11 September 2015

Children's Garden in My Heart (Philippines Odyssey)

Manila in my Heart

The first thing you notice about Manila is the heat. You walk out of the air-conditioned airport and wham, there you are in a sauna. Never mind that it's night time - the tropical air has sweat dripping off the end of your nose in minutes.

The next thing you notice is the traffic. There is no other traffic anywhere in the world like Manila traffic. Trust me on this. You think you have traffic where you live? Nope, you don't.

In Manila, you sit in traffic for an hour and lean across to your hubby and ask, are we nearly there? And he points to the Terminal Three building out your window, and says, haha, nope, we haven't left the airport yet.

Jeepney, Manila (love how they are all decorated so colourfully!)

So you sit in Manila traffic which moves an inch at a time, going nowhere fast, and you watch the city go past (very very slowly). You see what passes for houses: makeshift structures jammed up against concrete pillars, propped up against walls. Conglomerations of cardboard, rusted tin, sacks and tarpaulins. You wonder, What on earth do they do when it rains? And How on earth do they live there, like that?

Birds nest Powerlines - Manila

Meanwhile slow-moving traffic gives you plenty of time to observe makeshift markets crammed under bridges, and people, people everywhere. 25 million people in this one city. No wonder there's so much traffic.

Along with regular cars and trucks there are three wheeled motorbike taxis and multi-coloured jeepneys. After a while you realise there are no traffic lights, but somehow it all works. There are no accidents, pedestrians walk out into live traffic (and traffic stops); cars and trucks, jeepneys and trikes, motorbikes carrying whole families all *toot-toot* politely to let you know they're there.

There are no angry gestures, there is no road rage: just really really bad traffic and really really patient people.
Filipinos must be the most patient people in the world, truly.

Traffic - Manila style

After about three hours, you are nearing your destination, which is good, because the plane landed at 6pm, and you're getting hungry, because you thought the distance looked about an hour's drive away (hahahaha - you'd never been to Manila before).

Jeepney, Manila

Your driver is a clever local, he knows some back-routes. There's a private dirt road he pays the guards to let you drive down. Along this dirt track you glimpse more stacks of shacks, piled up; people gathered around a fire, children playing in the dirt; a flash of teenage faces in a tumbledown doorway. This is poverty, you think. It is just quietly blowing your mind; already your heart is cracking wide open and you haven't even arrived yet.

The driver stops for a gas and hubby takes the chance to grab a bottle of water at a nearby 7-Eleven. Out the window you think you are seeing things: two young teenagers, a boy and a girl, are lying in a shop doorway. The boy is already bedded down, the girl is trying to get comfortable, tugging a cardboard box over herself. This is where they are making their bed for the night, in a busy carpark, in a doorway, under a box. Your heart has just broken in half.

Children's Garden, Antipolo, Manila

Then you arrive at your destination. It's a humble concrete structure, a house off a narrow alley. Nothing about the look of it gives away what lies within: a miracle.

In the midst of all the human misery, poverty and teeming millions scratching out a living in one of the world's busiest cities, is the Children's Garden. Home to boys who once lived on the street, who had no future and no-one to care for them. But now they do.

These boys have more than just a roof over their head. They have a home - and a bright future. They have people who believe in them, who feed them, and get them to school, and pray with them, and listen to them. This little group of twenty lucky boys (from the 700,000 others who live under bridges and sleep in doorways) are growing into wonderful young men.

Mama Sharon at Childrens Garden

I want to introduce you to Sharon, the mama of Children's Garden. Sharon is one of the most inspirational women I've ever met. She is strong, courageous, caring, compassionate. Sharon spearheads the Children's Garden, and without her it wouldn't exist. We walk down the street together and young street girls and boys out to call "Ateh Shar" who is never too busy to stop and chat; everybody seems to know her.

Of course Sharon doesn't run Children's Garden alone; there is a whole team of amazing people who help make this place what it is. Some are volunteers from other countries, some are boys who were once helped by Children's Garden, now grown and married and giving back.

And then there's Billy - Sharon's soon-to-be-husband. Billy runs "Second Phase" where the boys move on to once they are nearing the end of high school. It's a place where they can learn independence and transition smoothly into employment or college. There's also soon to be a girls' home; all of this runs without government funding.

