Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reflections on Returning To Ruel Foundation

At the start of 2014 I left my life in Australia behind and moved to the island of Oriental Mindoro in the Philippines to serve at an orphanage called The Ruel Foundation. I was teaching English and Maths to a class of five kids as well as creating blogs and videos to let supporters know about the work we were doing and how they could help.

I sold up everything I owned and fully intended it to be a long-term venture. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons relating to gender, culture and personality, I did not last and found myself back in Australia after ten months.

This hurt, and for a few weeks after I re-entered Australian culture I journeyed through feelings of anger and frustration, mainly at myself for my inability to stick at anything longer than 12-18 months.

2015 was an amazing year. God continually provided for me as I reacquainted myself with my nieces and nephews, resumed Compassion sponsorship and advocacy, and developed a possible future career in sports journalism.

To be honest, when I left Ruel, because of the way it had ended, I did not imagine myself going back. However, I seem to suffer from a perpetual state of wanderlust and it was soon after I returned from my July trip to the US/Guatemala/Nicaragua that I planned my next journey. I was missing the kids and decided to make a return visit to Ruel for three weeks in late December/early January, since that is our long vacation time in Australia.

January is my least favourite month of the year, even though in Australia it is holidays and the middle of summer. I am a task oriented ‘do-er’ with no family of my own and in vacation time, everything stops. I hate it; I am not a relational person and I have to be doing something; it’s how I derive my meaning, purpose and satisfaction in life. So my return to Ruel was partly about giving me something constructive to do and using my time in a way that will benefit others.

In August I contacted the Ruel director Pauline, and she said she was happy to have me back. I spent Christmas with the family and flew up on December 28th. I would have liked to stay longer, but everything was much more expensive than when I was there in 2014, as living costs had gone up and the value of the Australian dollar had gone down by nearly 25%.

The first half of my trip was overshadowed by ‘The Luggage Debacle.’ I flew up via Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia, which is a budget airline, and had to pay $60 just to check my bag onto the plane. When I arrived in Manila, I discovered that my luggage had not joined me. Further enquiries revealed that it was still sitting at KL airport, having, for whatever reason, not been put on the connecting flight.

I filled out a luggage-misplacement form and went to Ruel with my friend Marvin, with basically the clothes on my back. Long story short, I spent the first 11 days at Ruel with three sets of clothes and no computer, since I had left the electrical cord in my luggage. It finally arrived on the Ruel doorstep on January 8th.

As annoyed as I was about the luggage thing, God continually gave me the gift of perspective, as I needed only a cursory glance around Manila or the community in which I was staying to realize that I was still better off than the majority of people. That certainly put me back in my place and silenced my complaints and grumbles.

My time at Ruel was really enjoyable and I loved being there again. 20 of the 31 kids were the same as when I had been there previously, just 13 months older and a little taller. This made it easy to settle back into routine and re-establish relationships, and in many ways it felt like I had never left. My role involved teaching the seven schoolkids in the mornings and I was free to spend the rest of the time playing with them.

The absence of my computer was, in a way, a blessing in disguise as it meant I couldn’t just sit on it for hours like I had previously, but ‘forced’ me to do other things and interact with people more. On this occasion I spent a lot more time with the little ones over at the Malnourishment Center (admittedly a couple of my favourites were there) and made it part of my daily routine to take two or three of them out for a walk every day. It was a significant thing to be able to give them this one-on-one attention; just to hold them and sing to them was very special.

I was at Ruel as the year ticked over from 2015 to 2016, so I experienced my first New Years Eve in the Phils. The karaoke was at full blast all over the neighbourhood, the fireworks were going off and there was a general feeling of crazy chaotic joy! People spend up big and this results in a pretty awesome sound and light show. On the evening of January 1st, the city of Calapan had their fireworks in the middle of town and we were able to take some of the older Ruel kids into town to see them, which was pretty special.

