Wisdom & Insight
VolunTourism Wisdom From The Philippines
Amanda Berlin went to the Philippines as a voluntourist. She sent an essay of her journey to VolunTourism.org. After reviewing the piece for consideration, the thought came: "Why not have Amanda recount her experience with bits of 'wisdom & insight' inserted throughout. This will give readers a chance to truly understand some of the dynamics and mental & emotional gymnastics that occur during a VolunTourism experience."
Many thanks, Amanda Berlin, you delivered!
Prologue: In October I went on a two-week trip to the Philippines with an organization called Rotaplast International. One of eleven non-medical volunteers with a group of doctors and nurses performing surgery on children with cleft lip and palate, I was given the task of serving as the group’s photojournalist. Part of my responsibility was to write a two-thousand-word essay on our efforts. What follows are pieces of that essay along with a retrospective commentary, now months after returned from my first voluntourist experience.
The sign at the Bacolod airport welcomes us to the City of Smiles; a salutation befitting a team of 30 volunteers arriving to improve the smiles of local children.
Wisdom & Insight (W&I): I had no idea what to expect as we were shuttled past vendors selling food and local crafts and young people begging for money, one brandishing an amputated hand. I am in “get-through” mode, trying not to do the worst possible thing: cry.
We are escorted by van to our hotel. An armed guard stands in the doorway as we enter. We never see him again which makes me think he was there just for the arrival of the Americans.
W&I: I have been to the “third world” before. The first time, I was nineteen and had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain into Morocco with friends when I was studying abroad. Our small group of affluent-by-comparison students from America stood out among the Moroccans trolling the ferry terminal. Men started following us, brokering for local hotels looking for guests. Children followed us, hands cupped, asking for money. The feeling in the Philippines was the same. Except, American news reported earlier in the week recent beheadings by Filipino guerillas. I’d be lying if I denied thinking that one blond-haired young American woman like myself would make a good political prisoner. I tried to put those fears out of my mind.
The next day we arrive at the hospital for clinic day. I thought it might be difficult to look at the faces - babies, children, teens and young adults, living six months, eight years, in some cases two or three decades with cleft lip - such a conspicuous deformity. But it wasn’t.
W&I: In reality, I had a get-the-job-done approach to the mission. I had to look at these children. I was responsible for bringing back images of those we helped. I put my head down and muscled through. I had done little in the way of preparation for this trip. Everything I had done was quintessentially American, all things that fall under the heading: “But what will I wear?” In addition to visiting my doctor for the required vaccinations and pills, buying a TSA-approved lock, looking up the weather for Bago City, Philippines on weather.com and printing out the itineraries that the organization gave us and took notes on what clothes should be worn to each scheduled event, I looked up pictures of children with cleft lip and palate on the internet and learned what caused the deformity. I found the internet images harder to look at than the actual real-life children I saw in person at our nearly-dilapidated Bago City hospital. The initial images made my joints twinge – the heebie jeebies. But actual children, in some cases wearing their best clothes, appealing to us to fix them, was something else. The only discomfort came when I could clearly see the children’s embarrassment. Each had a different way of concealing their deformity and I sensed that a few parents lacked a degree of affection for their children. I wished they knew it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t a curse, as many of them believed, it wasn’t contagious, another bit of misinformation I learned that they harbored, and that they needed to comfort their children, especially now, while they are surrounded by strangers and possibly facing the scariest thing they’d ever encountered.
During the first clinic day, we screen all the children, sending them through a battery of cursory examinations and take “before” pictures of every kid, which will be stapled to their chart. In each picture, the child is holding his or her folder, on which us written their patient number. The pictures look like mug shots. And their number will be written on their arm the day of their surgery to avoid confusion. Another terrible prisoner analogy comes to mind, but all in the name of safety and practicality, I suppose.
W&I: As the “photojournalist” on the mission, I was charged with taking these photos. I was also told it would be great if I could connect with a family and arrange to visit their home once their child was released from the hospital. This was something I wanted to do, something I knew I had to do, but I felt very uncomfortable asking a mother, whose child is about to go into an operating room and put under general anesthesia, if she would be amenable to some company at her home later in the week.
I work up my courage and ask one of the Filipino nurses to interpret for me. Ultimately, we connect with a six-year-old patient named Jelah, and her mother Sheila, who is more than enthusiastic about hosting us at her home once Jelah is discharged from the hospital. She agrees even before the interpreter is finished relaying our request.
Our mission director makes arrangements for me to travel to Jelah’s home by way of the van that brought her and five other families to our mission. They were sponsored by the Philippine National Oil Company because they live in a region near the PNOC’s new thermal energy plant. The community relations liaison, Sammy, tells me their work on behalf of these families is part of the PNOC’s “corporate responsibility.”
