Did you share your blessings this Christmas? A village could be waiting for you.

Celebrating Christmas with the children of Lamtabong made December 2016 an amazing one!

Celebrating Christmas with the children of Lamtabong made December 2016 an amazing one! Photo by Loel Palma.

“We make a living by what we get; but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

A child's simple dream of a happy Christmas can be in your hands.

A child’s simple dream of a happy Christmas can be in your hands. Photo by Loel Palma.

I should challenge you – do it next Christmas. If you aren’t into it yet. Find the time. It could become your life’s best time ever.

A quiet revolution led by baby boomers and millennials is happening that does not get on the already-too-crowded headlines nowadays. A friend’s working children saved for a year from their salaries to sponsor a simple gift giving activity in a nearby orphanage. A family brings children from their poor neighborhood for a chicken and spaghetti meal in a popular fast food chain. A group of high school friends pooled their resources to buy goodies and a variety of food for children and their families – this one needs credit for their coordination efforts bringing their Christmas treat in a far-flung mountainous village.

We have been sponsoring the Christmas Party of my sister’s grade 5 pupils with small gifts and food for 10 years now. This year, the 44 children ate a simple party meal and went home smiling with school supplies as gifts. We encourage other relatives and friends to do the same in their own impoverished village schools. Sharing the event on social media does not mean you are flaunting your efforts of giving back but actually challenges and inspires others to share. Imagine the chain reaction if people respond to your call to action?

The boys enjoyed the snacks brought for them during their Christmas party. Even the simplest efforts can mean a lot to many children.

The boys enjoyed the snacks brought for them during their Christmas party. Even the simplest efforts can mean a lot to many children. Photo by Loel Palma.

Lamtabong Elementary School is located on the foot of a hill and is part of Barangay Lambingi in the municipality of Banga in South Cotabato in Mindanao, Philippines. With close to 300 schoolchildren studying in six classrooms, two are newly constructed and four are run-down, every class has at least 40 children. One of the classes is on morning and afternoon sessions. The school’s recently assigned principal Christopher Pelayo said the kindergarten class with 29 children has to hold their classes in a makeshift room in the middle of two rooms.

Next Christmas, don't leave a child sad and hungry. You can help in your own way.

Next Christmas, don’t leave a child sad and hungry. You can help in your own way.

“We have to survive with the P14,000 (USD290) monthly operating expense budget provided to us”, Pelayo added. That budget he explained covers small maintenance and repair work, travel expenses of teachers on trainings and meetings, school supplies and other needs. With six teachers under him, they creatively find ways to address their school’s needs. The village is composed of a majority of B’laan tribe who eke out a living from working in nearby cornfields. They can hardly buy their children’s school supplies. Most of the farms were gone, the village is surrounded with banana plantations.

Rebelyn, a 29-year old mother of two said their meager income comes from doing farm labor such as weeding, planting, putting fertilizers or pesticides and harvesting at P100 ($2.5) per day. They usually are able to work for 10 days in a month, if they get lucky. Pelayo said a Christmas celebration is a luxury the villagers cannot afford. On the school’s Christmas Party last week, the teachers have to contribute for the children to share bread. Many did not attend he said because they have nothing to bring.

Rebelyn (far right), a 29-year old mother, is grateful of people coming to help the children. "We want our children to have better future than ours."

Rebelyn (far right), a 29-year old mother, is grateful of people coming to help the children. “We want our children to have better future than ours.”

Our visiting group, composed of cousins and nieces, brought biscuits and juice for the children. It was unforgettable how the children’s and parents’ faces lit up as they all lined-up for their share. Josie, 35-year old mother said it was the first time a group has come and made the children happy. “It is your coming here and sharing time with us that’s important”, she added. Many of the women marry as young as 12-16 years old for lack of opportunity to study further beyond elementary. Rebelyn said, “Marrying is the only option for us. What do you do? We want our children to do better than us.”

Kindergarten teacher Amalia Dizon, 43, said it is difficult to watch children come to school often without lunch. A mother of two, she said it is painful for her to think of the hunger these children endure. “My husband and I cook extra food on schooldays so I can share it with my pupils. It is not much but it gives me relief that we can eat together. The rest of the teachers here do that – even buy supplies for their class so they can use something”, Dizon added.