I spent New Years Eve with four New Zealanders: Pauline and her husband Warren, as well as two other volunteers Jan and Neil, so in the spirit of goodwill to my neighbours from across the ditch, I found myself drinking from a NZ stubby holder :o

During my time at Ruel in 2014 I witnessed seven international adoptions, as the kids were connected with their “Forever-families” from all parts of the globe. This was probably the most special part of working in an orphanage. Amazingly, even though I was only at Ruel for three weeks on this occasion, I was able to witness another one. A couple of siblings, 4-year-old Mr C and 3-year-old Miss J were adopted by a local couple.

I still struggled with a few of the same cultural things and constantly being stared at, but because I was only there for three weeks I didn’t let it bother me as much. I didn’t go out into the community except to church and the local mall when I needed stuff. I’m not a beach/market/sightseeing type person. I was there for the kids and was happy to fill up my days at Ruel.

A few people commented about the improvement of my general demeanour and attitude. By the time I left Ruel in 2014, the frustration/hostility stage of culture shock had sunk it’s mitts into me and did not let go, so I was quite a grumpy and withdrawn old geezer. I definitely believe that the short-term nature of this visit made a difference to the way I approached my time there. It was a blow to the ego to accept that I “couldn’t hack” living overseas long-term, and I just have to face the reality that I am more suited to short-term trips.

Most people who work with kids will know that there are some who you connect with more than others. I’ll admit that there were three or four kids in particular from my first stint who I was keen to see on my return. They were all still there and I was able to spend some good quality time with them, although it did make it harder saying goodbye.

I also enjoyed reconnecting with my friends at the church I had been part of previously – United Evangelical Church, Calapan. They were very welcoming and hospitable. UEC and Ruel have formed a significant partnership, and I was happy to play a small part in that. The Ruel kids spend the vast majority of their time at the orphanage, so they love going to church and interacting with other kids, since it gets them out and about.

UEC is a Compassion partner church (PH268) and after I left in 2014 I sponsored a girl from the Project, so I’d have a good reason to come back and visit. When I knew I was coming back to Ruel, I organised through Compassion to visit Aljane and her family. It was a positive and enjoyable day, made a bit different by the fact that I already knew the community as well as many of the Project workers, whereas in all the other countries I have visited I have flown in as a stranger and haven’t known anyone.

I visited the church, the family’s house and a highlight was taking the whole family out to the fast-food restaurant Jollibee, where we saw and got a photo with the Jollibee mascot. We also visited the Robinson’s mall where we found a children’s play area and Aljane and her two brothers had 30 minutes of pure, joyful, energetic kid-fun that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.

I have now visited 32 of my Compassion kids in 12 countries and can honestly say that it doesn’t get old, boring or ‘same-same.’ Each new meeting is an amazing experience; a gift from God where the connection formed through sponsorship moves to a whole different level by meeting in person and seeing where they live, work and play. I have entered their world, and it becomes real.

Back at Ruel, for some reason I thought it would be a smart idea to take 17 Ruel kids, aged from 1 to 12, to McDonald’s for a special farewell treat. I let the caregivers and kids know a few days in advance and the anticipation among the kids reached fever pitch. Every day I got “You’re taking us to McDo on Friday!” As the time drew closer I started to question the wisdom of such a decision. I went into McDo early in the week to ask about the party room. I made it clear I didn’t want to book a party but they insisted it would cost P3000 (almost $90AU). I said not to worry, and we’d just try our luck in the general dining area.

As it turned out we had nothing to worry about, as 17 little people and 7 adults squeezed into the Ruel van and little red truck and took over the Calapan McDonald’s. Each little belly was filled with juice, an ice-cream and their choice of burger or fries. A couple of the little ones were trying ice-cream for the first time, and it was priceless. Such a simple treat provides such joy and a memory that these kids will have for a long time. Thanks to Kuya Warren, Kuya John, Ate Angela, Ate Marsha, Ate Jo and Ate Malu for their help.

