Alex Jeffares From The Philippines, With Thought

I am writing to you from a city in the southern Philippines called Davao. As most of you will know I am spending three weeks here in an orphanage, as I came here from my holiday in Indonesia. It is called the Field of Dreams, a wonderful albeit small institution about which I have learnt much in my short time here. It is however located about 40 kilometres out of the city proper. It was founded by an Englishman by the name of Mr. Field who lives in London. But because of a terminal illness of some kind he can’t continue to provide funds for the Field of Dreams and as such they are in a dire financial position.

The orphanage houses 30 boys between the ages of 4 and 20, and has been established since 2006. There are no girls. Unlike in Australia and other Western countries, establishments in the Philippines like the Field of Dreams do not receive any financial support from the Filipino government whatsoever. It is for this reason that they rely heavily on the presence of volunteers like myself, donations (which are few), as well as the constant efforts of the staff here and in Davao proper and elsewhere on the island of Mindanao who source the volunteers and other means of finance.

Boys here have either been abandoned by their parents, neglected or they are here due to indigence. It is the heart-wrenching reality of the situation but nevertheless one that we all must come to terms with as the state of the planet worsens in almost every respect, and those at the lowest rungs of the world’s economic and social ladder suffer the most. But my heart is warmed by the people who work here, and of course the boys themselves who are incredibly tactile, trusting and respectful.

The staff here is comprised of ‘house parents’, of whom there are four, and each having shifts like a normal job. There is George, or as we say in Filipino, ‘Kuya George’, which literally means ‘big brother’. George is the Director of the orphanage who is indefatigable in running the establishment. The boys call me ‘Kuya Alex’. This, coupled with the fact that children and adolescents as old as 20 will hold your hand, pull it towards them and place the back of your hand to their forehead as a sign of grace and respect, has quickly fostered within me a deep admiration of Filipino society and the way in which it teaches children from very young the virtues of respect, kindness and humility. This is something I regret to say I feel is lacking in Australia. I for one am guilty of neglecting these virtues, and at my peril.

Mornings start at 5am, and I’ve made a conscious effort to get up at this time too. Bed time is between 8.30 and 9pm which is perfect for me as my glandular fever continues to abate. Occasionally I get a raspy throat but nothing like what I had before I left. Like in most other tropical countries, the early rise is to make the most of a day that, at about midday, becomes insufferably hot and sticky. The boys go to school after prayer, breakfast and exercise, to mingle with other children from around the village and learn. I’ve also been constant in my attendance at school. I sit in the classes that are taught in English, namely math and science in the capacity of teaching assistant, I suppose you could call it. This is important for me so that I understand the subject matter for when the boys return home. I run tutorials with the boys in the afternoons and evenings in their ‘study room’. Some boys are extremely eager to get assistance, but most are not. The level of education here, as one would imagine, is extremely low. English is not strong and the kids struggle on a daily basis. Every Tuesday, the Sisters from the local church come to give lessons on religion and good morals.

The Philippines is steeped in Catholic tradition, but there are however a number of boys here who were Muslims when they arrived but have since been ‘converted’. A small number of the boys also question the existence of a God. Both Hinduism and Buddhism don’t really feature in the parts of the country to which I’ve been. However I understand that in Manila there are more of these religions.

I was also astonished to learn from my new Filipino friend Glyd that the Philippines possesses 7107 islands at low tide!

As some of you will recall when asking for donations of art materials, paper, toys etc., I strictly requested no books, and I now know why. The shelves in their ‘study room’ are replete with textbooks, encyclopaedias and novels, some in English, others in Filipino. Thank you again to those generous enough to donate things for me to take on my trip. You can be confident of the fact that they are going directly into young hands that use them to their fullest, until tattered, battered and bruised.

We will soon be going on a day trip at the weekend for which I will pay. It is always the burden of the volunteers to either pay for the petrol for the orphanage’s truck when picked up or dropped off somewhere, or when taking the boys on excursions. While I was at a convention (Liwanag Festival on Creativity and Sustainability) in Davao city, I made some new friends who took me to an island called Samal which is home to some stunning beaches. I have learned that volunteers in the past have taken the boys here, so I will do the same and go back there with the boys. We will take buses, a boat and then a ‘hubbil hubbil’ which means motorcycle, to swim and enjoy the beach; a rare opportunity for the boys as they cannot normally afford it.

There is one boy in particular who has taken quite a shine to me. His name is Otep and I tutor him regularly in the ‘study room’ and sit with him during his classes. But management here worries about his academic and developmental progress and some even suspect him of having a mental condition of some kind. There is a mental institution for the challenged and the insane nearby to which we went on my first day on the way from the airport. Otep’s parents are absent: they are not spoken of, maybe dead or indigent I do not know. He has a grandfather in Davao and an aunt in Manila but neither will take him for they feel that if they did it would be their end. I am deeply troubled by the thought of a boy of 14 years being in such a precarious situation, but he seems to cope from day to day. Who knows what the future will hold for him and many of his ‘brothers’ here?

There are a number of younger boys, between 5 and 9 years old, who are very clingy. I try to give them as much attention as I can because I cannot imagine what it has been like growing up with neither a mother nor a father. One in particular called Jericho is fascinated by my hands. He will sit with me for minutes on end, pressing my fingers and watching the redness turn to white and then back to red again as the blood circulates. His hands by the way are about the size of a 3-year-old and he is 8. But most Filipinos are very small in their stature and consequently their limbs. To them I am a foreign giant, quite literally, and I think I’m looked at even more than when I was in India. But a soft smile will always elicit a coy smile back, and they quickly turn away.

There are also two older boys, the same as age as me, who go into the city to a TAFE-style college where they learn a trade. One is learning mechanics, the other hotel management. The eldest, Richard, has requested that I teach him how to read music so that he can improve his skills on the violin. This I will also endeavour to do. But because I’ve learnt the viola it may take a while for me to re-learn the violin first! The boys have many questions about my studies, as do the staff. Questions about money are also numerous. Rose, one of the house parents, asked me how much it had cost me to come to the Philippines, and after having made the conversion into Pesos, it was something in the realm of $100,000 Pesos. She was astounded. Here, money is hard to come by. Therefore I am trying to practise gratitude more and more; for we are so very lucky to live where we live, to eat what we eat, and to experience what we experience.

For now, I will end my letter to you here. I hope that you are all well and making the most of your busy lives, and know that I am grateful for all of you that have filled my life with much joy, friendship and love. Take a moment, when you have one, to think about those less fortunate than yourselves.