Where were you when…?

I can’t quite believe it’s seven years since I went to the Philippines as part of a Rotary sponsored Group Study Exchange (GSE). Some of the memories seem so fresh including visiting school on the shores of Laguna de Bay where the children danced for us (though dancing wasn’t unusual, there was always dancing). Just a few months later, the school and so much of the surrounding area was devastated by a typhoon. This is what I wrote at the time, back in early October 2009.

Visiting the school in April 2009

Where were you when…? A phrase probably most associated with the assassination of Kennedy and more recently with the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. It may not have had the same international impact but I’ll always remember the exact moment when I heard about the flooding caused by Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) in the Philippines. Driving out of Bridlington with the car radio switched on: it was a sunny Sunday afternoon following the annual conference of Rotary District 1270, where I had been speaking with other members of the GSE Team to District 3820 in the Philippines. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. My initial deep shock turned to feelings of helplessness and distress at a situation where I knew people who were involved but could do nothing to help.

Typhoon Ketsana wreaked havoc in Manila and Laguna – a region visited by our GSE team. One month’s worth of rain fell in six hours; at least 288 people were killed; the homes of 3 million people were damaged or destroyed; and an estimated £72m worth of crops were damaged. The scale of it is difficult to grasp, the long term impact perhaps harder. The disaster is so massive that the government and aid agencies have been overwhelmed. Outside Manila, much of the relief effort is being carried out by volunteers and civic organisations including Rotary.

The town of Bay, on the shore of a large lake, has been a major casualty. In March, when we visited a school in Bay it was an idyllic place. The children sang and danced for us, and we looked over the still blue waters of the lake. Now the school, and adjacent neighbourhood, are chest deep in muddy water. The water isn’t expected to recede for weeks, perhaps months. The smiling children who had met us already had so little, now their homes and school are underwater, their school bags washed away.

The same school after the typhoon, in early October 2009

Like many of the Rotary Clubs in the region, the Rotary Clubs of Bay and West Bay responded immediately. Delivering what emergency relief aid they could. Food, water and clothing were a priority. Now they plan to buy hygiene products, medicines and water purification tablets. They are also preparing the families that will be housed using ShelterBoxes. This immediate response by Filipino Rotarians has been repeated throughout the affected area. But their ability to help those in need is, and will continue to be, limited by a lack of funds.

International aid has arrived in the Philippines but is prioritised in the capital, Manila, leaving those in the provinces such as Laguna feeling frustrated. The Philippines is no stranger to disaster: being in the path of typhoons rolling in off the Pacific and with active volcanoes and earthquake risk. District 3820, has a Calamity Fund to help cope with disasters but this fund is now depleted. The Rotary Clubs have little left to help with the reconstruction/rehabilitation of communities.

The response by Filipinos to the unfolding disaster should be an inspiration to us all, as is the Filipino Rotarians dedication to Service above Self.

This was published by Rotary District 1270 and by a few local newspapers in the UK. We managed to raise funds to help with the relief work carried out by the Rotarians that had hosted and looked after us six months earlier.

 

The glittery tree that wasn’t just for Christmas

I came across this piece that I wrote after my first visit to the Philippines as part of a Rotary Group Study Exhange (GSE). It was published in “The Vision” – The official Governor’s Monthly Letter Rotary International District 3820 (Philippines) in August 2009

When you sign up for a GSE, it’s the beginning of a whole new adventure. Exciting and unimaginable experiences lie ahead but, arriving in the Philippines after 36 hours of non-stop travelling and barely four hours sleep, I just wanted to be in bed. Instead, I found myself inside a Filipino prison being presented with a plastic tree covered in red and silver glitter. I’ve never even been in an English prison, and with four weeks of travel ahead and a bag already full, what on earth was I going to do with a glittery tree?

Rachel's tree
My glittery tree made from a plastic bottle by a prison inmate in the Philippines

On closer inspection, the tree turned out to be carved from a plastic drinks bottle. The branches ingeniously formed, I can only guess, by melting and moulding the plastic. Whoever made this tree had some skill. And the red and silver made it look kind of Christmassy; it would make a unique Christmas decoration. Something to bring out once a year, perhaps with sweets in the bowl formed from the base of the bottle. The glittery tree was a gift that I wanted to take back to England, but how could I keep it safe? It was fragile and might not cope with the battering of travel. Step forward the San Pedro Rotarians who kindly looked after it whilst I was in the Philippines. Then, for the journey home? Baggage handlers are not known for their delicate touch! I found the ideal solution: stuffing clean underwear into the canopy of the tree to give it the protection it needed.