W&I: With the notion of corporate responsibility only just taking off here in the States, in the era of outsourcing, high-powered, high-priced executives and a weakening economy, I found the PNOC’s commitment to the people refreshing. The families they serve don’t even need to work for the company; they are privileged just because they live in the area. Sammy devoted his week to shuttling these families to and from the hospital, in some cases more than an hour or two each way. He asked me to take pictures of him with them, too. And, truth be told, the first time I saw him in the post-op ward with one of our youngest patients, I thought he was her father.
Between the landscape and the ride to Jelah’s house, I feel like I am at an amusement park. It is surreal.
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W&I: Part of me hoped the ride wouldn’t end. I had no idea what I was going to do once we got to their house. I didn’t want Sheila to feel any pressure as a host. And I couldn’t imagine what we are going to talk about, where we were going to sit, who we were going to see.
Then the van stops opposite a muddy path. There is one lot on either side. Jelah’s family lives on the left. There are two huts, an outhouse, a chicken coop, a pigsty and a little shelter made from two planks propped against each other in which resides their fighting cock.
The landscape they’ve created is gorgeous. Sawed-off tree trunks are laced with orchid blossoms and palm-fronds, and lush bushes are out back. The rest is the beautiful evidence of existence. A clothesline is strung between the house and the fence. Vegetable plants wiggle out of the earth; and a table where they eat lunch is near the fence. Their roofs are made of rusting corrugated tin and intricate bamboo lattice work lines the sides of both huts.
W&I: I didn’t take my sneakers off in either of their huts. Sheila told me I didn’t have to, but everyone who lived there shuffled out of their sandals at the front door. I took care not to walk where they slept – there was a raised bamboo floor in one of the four rooms in their hut on which the entire family slept. And Sheila showed us where she kept all of their clothes and her “personal items” – in a cardboard box that served as an underwear draw. She laughed and covered her mouth. She was missing a front tooth. In the small sitting room, she pointed out all of Jelah’s toys on the shelf in their kitchen and showed me the pictures Jelah colored for her grandmother’s 70 th birthday. If not for the lack of modern comforts that we enjoy in the States, it could have been any of our homes.
Jelah’s father works in the sugar cane field, making what amounts to about two dollars a day. He also built all the structures on their lot. While they don’t have indoor plumbing, I notice they have one light, a long fluorescent bulb bolted to the ceiling. And plugged into a power strip, they have a television. Charlotte’s Web is on.
We ask Sheila if there is anything they need or want that maybe they can’t get or afford. Her answer is translated by one of the nurses who traveled with us, “She says she doesn’t need anything; she is content.”
W&I: To me, her answer was symbolic. I wouldn’t have expected anything different. I wouldn’t have answered anything different. Not that I would deign to compare my existence to hers, she has certainly had more struggles and hardship, has worked harder for less, but her answer was based on the same things that helped me avert nervousness in coming on this trip. It’s her responsibility to survive, her responsibility to provide the very best she can for her children; when times were tough, she put her head down and got through. What was the alternative? She didn’t even cry when she let the doctor take Jelah from her arms in the hospital hallway. Within her lies hope that her children will have it better.
In the end we admitted 67 children and performed 124 procedures. I wish we could have done more. We did good work; we changed the lives of the children on whom we performed surgery, and, by extension, their families. That is no small feat. That alone made our trip worthwhile. However, over and over again, I wondered about the lasting impact. These children will likely never see a doctor again in their lives. Our dentist pulled healthy teeth because these kids would never be able to go to an orthodontist to correct their positioning. The otherwise viable teeth would have interfered with or counteracted the aesthetic improvements of the surgery. Some of the kids had skin irritations, which clearly bothered them more than the stitches in their lips. And some ran out of food and had no money to buy more when they were told they would have to stay another night in the hospital. And without health education, access to medical care, or knowledge of how proper nutrition can prevent cleft lip and palate, the incidence of the deformity in developing countries will continue.
But, there is no doubt that we did amazing work. I am very proud of the team and to have been a part of such an altruistic group of highly skilled professionals. Our doctors helped the patients in every way they could. And to date, Rotaplast International has completed 115 missions and has served more than 10,000 patients toward the goal of eliminating the incidence of cleft lip and palate by 2025 through education and empowerment. Our doctors even encouraged medical personnel from the host-hospital to train on cleft lip and palate procedures while we were there.
The unfortunate thing is that even if every Filipino doctor was proficient in correcting cleft lip and palate, there isn’t the infrastructure to fill the hospitals with the equipment necessary to support the effort.
But any one of the 67 children we helped could change their world, becoming a doctor, a politician, a benefactor, a crusader who will help lift his or her family, village, city, country out of poverty. It is certain that the lives of these 67 children will be different because of us. And with that, we left knowing that this was what we did and that our work will endure. These children will live better than they could have before.
BIO: Amanda Berlin is a corporate writer for a communications firm in New York City. With a degree in Journalism from The George Washington University, she has maintained a blog as an outlet for her creative writing since March 2005. In addition to writing about her recent participation as journalist on a philanthropic mission to the Philippines, Amanda is penning a young adult novel and various non-fiction articles. She lives in downtown Manhattan.
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