Kindergarten teacher Amalia, 43, shares one has to have a heart for children to endure the challenges. "We often bring extra food as many of them are hungry. How can they learn if their stomach is empty?"

Kindergarten teacher Amalia, 43, shares one has to have a heart for children to endure the challenges. “We often bring extra food as many of them are hungry. How can they learn if their stomach is empty?”

Pelayo’s Christmas wish is for additional classrooms to be built. He holds office in a thatched roofed hut that also serves as the feeding center and meeting room. He worries where to keep the computer equipment when they are able to avail of them. “We do not have electricity and internet yet but we are finding ways”, he shared and added, “But foremost in our priorities is the classrooms where children can study and learn well.” He is hoping that generous individuals will take notice and help improve the children’s learning facilities.

It is not too late to check in your neighborhood and find a way to share. Make a child happy. Talk to the public school teachers of the children’s needs. Our own humble gift giving started when my sister Nanette, a public school teacher, told me 10 years ago that she got moved when saw a girl help her gather the leftover after she cooked bihon (rice noodles), brought bread and juice packs for her pupils. Then she asked her if it was fine for her to bring home the leftovers. “For my sister”, she told Nanette.

This boy was born without his left arm but goes to his kindergarten class regularly.

This boy was born without his left arm but goes to his kindergarten class regularly. Photo by Loel Palma.

Just a tip when sharing, make sure the food and supplies you give are sensitive to children coming from different tribes and religious affiliations. The last thing we want in a classroom is to isolate or leave a child behind because the food or gifts are not acceptable for them. Can you imagine if we can bring children in the cities to share gifts to children in the villages? Both groups will surely learn from each other and kindness sown while they are still young. One thing is very certain though, the fulfillment that you will feel is priceless.

Note: If you want to donate to the school, please contact school principal Christopher Pelayo at mobile # +63-930-1855714 or email him at chris111175@gmail.com. You can also leave a message in the blog.

MORE TIPS when planning for a reach-out activity

Children in Lamtabong school eagerly wait for their gifts. More than the material gifts that you can share is making them feel that you truly care.

Children in Lamtabong school eagerly wait for their gifts. More than the material gifts that you can share is making them feel that you truly care.

  • Ask your public school teachers where your need is most needed. It doesn’t have to be on Christmastime. Some people would collect for June and give school supplies at the start of the school year.
  • Be practical of what you give. Pooling resources together to renovate a classroom or provide a much-needed blackboard, sports equipment or teaching supplies would be for long-term.
  • Be conscious that children come from different tribes, beliefs or religious affiliations. Check if what you’re giving can isolate other children and make them feel that they are not included.
  • Brief your group before you arrive. Check if everyone is dressed appropriately. Let them know if there are some sensitive topics or actions they should not discuss. Do not come with any agenda except to share from your heart.
  • Check the security situation. Do not take it for granted that because you are from the neighboring place, everything is secure. You do not want to put your family into a risk and make it a traumatic incident for everyone.
  • Make sure everyone is in the mood for the activity. More than the gifts you are sharing is showing that you truly care and you respect everyone participating, including parents and the children themselves.
  • Do not assume you know better. The people in the village (or barangay) knows their situation and needs better. Do not impose on what you want. Respect on their situation is very important.

Is there any lesson you want to share in your reach-out activity? Please share with us!

More photos from Lamtabong below:

This school's makeshift building that serves as the principal's and teaching force's office, feeding center and meeting room.

This school’s makeshift building that serves as the principal’s and teaching force’s office, feeding center and meeting room.

School principal Chris Pelayo rides on his motorbike going to the school daily and crosses this hanging bridge.

School principal Chris Pelayo rides on his motorbike going to the school daily and crosses this hanging bridge.

Make it a family affair! Teaching your children to be generous can be done in many creative ways. They'll love it!

Make it a family affair! Teaching your children to be generous can be done in many creative ways. They’ll love it!

Chris (far right) tapped into his own family support group to help the children in his school. You'll be surprised how your family can rise up to the challenge and show they care.