When it came time to leave, the farewells were certainly a lot harder this time around. Back in 2014 my exit was best for everyone but this time was a much more positive experience. Also, a couple of the kids who had become really attached to me were only at Ruel temporarily, so I knew it was probably the last time I would see them.

Before I headed back to Australia I stopped in on some friends, Nikki and Anthony Esquivel, who run Mercy House of the Philippines, a ministry to street kids in Silang Cavite. I first connected with them back in 2014 and they were happy to have me again for a couple of nights, despite their crazy and unpredictable schedule. It was great to meet up and see the kids again, and we had a great day together playing cards, Connect-4 and watching Mr Bean.

I also met another missionary working in the area called Erin Johnson, who’s been in the Phils since about 2008 with a ministry called Brand New Day. Erin was kind enough to take me to the airport when the Esquivels got a last-minute call to update a visa in Manila which would have required a 4.30am wake-up call for me.

Overall, the three weeks I spent at Ruel were a really positive way to spend my holidays and I’m glad I went back. I took lots of photos and videos while I was there and I’d love for you to check out the blog and YouTube channel I started back in 2014 and updated last week.

I am happy to remain connected with Ruel Foundation and I am hoping, God-willing, to go back regularly.

These are some of my favourite pics. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Compassion Visit - Aljane in the Philippines, January 16, 2016

Today I completed my 32nd Compassion sponsor child visit when I visited 8-year-old Aljane and her family in the Philippines. It was a little bit different to all the other visits I’ve done, because I lived in her community for ten months in 2014 when I served at Ruel Foundation orphanage, and attended the church which runs her Compassion Project, PH268. Because of this church connection, I formed friendships with the incredible people who work at the Project. When I returned to Australia I sponsored Aljane so I would have an on-going link to the church, and have an excuse to come back and visit!

In August 2015 I made the decision to return to Ruel Foundation for a three week stint in late December/January, so of course I had to organise to meet Aljane. She is 8 years old, in second grade and dreams of being a teacher. Because of Compassion, she has the opportunity to achieve that dream. In 2015 Aljane wrote me the most letters out of all my 22 sponsored kids (6). I made sure to tell her that today, and hope it made her feel good and encouraged her to keep writing. As important as it is to write to our sponsored kids, sponsors like receiving letters as well.

I caught a motorized tricycle from Ruel and arrived at the church at 9.30am. Project activities were in full swing. I met my host AM and we quickly went around to all the classes. It was fun because many of the kids remembered me from when I briefly helped out at the Project in 2014. The oldest kids at PH268 are now 14 years old, and they were suitably awkward and shy.

Aljane’s class was the last we visited, then I met the rest of the family and we headed to their house nearby.

Aljane is the fourth of five children; she has one sister (14) and three brothers (13, 11 and 8 months). The names of her and her three brothers all start with “Alj-“, an amalgamation of her father and mother’s names. I was very happy to meet the whole family today, because in the past it hasn’t always happened. As much as my ego would like to imagine it, the lives of people in the developing world do not stop just because their child’s sponsor visits. I am thankful for each visit I am able to meet the whole family.

Aljane’s father works two jobs to provide for his family. He is a hairdresser for both men and women and is also the Barangay (neighbourhood) security guard, and roams around making sure everything is okay. As part of this job he is able to drive a motorized tricycle, which helps the family get around. Her mother was smiley and friendly, and also spoke some English which helped our interaction.

I asked the four children who could talk (obviously the eight-month-old was excluded from this conversation) what their dreams were and got four very different responses: chef (Miss 14), doctor (Mr 11), policeman (Mr 13) and teacher (Aljane). Later on I asked Mama about the nature of her children’s relationship and she said they fight sometimes and love each other sometimes, much like any sibling group I guess. They each have allocated jobs around the house, whether it is cooking, washing the dishes, feeding the pets or sweeping the floor.

I learned that the family had been living in their current neighbourhood for three years. They had previously been squatters but were then given the materials for a house by the government, which they had to build from scratch with the help of friends. The five children all sleep in one room. There is also a living room, a CR (toilet/bathroom), small kitchen and the parents bedroom. Although the neighbourhood is not well-developed from a building point of view, the family said they feel safe and it is better than their last neighbourhood, where they were living close to the river and would often get flooded.

