The Abandoned Children’s Fund just had a team return from the Philippines in mid-March where as a group we had the opportunity to meet with each of our key project partners in their work. For a few days we were able to travel with them and experience some on-site observations of the work they consistently accomplish and the unpleasant conditions they cope with daily while assisting the families and children of the poorest of the poor in that country.
I recently discovered a fact unknown to me in my research preparing for this trip, that Manila is the most densely populated urban environment in the world. That is not to say it is the largest or most populated (China holds a couple of those distinctions) but it is the most densely packed population in a given space or area.
Speaking personally going into third world shanty towns, dumpsites and barrios to visit families who live in conditions that no human should have to be reduced to, has always been one of the most revealing, stressful, riveting and white knuckle aspects of the work we do at Abandoned Children’s Fund. Taking those first tentative footsteps out across the treacherous bridge, spanning the gulf that exists between the relative comfort and security of our lifestyle in the West and the hodge podge of languages (there are 179 linguistic dialects spoken in the Philippines) cultures and lifestyles that permanently reside in the hunger and filth of profound poverty in these barrios, is always nerve wracking.
I never seem to be able to prepare myself adequately for that journey and without the internal knowledge that when we a finished for the day I have a ride back to my hotel room, a hot shower and a nutritious meal (and eventually a return ticket to my home in the first world) I would probably be paralyzed with shock. I look around in the tangled chaos of bootlegged electric hot wires that power the unknowable reaches and the illegally tapped and hi-jacked plastic water hoses carrying questionable water (presumably for drinking?) from who knows what source into the maze of alleyways and footpaths of mud and rubbish and I’m profoundly humbled
I see countless laughing children running barefooted through the muddy slop and squalor of this deterioration where the smell of rotting waste chokes the lungs with a penetrating, awful, toxic smell. Oddly, there is prevailing calmness in the clamor of all this disorder, perhaps its resignation, humiliation or just human exhaustion. Maybe it’s that God’s grace is close to those who suffer such poverty and neglect. There is nothing here that He is not present for.
It would take me hours to record just some of the circumstances we encountered in these disease ridden pockets of need. For the sake of economy I selected one widowed grandmother on the fringe of a garbage site who alone was raising 7 young grandchildren. With an average daily income of 20 cents per day per child for food and water she lived in a squatters hut the size of a small bathroom, made of plywood, tin and cardboard she gratefully accepted the delivery of a food package from the Catholic nuns we partner with. She was crammed-in on all sides by women and families like her own (in huts indistinguishable from her own) for as far as the eye could see. The open sewers ran past her threshold just feet away as her grandchildren looked with pleasant curiosity at our team with our package of food and water.
In another part of Manila, yet another displaced community of countless hundreds of disparate, homeless men, women and children, living in makeshift structures attached somehow beneath any one of the many concrete overpass bridges in Manila, had the unique distinction of a “waterfront view” of Manila Bay. With its endless landscape of squalid ramshackle booths of plastic, corrugated tin and burlap, built on top of one another like tumbling shapes of rubbish, here on the banks of this fetid body of oil slick strewn salt water, with garbage and human waste floating on the surface. To these children, this was a swimming pool. They slid frolicking in and out of the filth and stench of this water like it was an Olympic sport.
I could go on for hours. The examples of human suffering are limitless. The countless stories of young children being sexually abused by family members or neighbors, pre-teens entering prostitution cartels to help feed their families, parents selling their own organs for enough money to escape the camp are common, as are tales of gang recruitment, extortion and organized protection rackets, Muslim intimidation of Christians, seemingly random strong arm robberies and murders. It’s almost more than the heart can fathom that there are more than 100,000 families squatting in the Baseco camp alone because they have nowhere to go.
But great loss gives rise to great Hope. So each morning, into the thick of this overwhelming human tragedy the outreach teams we support go forth and follow up on reported leads about incidents of sexual abuse, abandoned children and victims of violent crime. When it is verified for instance, after some discovery, that a child is being physically or sexually abused and there is no extended family into which the child can be placed, as a last resort they are taken to a secure residential treatment center (that Abandoned Children’s Fund furnishes resources for) where they receive medical, nutritional and psychological therapy and are introduced to an educational program and begin to learn to read and write. The reintegration of the family will only take place after the offending adult has been removed from the home.
Other teams provide primary school education programs and feeding projects for children on a daily basis so they can at least have the benefit of nutrition and clean water and the foundation of literacy. I asked one of the young female project partner supervisors, who was walking with me through a narrow, filth strewn alley way, we were traversing “if she was ever “stressed out” being in that environment”. Myself, though I keep a smile on my face and try to remain as alert to the dangers and challenges in the environment I’m in, I find I am inwardly tensed up, like a tightly clenched fist in my chest. She paused and answered “this is our calling. This is what we are led to do.. I feel at peace when I’m here.”
I tend to get philosophical after I return from a visit to one of these dump sites or slums and try to rationalize why we are doing this work and what kind of progress we are making when it seems as though the scope of the problem is so enormous and need is so intense. After a while the effort seems so inconsequential compared to the circumstance. Then I come to remember the look on the faces of the children I saw in those classrooms, the smiles on the faces at the feeding program, the reality that these children know these volunteers and project workers, they know in spite of all the obstacles stacked against them that someone is thinking about them, caring for them. It brings them Hope.
These dump site squatters, these poorest of the poor in an impoverished nation are not the only ones who need Hope. The social workers, organizers, counselors, cooks, teachers, volunteers, drivers, everyone involved in the attempt to lift up the lifestyle of these poor need Hope. Those of us who fund raise and tell stories about these modest philanthropic enterprises, who advocate for the needs of the poor, need Hope. Those of you who choose from time to time to donate to Abandoned Children’s Fund, who generously give a little bit of what you have or earn to someone less fortunate, need Hope.
It’s not that the abasement of less fortunate people will ever be completely eliminated, that’s not the object of acting positively from a love for mankind. It is that a life without Hope is a worse tragedy than poverty is. Each of us has our own form of poverty somewhere in our lives don’t we? These dump-site dwellers in the Philippines are not the only ones in need of being lifted up a bit. We all do our part whatever it is, in the grand scheme of things and by doing our little part we keep Hope alive for all of us.