Chris (far right) tapped into his own family support group to help the children in his school. You’ll be surprised how your family can rise up to the challenge and show they care.

Thought of the moment: Desire over meaning?

“What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning.” – Charlie Chaplin

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Life’s sky has no limits. What you can work hard for, you can achieve.

You’re free to choose – would you choose to go for meaning? Sometimes it’s confusing. Oftentimes mind-boggling. Can we just simply desire then cross-over to meaning?

Maybe I did this unconsciously. Once a young mom with 3 children to raise, my desire to get this job done was overwhelming. There was never even a chance to think of quality and balance. When you are in a survival mode and you’re down to your last peso bill, you just think of nothing else but not drown. You cannot afford to. Many moms can raise their hands on this.

Eventually, living life has turned to meaning. They said it’s “giving back”. On what? I now believe it is just doing what it right when there is a chance. If I may add, just do what makes you inwardly happy.

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”- Rumi

 

For travelers: Aside from the usual tips, 5 essential things to remember

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Armenia’s centuries-old monasteries are awe-inspiring!

Bags packed. Farewells done. All set and ready to go. Wait a minute – have you checked this out?

Flying groggy from Bangkok, I headed straight to a domestic counter in Manila requesting for a window seat and my bags prioritized. Philippine Airlines’ friendly check-in staff looked for my name and never found it. “You were not booked, ma’am,” they said.

After a two-week travel combining holiday and work in Thailand, I totally forgot I haven’t bought my connecting flight to Cebu City. Embarrassing! But what if it was an international connection? It would have been an absolute nightmare especially if you have spent all your money on shopping and can’t afford to buy the connecting flight ticket.

Flight time

If you’re flying at 12:00, look again. Is it midnight or noon? I once sauntered languidly at Jakarta’s international airport thinking my 12:00 flight was at midnight only to find out it has left 12 hours ago (while I was enjoying lunch with friends).

Many airlines and travel agents are now conscious of this confusion and puts am and pm clearly on the ticket. But then, it’s good to check one more time. Remember the difference on military time. It is much better than getting through the trouble re-booking and spending an unwanted extra money on missed-flight-penalties. It was good that the Philippine Airlines booking office in Jakarta followed up on my re-booking and even called me at the hotel to make sure things were in order.

More? Continue reading, just click here in Rappler.

Who said I’ll stop my way past midlife? Some life’s fun tips you might find handy.

My work has never been without fun moments. We can only give our best if we are happy with what we are doing.

My work has never been without fun moments. We can only give our best if we are happy with what we are doing. I met this mother cow while visiting a water project in Duhok, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

(Karlsruhe, Germany, 29/02/2016)

“Nobody said it was easy. No one said it would be so hard. Ohhh, take me back to the start.” – The Scientist, Coldplay

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At the rate I am going, I won’t. That’s a tried-and-test stubborn-as-a-mule attitude I was born with. I would probably be speeding through life until the stoplight turns green.

Tip #1: “Do it badly; do it slowly; do it fearfully; do it any way you have to, but do it.” – Steve Chandler, Reinventing Yourself: How to Become the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be

The past three years have been a blur of exciting career opportunities. At 51, I managed a 10-member-team sharing updates on the world’s strongest typhoon in the Philippines. At 52, closing my ears to protests, I rolled my luggage for the humanitarian crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Riding high on a camel in Petra. Just when I thought my previous trips cannot be matched in fun, Jordan upped the ante.

Riding high on a camel in Petra. Just when I thought my previous trips cannot be matched in fun, Jordan upped the ante.

Tip #2: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – JFK

That was my most emotional assignment so far I am still haunted by the hundreds of thousands of tents occupied by over a million internally-displaced people from northern Iraq.

At 53, I am going back to Africa for the El Nino crisis, the long dry spell in Southern Africa affecting an estimated 60 million people across nine countries. From typhoons to conflict to drought and famine, my life has now been defined with the unbelievable privilege to be at the frontline of the world’s most challenging emergencies.

Tip # 3: “Making your mark in the world is hard. If it was easy, everybody will do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It is whether you let it harden and shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere …” – President Barack Obama

Yes, a privilege because being able to contribute my bit and give voice to those in pain is a special chance to reach out and serve.