Back in England, I was proud of my tree. It had survived and reminded me of the colour and vibrancy of the Philippines. The tree sat for a while on the mantelpiece, until my husband subtly suggested that, perhaps, I should find a suitable box to keep it in. A plastic tree covered in red and silver glitter, I have to admit, didn’t really fit in with the decor of our home. Maybe it was destined to be a tree just for Christmas.

Following a GSE, team members tour their local Rotary clubs giving presentations. I hoped our presentation would give people a taste of our experiences of the Philippines and, more importantly, an appreciation of the dedication to Service Above Self that we witnessed among the Filipino Rotarians. I took my glittery tree to our first presentation.

Picture3

At the end of the presentation, when I tentatively asked everyone to donate £1 to buy flip-flops (slippers) for Filipino children, the tree became the star of the show. As it was passed around, people marvelled at its construction and its origin. As they did so, they all dropped a £1 coin, sometimes more, into the bowl of tree. Now, my glittery tree accompanies me to all our presentations. As well as the trail of glitter I leave behind me, I hope I also leave a little bit of Filipino sparkle in the minds of the Rotarians of District 1270 (Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, UK).

This note was added at the end:
Rachel has been asking everyone who attends the GSE Teams’ presentations to donate £1 to go towards buying slippers or other needed gifts for Filipino children. Four presentations have been given so far (three to Rotary clubs and one to Rachel’s work colleagues) and £171.00 has been raised for the Rotary Club of West Bay. A further £100.00 has also been pledged by Rachel’s sponsoring club [the Rotary Club of Lindum, Lincoln], making a total of about P20,000. More presentations are planned. Rachel and the rest of the GSE Team hope to raise further funds and support at District 1270’s Discon (District Conference) in late September. – Editor

But at the same time as the District Conference in late September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana (aka Ondoy) was pounding the Philippines. 

 

 

 

 

“We have books in the Philippines”

“…the problem is people can’t afford to buy them.” These words still echo in my head.

I was three weeks into a month-long tour of the Philippines, hosted by Rotary Clubs. Every day, I visited another Rotary-supported school or community; schools that couldn’t afford books for their libraries and children that couldn’t afford books of their own. These visits left me wanting to do something more constructive to help. 12006363_10204518779362064_5002068080558599493_n

One idea was, once back home in the UK, to ask people to donate books then ship them over to the Philippines. “But you would have to raise money to cover the cost of shipping, if you can raise money why not just use it to buy books here.” the same voice, the same Rotarian was telling me. I knew he was right, the idea wasn’t practical.

I never anticipated that six years later, one of the clubs that hosted me, the Rotary Club of West Bay, would be distributing books to schools; books that are published and printed in the Philippines, and, written by me. I have to hold one of the books in my hands to remind myself that it is real. To believe that I am an author of children’s picture books published in the Philippines; picture books about the animals that are found only in the Philippines.

11951927_10204518778402040_8459090733860652551_n

I have worked in wildlife conservation in the UK all my adult life but the wildlife in the Philippines never fails to astound and astonish me. Whether it’s wide-eyed tarsiers or wide-mouthed whale sharks, shimmering fireflies or vibrant sunbirds; glimpsing just a little of this wildlife sparked my imagination. It began with my daydream of a parrot dreaming of sailing the seas on a pirate ship. Little does he know, as he sets off on his travelling adventure, that he will discover his true home. Along the way Danao the parrot meets some of the unique animals of the Philippines.

The word unique is often over-used but with thousands of animals that are found nowhere else in the world; the Philippines is unique. These animals, and the children I met visiting the schools, are my inspiration. I never intended to write stories but the animals became characters in my mind and I wrote down their adventures. I never intended the stories to be published but my enthusiastic Filipino friends encouraged me and the lovely people at The Bookmark, Inc. liked the stories and agreed to publish them.

11232064_10204518765961729_8161581976903076306_n

My daydreams about parrots, pigs and pangolins – species that live only in the Philippines – are now in real books beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Ranola and Ingrid Tan, and, some of my own illustrations.

Perhaps, as you read this, one of the books is being read by a child in a school in Bay in Laguna. Thanks to the Rotarians of the Rotary Club of West Bay, nine elementary schools in Bay have copies of my books ‘Danao’, ‘Mayumi’ and ‘Pipisin’. The elementary schools are: Puypuy, Tranca, Masaya, Sta Cruz, Bitin, Paciano Rizal, Putho Tuntungin, Maahas and Sto Domingo.

The books were purchased with funds from selling the books in the UK to family friends, with donations from the Rotary Club of Lindum, Lincoln (who are also donating books to schools in Lincoln) and with donations from my parents and myself.

Thank you everyone for helping children learn more about the endemic wildlife of the Philippines! And thank to the Philippines, the people and the wildlife, for being my inspiration!