I could get to actually getting involved, but when we already had a schedule, the government took over and moved operations. It was a big regret on my part.
Now this. Suddenly, I am part of a group bringing hope back to the children of Tacloban through “PLAY”. J&J built a playground, the first of its kind in Tacloban, in an elementary school, and today, is the inauguration. This is a dream come true, a regret I can erase. I might be 7 months late, but here I am still, on my way to actually making a difference.
8:30AM, Sagkahan Elementary School, Tacloban
There are a hundred or so Grade 1 kids and their parents and guardians under a big UNICEF covered tent when we arrive at the school, the rest are in their classrooms having normal classes. I get out my DSLR camera and start walking around taking images. I am able to talk to some parents and they share their Yolanda experiences. Most are shy to have their pictures taken but they talk openly. They talk of children who asked to be sent far away from Tacloban because they are scared of dying. They talk of seeing 1 floor structures submerged in water. They talk of recovery… They talk of hope.
I walk through the playground that was built by J&J in coordination with other agencies and I imagine it full of kids. The empty playground under the sun represents an Oasis from the harsh reality of what happened to the children and what they continue to struggle with.
10:00AM, Sagkahan Elementary School, Tacloban
The program starts and as the speakers explained the importance of kids having at least 1 hour of active play a day… and how play is a good therapy for the trauma experienced in the past, the kids only have their eyes on the playground.
The ribbon is cut and the kids stream to the playground. As part of the J&J contingent, we also give away the toys that have been amassed from donations. Most are stuffed toys and some of the boys didn’t want the cuddly items. Good thing there are Sponge Bob items donated as alternatives. There are many kids who did not fall in line asking for toys and I keep telling them to fall in line. I discover a bit later that they are not Grade 1 students, so not “eligible” to receive toys. Sadly, we leave the remaining boxes of toys with the Principal for further distribution to the PM Grade 1 students and the other kids.
I focus my attention on getting pictures of the kids playing. I am pleasantly surprised to see Lucas’ soft blocks being played with by a group of kids. Most of the toys we donated are not yet included in the group that was distributed today, but I was promised they will make their way to Tacloban’s kids. They were just to numerous and bulky to bring at this point. I was hoping I would be able to see a kid ride on Lucas’ favorite rocking and rolling horse or use Keeto’s beginner laptop…but the sight of the blocks being played with by a group of kids warmed my heart. Some of the kids pose readily for pictures and I managed to get some nice shots.
12:00PM, Leyte Country Club, Tacloban
Our group had lunch, and in this group, there are school officials, J&J colleagues, media people and bloggers. Surprisingly, I was interviewed. They asked me how I won the trip. This question gave me pause…I didn’t know really, I didn’t even ask. I don’t think I gave the most. I saw bigger boxes being donated. So I just shrug my shoulders and tell them the reason I won wasn’t the important topic, what was key was that I was in Tacloban and it was a very fulfilling experience, since I am able to personally hand to the kids the toys we collected.
I didn’t tell the interviewers this, but this should have been my answer since this is the truth: I’ve always talked to God, ours is a relationship not built around rituals, but on faith and deep and meaningful conversations. As mentioned, when Yolanda happened, I felt I could have done more, and I voiced out my frustrations to Him. After our “heart-to-heart”, I felt better, as if He was saying, “Don’t worry, you will have your chance.” I spearheaded another outreach project in the meantime, and at the time, it was enough to fill the longing in my heart. When I saw the announcement of the contest in my J&J email, I sort of knew already. The email said: Donate toys to the “Bring Play Back to Tacloban” drive and win a chance to personally give the toys to the children of Tacloban. Even before I asked my kids to pick the toys, I knew in my heart that I was going to Tacloban. A few days later, the winners were announced, and although I was surprised, I also felt, it was God telling me, “NOW… THIS is your chance.”
5PM, Philippine Airline Flight to Manila
As usual, the flight is delayed. But it’s okay. I am going home.
I never got a chance to take pictures of the town itself, the fact that it has not fully recovered from Yolanda. There were still structures in need of repair, or even abandoned because they were no longer worth repairing. There were still uprooted trees in some odd places. The faces of the people still bore the marks of the tragedy they lived through and are still living through.
This picture I took at the school haunts me. A parent said, “parang Dagat ang paligid. Yung simbahan lang ang nakalitaw. Doon kami nagpunta para mabuhay…” So even if this picture is dry and almost waterless, combined with that the parent said, for me, it just shows that the devastation wrought by Yolanda was real and imagining the water level to cover everything but the church drives home the point that it was a real tragedy that happened.
I look at their happy faces and in my own way, I hope I have influenced the way they would approach helping others and giving back.
As I lay down to sleep, I give a silent shout out to God. Being a part of this initiative was a dream come true for me. As He promised me, I would have my chance…and I just did.