My favourite graffiti-in-the-wall photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey. Often we need to look very closely to find beauty in things. Photo by the awesome Albert Yu.

My favourite graffiti-in-the-wall photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey. Often we need to look very closely to find beauty in things. Photo by the awesome Albert Yu.

There were many times where I felt I wanted to sit-down at a porch with a view of the sea and enjoy my latte watching the sunlight. I tell you it won’t take two seconds before I double over with laughter and chide myself. It’s not so Cecil Laguardia to blow the torch off and put it in the holder.

Tip #4: “It is not wanting to win that makes you a winner; it is refusing to fail.” – Unknown

Past my colourful midlife (that proudly included getting on a ship in Turkey to see Troy and riding the camel alone in Jordan’s iconic Petra last year), I will be riding out for my 32nd country. Swaziland, where I will be based, is a small-landlocked country in southern Africa with 1.25 million population.

Work becomes a blessing if you keep sharing and is willing to keep working hard. There are no free lunches. You have no choice but work to exist – you might as well find a way to enjoy it (or be miserable all your life?). I am not an expert on this – but I am on my way.

Tip #5: “Age appears to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” – Francis Bacon

… then I became a grandma. But this needs a special page of it’s own. Soon!

PS: And you know I am writing a book. Yeah, I know you’ve read it a couple of times (or more). Just in case you forgot. :-)

No dull moment in Armenia. I found some of my warmest and nicest and loveliest friends from Yerevan.

No dull moment in Armenia. I found some of my warmest and nicest and loveliest friends from Yerevan.

 

 

 

 

Ok, let’s get the secret out: I’m publishing my first book!

This has to be smokin' hot to get to this page (at least in my opinion, don't argue).

This has to be smokin’ hot to get to this page (at least in my opinion, don’t argue).

(Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, 17/10/2015)

“Everything you do along your journey contributes to where you’re going.” – Jen Sincero

That title, I am sure, got us straight to the jugular. I finally found the “main event” of my going to Iraq.

When the communications job was handed to me in almost a flash – while doing frenzied media interviews at the height of Typhoon Hagupit in Tacloban City in the Philippines on November 2014– I was clueless my life was going for that big U turn (and a massive screeching swerve!).

Maybe I was too busy on my headphone at that time talking of and monitoring the storm to wonder what on earth God was cooking up on something exciting. My work on emergencies is a series of non-stop roller coaster ride, what else is there surprising to anticipate? I was dead wrong!

You know that saying “God works in mysterious ways”? He kept doing that in my life I have resigned to the reality that instead of working against it, I’d sit back and relax, waiting how He will unfold his plans right in front of my sleep-wearied eyes.

He always does. He always made me laugh and say, “There you go – I can never ever outguess You!” And that’s so sweet of Him. For someone who is often wrangling with God to do it my own way, it’s a pleasure to be spoiled with His blessings, and His maximum tolerance.

So, my mantra was and is always this: The best is yet to come. Not so surprisingly, my sweet friend Yara Raad was His voice when she said the exact words during a wonderful dinner treat in Erbil. Oh well, if you know God better just like me – He always goes for the big time!

GeorgeBernardShaw_thumb4I am finally publishing my first book! A long overdue dream, honestly. I need to say this and make this public before I chicken out and change my mind. You won’t hear the car backing out from the driveway this time. Yes, and this is not just going after a dream. I owe it to myself to make it happen.

As Jen Sincero continues with a tone that sounds like an order to me, “Our fantasies are the most revealing peepholes into who we are and what we think is awesome. No matter how out-there and ridiculous they may seem, they mean something to us, and usually represent our biggest and best versions of ourselves.” Enough said.

I told Albert Yu once that I dream of my grandchildren saying to a bookworm seated next to them, “You know what, my grandma is the author of the book you’re reading.” And he shot back, “I think there is already a lot of good stuff your grandkids can say. The book is just one of the long list of accomplishments.” I am not too shy today to share this.

Our Istanbul holiday – a September delight – sealed the dream smack into reality (in a quaint tea shop overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, to be exact).

