*** UPDATE **
Help me deliver 500 balls to kids affected by Typhoon Haiyan. 100% of funds donated will go to the kids … https://www.gofundme.com/play-ball-for-kids
OK, first of all, I’m the creepy white guy in the middle and, no, I’m not all that creepy. Second, I’m not really getting attacked by these kids. It’s more of a #photobomb! But, regardless of the circumstances, there’s a great story here that I wanted to tell. This is a personal story and I’m deviating a bit from my normal digital marketing topic.
On November 8, 2013, a devastating typhoon struck the islands of Leyte and Samar in the Philippines. Winds gusted to 235 km/h and attained 315 km/h at one point. For survivors, the wind howling through the night was terrifying. Parents clung to their children in fear, praying for relief and protection. But the worst was yet to come.
My journey to the Philippines started in 1990 when I turned 19. I was called to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was assigned to serve in the Philippines Tacloban Mission. What an amazing experience for a 19 year old boy. I arrived to the Philippines in September and by November of that year, I had already witnessed the destructive power of typhoons. We spent weeks helping people rebuild their homes and lives.
The following year, while assigned to serve in Ormoc, Leyte, my missionary companion (Elder Koch) and I waited at the city bus terminal. Our attempts to leave the city before being struck by the coming typhoon (Thelma) were fruitless. We helplessly watched as a sudden, devastating flash flood snuffed out thousands of lives. We, miraculously, survived despite being in the heart of the flash flood, surrounded by deadly, rising flood waters. I will always be haunted by the hollow faces of those survivors pleading for my help just moments following the flood as well as the stench of almost 10,000 decaying bodies.
The picture below is that city bus terminal where we skirted disaster. You can see water marks on the columns, indicating how high the water was.
Just two weeks later, unable to complete our mission to deliver food, clothes and other relief, my companion and I were transferred by the Church to safer parts of the mission. My mother was relieved, but I felt that I had abandoned my friends.
Josephine is a mother of several small children. I met her when I returned to Tacloban last year. She described her harrowing and miraculous tale of survival. Like most of the Filipinos I spoke to, she had never in her life heard the term “storm surge”. It is a term Filipinos will now never forget. After surviving the raging wind, she welcomed the morning with gratitude. But within minutes, the storm surge, and the intense terror, came again. As Josephine describes her story of survival, you can see for yourself the inner strength that saved her family.
The storm surge was a horrendous beast, an evil monster hungry for the lives of innocents. It gobbled up homes, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children. The strong may have survived. The weak had no chance. I heard first hand stories where people fled the storm surge in one direction, only to be trapped by another part of the storm surge capturing them head on. The surge was the cat, playing malevolently with it’s mice.
I arrived less than two weeks after the storm hit. As I drove from the airport to a Church emergency shelter, I cried. My beloved, adopted country was in ruins. I had many nights crying – most were tear-filled prayers for the people who were suffering so much. Other nights I wept with gratitude after having witnessed so many of God’s tender mercies. It’s impossible to describe the destruction. Aid workers who dedicate their lives to serving commented that they had not seen destruction like that since the Indonesian tsunami. It’s equally impossible to describe God’s loving hand in the midst of such great wreckage.
The Filipinos are an amazing people. Watch that video again of Josephine and notice that as she describes her harrowing experience – her brush with death – she’s smiling. Her heart is grateful to be alive, to be with her family. She picks clothes up off the ground that were randomly dispersed by the disaster and cleans them – grateful that she and her children have clothes to wear. Through it all, she smiles. The gratitude extended to relief workers was overwhelming. The Filipinos patience in receiving aid was inspiring.
I worked with several workers who had been in Haiti delivering food. There, you needed an armed guard to deliver aid. Men would kill each other for the aid distribution. The Filipinos would line up in a single file line. They would take the elderly, sick and maimed and move them to the front of the line. No complaints. No anger. Just love for each other and gratitude for what little they have.
I spent 3 1/2 weeks living in my hammock at one of the LDS Church’s grounds. I took bucket baths and ate MREs every day. I lived like a king compared to most. I was not just welcomed by the Filipinos, but I was served by them daily.
Ahh, the children. I wish my own kids were there with me, just so that they could see and play with the children. Kids are relentlessly pliable. Put them into any situation and they seem to figure out a way to have fun and enjoy whatever circumstance they’re in. A side benefit of the aftermath was that the rivers were swollen. No problem for the kids, they found a new sport of jumping off bridges into the water. Pieces of wood were scattered everywhere. No problem, use the wood as a wheel-less skateboard. Destruction everywhere? No worries, we’ll just make the basketball court smaller. Kids are amazing. I love those little rascals.
While there, my responsibilities shifted as I worked with LDS Philanthropies, while coordinating with Catholic Relief Services and the UN, on the shelter problem. I needed to get around. We got word that a wealthy donor had bought more than a dozen motorcycles to help with some of the aid work. I was assigned one of those. I sent this picture to my wife. Her reply “If you’re going to die on that thing, die all the way. The payout is better.” I didn’t die and I always had a swarm of Filipino friends around making sure nothing happened to me. But, I did feel close to death on those Leyte roads. Here’s the video I sent to her. I’m sure she was a little surprised. (My wife is AWESOME!) Thank you anonymous, wealthy donor. You scared the life out of me! But, mission accomplished.
Before I left for the Philippines, I setup a Rally.org account. I thought maybe I’d be able to raise a few hundred dollars. My plan was to take it with me and help a few people. I was overwhelmed with support. I received over $6,000 in donations. They came in like a flood. I still tear up, thinking about all the people who gave willingly and generously. Well, I took that money and I helped as many as I could. Before leaving, I asked a dear friend to help manage the remaining funds as a micro-lending operation. But, I also emphasized that it was a gift. People should pay it back if they are successful. But if not, they should not carry the burden of a debt.
Thank you, Rally supporters. Thank you so much. You may never know the lives you touched with your donations. But, I know and God knows.
When I returned home, I hosted an event with a couple hundred area youth to talk about my experiences in the Philippines. The theme was “Super You”. I wanted the youth to recognize that a single person can make all the difference in the world. We’re sometimes faced with what appear to be insurmountable challenges. But, whether it’s someone making a $20 Rally donation or another flying around the world to help rebuild a tiny home, a single individual can change the course of lives.
Coming home was hard. I wanted to stay and help rebuild. I wanted to move my family to Leyte. I even talked to my wife about it. But, it isn’t in the plan for my family – not yet.
Whether I stay here in the States, or return to the Philippines, I will be ever grateful for that experience. To know a people who live life with joy and enthusiasm, in the midst of devastation, sorrow and pain, is worth every sacrifice. Our lives are feathers in the wind, driven by events often out of our control.
I once heard a great quote – “your attitude determines your altitude.” I have no doubt that the Filipino people will continue to rise up. Leyte and Samar will flourish. Time will wash away the pain of lost loved ones. Children will grow up, marry and have more children. And we can be inspired by the greatness of humanity and the perseverance of the human soul.
God bless the Philippines and it’s great people.
Even one year later, much work still needs to be done to restore Leyte and Samar to normalcy. The work continues. Thousands of families are still displaced. Homes are continuing to be rebuilt. Livelihoods have recovered slowly, too slowly. If you’d like to help, I recommend donating to LDS Philanthropies, Catholic Relief Services or Salvation Army. Those organizations were absolutely awesome to work with. I don’t think I’ll pass another Salvation Army bell ringer again without putting something in the pot.