The conversation was largely driven by me, so pretty soon it petered out. I whipped out a photo book I had made, containing 18 A4-sized collages of family and childhood pictures. I went through them and then revealed a set of Uno cards I had brought as a gift.

None of them had played Uno before, so I explained the game with the help of my translator AM and we played a few rounds. Everyone including Mama got involved, while my friend Kuya Ace sat outside talking to Aljane’s father. One thing I love about Compassion staff is that they truly invest in and get to know the families. This enables them to serve the families effectively and make sure the sponsors money is put to good use by providing for their needs.

After a few rounds of Uno it was time to go to lunch. When asked where we should go, Aljane had no hesitation in saying “Jollibee!” so we piled into the van driven by a local church member and headed for Robinson’s Mall. Once again I opted to take the whole family rather than just Aljane and one parent which is standard Compassion policy. I have come to believe that providing an opportunity for families to eat out together, regardless of how many members, is worth any expense and over my many visits we have had some pretty large and excited groups.

We forgot to pack the Uno cards, so the time spent waiting for the food was quite silent and awkward. Pretty soon it arrived and we all tucked in. We were treated to a visit from the Jollibee mascot (funnily enough, a giant bee) and there was much excitement in the air. Aljane’s eyes were dancing and her mouth was wide open. We managed to get a couple of pics with the ‘Bee, which I’d say will definitely be a life highlight in the Calooy household.

After lunch we headed to the mall for a stroll. We found a children’s playhouse out the back of the mall and I paid for Aljane and the two older brothers to have a play. It had a small trampoline, ball pit, slide, swing, tunnel etc. It was actually meant for children aged 2-6 but this did nothing to dampen the incredible excitement all three children displayed and they ran themselves ragged while I talked to Mama, AM and Kuya Ace.

Everyone who is a parent or who cares for children in other roles would agree that, in general, we do anything to give our children moments of joy. This is what I experienced on this afternoon. It was so good to hear the squeals of excitement, the running, jumping and exuberance of these kids. Giving them the opportunity to be kids and just have fun. Worth every dollar.

Aljane is the only one of her siblings to be registered and sponsored with Compassion, as the others are too old. I am her first and only sponsor. Mama was honest when I asked if this had created any jealousy with her siblings, and she said yes. There may be an opportunity for her baby brother to be sponsored when he is a bit older. I asked Mama how Compassion had helped her family and she said mainly with school fees, school supplies and medical check-ups. It’s great to know that my money is being genuinely used to help with the material needs of this family and specifically Aljane so she can achieve her full potential.

I was able to have a great conversation with Project workers AM and Ace, and I explained my motivation for sponsoring and visiting so many kids. I also talked about my perspective on the importance of letter writing (received the kick up the bum on my first visit in 2009 after only writing one or two letters a year and now write once a month) and talked about my experience with encouraging and praying for the Project workers any opportunity I got, since they often feel forgotten and discouraged while engaging in the messy work of investing in and loving families in the grip of poverty. It is incredibly difficult work and they need to know that the work they do is valued, appreciated and important.

I got a big laugh when I asked Miss 14 about what she liked to cook. When we were at the family's house I noticed a large stack of about 15 cans of sardines. They had stocked up just before the recent typhoon and while the typhoon has gone, the sardines remain. So after asking what she liked to cook, I immediately added "Sardines?" which produced much laughter and a definite answer of "No!"

After having a play, we left the mall and headed back to the Project. I had a kick of my Australian football with a few of the kids, prayed with the family in the middle of the church’s basketball court which I helped to fund back in 2014 and said goodbye.

Overall it was a positive and special day and I was thankful to Aljane’s family for inviting me into their home and treating me with friendliness and generosity. I feel blessed to be able to use what God has given me to contribute something positive to this family and I look forward to seeing what happens in their future.