This first book, a collection of my stories, which will be released on home ground, will benefit a project for children with Cerebral Palsy in Koronadal City. It will be my first project before going for the second – and major – book project from Iraq.

Yes, I am certain this is one of the very special reasons God brought me here. A lot of my weekends got burned working on it – I can’t wait for it to go to print!

Can you please be sweet enough to wait for the book to be unveiled here? As they say it well in the movie theaters, coming soon!

PS: My special thanks to Albert YuDiwa Gacosta, Karen Rivera, Chris Lete and Janice Evidente. For varying reasons, you know why.

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“It is a way we make a living, but it feels more like a responsibility, or a calling. It makes us happy, because it gives us purpose… And we also pay a steep price for this commitment.” – Lynsey Addario, war photographer in her book It’s What I doIMG_0580[1]

Falling hard for the pains of Iraq

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My first sight of Erbil on my plane’s window. My heart leaped with mixed feelings.

When my Qatar Airlines flight landed on one cold afternoon in Erbil six months ago, I was both excited and terrified. I am inside Iraq. The words almost screamed in my head.

I have covered major disasters in my 15 years as a communicator starting with the conflict in Mindanao, the Asia tsunami, the drought in the Horn of Africa, the massive typhoon Haiyan and recently the Nepal earthquake.

I must admit Iraq, with its turbulent and sensitive context, is one special job that would take heart and guts. I said yes because I felt it is one that I cannot bear to think back when I retire that I said no. Looking back, I am happy I made that decision despite so many protests and fears. My family and a lot of my friends would attest I was undeterred.

Braving winter, my first sight of a real displaced camp took my breath away. Over 200 families mostly coming from Mosul lived in the tents for five months in the camp with nothing but the clothes on their back. I was told of heartbreaking stories that many slept in the parks and unfinished buildings in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, before they found place in the camp.

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Fadli, fellow aid worker and friend, walks back to our distribution work. Beyond him is the road to Mosul.

Many of them lived very good lives back where they came from. Some were engineers, doctors, teachers, shop owners, policemen or farmers. Everyone have decent jobs raising families. One father showed me a picture of his smiling daughter at a grocery shop he owned. He said it is gone – leveled by a bomb coming from nowhere.

But my most touching moment was being offered a space next to the heater to ease the winter cold as I did my interviews. These people have nothing and have been suffering for months but they found in their hearts to worry for my welfare setting aside their own comfort. I would have understood if they were angry and bitter. They were instead kindhearted and generous, more than any of us can probably show.

My succeeding days, weeks and months going from camp to camp, from one abandoned building to another where the displaced of Iraq sought refuge were a non-stop string of a people’s humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering and misery.

It was seldom that people refused to get me into their tents and caravans to share their stories. They openly welcomed me like I am part of the family. I have never felt so special being part of these people whose stories I am trying to write so they have a voice for the outside world to hear.

I wish I am a superwoman to end this despair so undeserved. I am not. But I can use my pen, my camera and my writing skills to do something. That’s the best I can offer. My assignment is to tell the world that each and every person and child in the camps and building deserve to live in peace and enjoy the life that God has given them. I see my effort as a drop in the ocean, almost meaningless in the vast desolation of millions.

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Generosity so profound. A Yazidi woman offered me a freshly-cooked bread in a camp in Duhok.

When 10 children I talked to told me they have no hope because in Iraq, when one war ends another will most likely start – my heart sank to its lowest. I can’t allow them to give up their dreams.

I told them of my growing up years in Mindanao running away from war that seemed endless in the 70s. I told them I lived through that because I never gave up. Hearing my story and lifted by it, they started sharing their own dreams – to become a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, a cook and even a football player. I have proven that one person can influence another person to care and there will be many. It can start with you and me.

Hopes grew from one story in that one morning I met the children of Iraq. I hope you understand why I am relentless in writing their stories. For me, this is not just a job. This is doing my small share hoping against hope that one day the families can go home and resume their interrupted lives. We can always dream can’t we? Why not dream for the displaced of Iraq? They can come true.

My prayer is that as that the children and families I met and continue to meet will never give up. Join me.

What is every child’s wish in Iraq’s camps? Most likely the same with Miron’s in this video Miron’s Wish.