Author’Note: It is already more than 6 months after Typhoon Yolanda hit central Philippines and most of the victims are still on the road to recovery. Below is a write-up entry which was originally intended to fill one column space of a broadsheet.  (By the way, the photos near the end were taken during the MACS Project in DSWD-run center in Fabella, Mandaluyong where some Yolanda evacuees took shelter. The event took place on January 19, 2014.) Thank you! – Mark Anthony Goroy, MACS Project Director

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It was my first time in Leyte.

I did not expect to visit this province ahead of more scenic spots like Bohol and Camiguin. I’m not a traveller so I was already consigned to the fact that I will not be able to visit all the provinces in the country, especially Leyte which is not even on my top ten list of dream local destinations.

But more than one month after the most deadly typhoon in recent memory devastated central Philippines, I found myself playing football on the beach with four local children in a town 25 kilometers south of the now world famous Tacloban City.

Tolosa is not a famous town. Much of its modern claim to fame was that it was where Typhoon Yolanda made its second landfall after Guian, Eastern Samar. But even after the devastation, some bus personnel don’t even know where Tolosa is. A friend was dropped off in a town 10 kilometers away.

The beach was enough reason to visit Tolosa. But we were not after the beach. We were in the town to bring gifts from our Manila-based friends to some 200 children under the Make A Child Smile (MACS) project.

MACS was a result of a discussion a week after Typhoon Yolanda with some friends of a newly-formed foundation on how we could directly help the victims.

At that time, it was less than two months before Christmas and the victims were staring at their darkest holiday season. I thought giving them simple gifts was the most logical activity because we’re no expert in building houses and restoring electricity. MACS was born more out of our limitations rather than our strengths.

In no time, I was talking to potentials donors — MACS Ninongs and Ninangs as we later called them — who could sponsor gifts to select children affected by Yolanda. We asked them to select a child whom they could sponsor at least one simple wish for Christmas which includes toys, school supplies, clothes, etc.

We were overwhelmed by the responses. By Christmas eve, I found myself staring at more than 200 gift items ready to be shipped to Leyte. I saw Matt Raven’ gift from Abby that granted the boy’s wish of a noche buena. I noticed Gay’s brightly colored gift items for 12 toddlers which she selected. And I could not miss Chris and friends cuddly teddy bears for 30 children. We were already getting excited to see the faces of the children whose name we’ve unconsciously memorized because of repeated mentions: Bless Carmela, John Michael, Rose Ann, Alexandra Kay, Cedrick, Ivan Rex, etc.

So on December 27, we brought the gifts — wrapped, numbered, tagged and plastic-sealed — to Tolosa. On the road to our destination, we noticed that there was still no semblance of normalcy. Scattered debris, destroyed houses, abandoned vehicles, and steel structures seemingly flattened by Godzilla-like creatures were common sights. I was having doubts if Christmas gifts were the things Leyte children needed at those time.

Upon arriving at the place and unloading the gifts, we decided to visit the beach for a little rest. I decided to bring a football since I don’t know how to swim. In no time, I was swarmed by four kids who requested in hesitant Tagalog: “Laro tayo!” (Let’s play).

In no time, I was playing kickabout with Jessie, Angelo, Reyver, and Rhalp whom I assumed to be part of MACS children because their names sounded familiar. I asked them if they will attend the gift-giving the following day. True enough, they all responded with a resounding “yes”.

What struck me most by the kids was their cheerfulness. There I was with young survivors of the greatest calamity of my lifetime and they exhibited the more cheerful demeanor, the more positive disposition, and the more engaging smiles than most city kids. I felt guilty for complaining on not finding data signal in Tolosa.

I tried to strike a conversation while I taught them how to pass the football using the inside of their favored foot. I asked the liveliest of the bunch and with the quickest feet, Jessie, on how his family coped with the typhoon. Nonchalantly, he answered: “Wala na magulang ko” (My parents are gone). Somehow, it was one of my expected responses so I asked again, “What happened to your parents?”

Maybe he couldn’t find the right Tagalog word for a reply so Jessie gestured on tying an imaginary rope and putting it around his neck. His friends said that was his mother hanged herself after finding out that Jessie’s father abandoned them for another family in Cebu. I was taken aback. I never thought that I could hear something more tragic than Typhoon Yolanda.

I did not dare ask the others after that as I told them to make makeshift goals using fallen coconut shells and play 2-on -2 football.

The following day was the gift-giving day. I looked for Jessie among the 200-plus children and chaperones. Luckily, he, along with our football playmates, sat on the front row. One by one as I called out the names tagged on the gifts, I eagerly awaited to hold Jessie’s gift. He’s child #25 on our list and when his name was called he was quick to take his assigned gift and post for photos with one of the biggest smile I saw that day. I knew then how the simplest of gifts can affect lives.

I then returned to calling all the tagged names on the gift until the last one. We told the children to open the gifts only when they’re already in their houses. But our pleas and gift wrappers were no much for their excitement. Soon enough, we saw some hugging their teddy bears, playing with their toys or wearing their bags. But I did not see Jessie opening his gift.

We then fixed our set up and took our lunch. Our flight out was early morning the next day so we decided to take one last stroll along the beach in the afternoon.

I was expecting Jessie to show up on the beach.

So while we chatted with some fisherman, the same bunch of kids approached us, this time some already carrying toys and one holding something that resembled a surf board.

Seeing Jessie empty-handed, I asked him if he didn’t like his gift. Ever the vibrant spirit, he answered smilingly that he left his snake-and-ladder board game at home with his grandma and sister. He seemed to be contented with what he received but I thought he deserved something more because of his circumstances.

So I decided to give him that which I knew he and his beach friends would surely love — a football. I bought it to replace my 4-year old football but I knew it could bring more joy if it stays in Leyte. Besides my old football can still bounce enough for me to do half-volleys.

I told Jessie that he promise me to take care of the ball so that we could play again when I come back. It was a promise that he said he’ll definitely keep. Unknowingly, I also made a promise to Jessie similar to what a famous general once made years ago: that I shall return.

Surely, my first visit in Leyte will not be my last.

(See related story in RAPPLER:  http://www.rappler.com/sports/features/profiles-blogs/47153-playing-football-in-leyte-make-a-child-smile-project)

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For those with generous hearts, you can donate to the MACS Project of CHARIS Foundation through our Sterling Bank account.

Account Name: CHARIS Leadership, Research and Scholarship Foundation, Inc.

Account No. : 1606-33059

Branch: Ayala

Kindly, email scan and email the deposit slip to macs.charis@gmail.com so that we could verify the deposit. Thank you very much.

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Some photos of the MACS Project:

MACS event in Tolosa, Leyte

MACS event in Tolosa, Leyte

Kids of Tolosa, Leyte still look cheerful after Typhoon Yolanda damaged their homes.

Kids of Tolosa, Leyte still look cheerful after Typhoon Yolanda damaged their homes. Jessie is 1st from left, with the football.

Matt Raven asked for a noche buena. And MACS Ninang Abby Yap and Family granted his wish --- plus a toy to go with the noche buena.

Matt Raven asked for a noche buena. And MACS Ninang Abby Yap and Family granted his wish — plus a toy to go with the noche buena. Together with Matt here are MACS volunteers Hannah Alcantara and Leo Gimena

Some MACS Ninongs and Ninangs holding the gifts for their MACS Inaanak.

Some Manila-based MACS Ninongs and Ninangs holding the gifts for their MACS Inaanak.

MACS volunteers (mostly Business Economics students of UA&P) help out in preparing the gifts for ship out to Tolosa, Leyte.

MACS volunteers (mostly Business Economics students of UA&P) help out in preparing the gifts for ship out to Tolosa, Leyte.

MACS all around. Photos of MACS in Tolosa Leyte (top two), in San Remigio, Cebu (middle of 2nd column), and in DSWD center in Mandaluyong (bottom two photos).

MACS all around as MACS was also implemented in San Remigio, Cebu and in Mandaluyong where some evacuees took shelter. Photos of MACS in Tolosa Leyte (top two), in San Remigio, Cebu (middle of 2nd column), and in DSWD center in Mandaluyong (bottom two photos).

One happy MACS inaanak.

One happy MACS inaanak.

CHARIS President Chris Tiu with one MACS Inaanak

CHARIS President Chris Tiu with one MACS Inaanak

Lucky kids with their school supplies from their MACS Ninong/Ninang.

Lucky kids with their school supplies from their MACS Ninong/Ninang.

Chris with some parents of MACS Inaanak during meal time sponsored by pizza chain Greenwich.

Chris with some parents of MACS Inaanak during meal time sponsored by pizza chain Greenwich.

All smiles! Group photo with the kids!

All smiles! Group photo with the kids!