Children's Garden is not just an organisation - it's a family.
Sharon tells me, "The social workers and other people say to me, Sharon, you can't let this work get personal - don't let it get to you. But how can I not? It IS personal."

Billy and Sharon are AMAZING

Sharon is amazing, inspiring, beautiful in every way. And Sharon and Billy together are a force to be reckoned with. These people are the salt of the earth.

Get this: Billy and Sharon are getting married at the end of the month and they're asking guests not to give them gifts. Instead, they are asking people to contribute to one of the projects on their hearts, and have set up a webpage to make that happen.
Selfless much? I know, right? Who does that? Sharon and Billy, that's who.

Pastor's House in Manila
FROM SHARON'S FACEBOOK PAGE: "Every Saturday 25 people gather at this small house. Pastor Dave has faithfully been meeting people within the community where he mentors and disciples them. We were able to see what God has been doing in this place, from 3 people and now 25, and this 25 people are praying to reach out to the entire community! They are praying that they can maximize the space outside the house by cementing the floor and put some roofing on. Would you consider to be a part of what God is doing in this community? You may check our wedding website: http://billyandsharon.zankyou.com/us/wedding-list/gift/id/2441310. Thanks friends!

When my hubby went to Manila with the team last year, the place and the people captured his heart. He was desperate for me to see and experience it for myself - and to meet Sharon. On the night before we were due to fly to Manila from Bangkok we had news from back home which meant that I almost had to return to NZ immediately, but thanks to the kindness of friends who stepped in, I was able to stay on, and not have to rush home.

Thank you, every one of you that helped with that situation. Because if I hadn't made it to Manila, I would have missed the best part, the life-changing, heart-growing part.

Mealtime at the Children's Garden

The day we left New Zealand, as we were carrying our suitcases out to the car, our youngest son, Scrag, pushed a $10 note into his daddy's hand.
"Can you give this to the kids in the Philippines?" he said. It was his birthday money from Grandma.

Children under the Bridge - the motorway overpass is their "roof"
Dishing up a hot lunch for the families under the bridge every Saturday

The night we got home, we sat around the dinner table, telling our kids about what we did, what we saw.
We told them how we went "under the bridge" with Sharon and her team and the CG boys.
Every Saturday they do this, visit a group of families who live under a motorway overpass. They take them a hot meal, play games with the kids, sing songs, talk and pray.

Playing games with the families under the bridge

The Saturday we went, we were able to take with us a 50kg bag of rice to divvy up for the families as well.

"And did you use my $10 for the rice???!!!" Scrag asked eagerly. Well, of course we did!

50kg Bag of rice that Scrag's $10 helped to buy

I will never forget that morning under the bridge.
(Especially the smiles. We who have so much more, smile so much less.)
At first I was awkward. Embarrassed to be there, me having so much, them having so little.
What do you say?
But Sharon and the CG team have such great relationships with all of them, before long it was awkward no more and we were joining in the games and chatting away.

Playing games under the bridge

Sharon told me how the authorities don't want the families living there, so from time to time they raid the place and try to move them on, piling their meagre possessions up and setting them on fire. But the families keep coming back; it's a good place for them under the bridge, they reckon.

One of the ladies told me that her family had got a house a while ago, but it was in a bad neighbourhood where there was lots of fighting and knives and gangs. Her children didn't feel safe there, so they went back under the bridge where "the people have better attitudes".

These two sisters have voices like angels

She sang for me, her and her sister, and I had goosebumps from head to toe. They had the voices of angels and I had a lump in my throat. (The families from under the bridge are all invited to Sharon's wedding and the two sisters will be singing there).

One of their daughters is called "Donna Grace" - which was my name before I was married. (My first name is actually Donna. I'm Donna Simone. And my maiden name was Grace.) So when this little girl told us her name was Donna Grace, at first I thought someone was pulling my leg.

Me and Donna Grace (my "namesake")

This beautiful shy girl who looks about 11 years old, is actually 15. Of course she has captured both mine and hubby's heart completely and we are desperate to help her and her family.

They have so little but their smiles are radiant

It's a complex situation, there's no quick and easy fix (witness what happened when they tried to move away- they went back) but Sharon and the team are working away on it and who knows what might be possible in the future?

Under the bridge
Wendel - once a street kid himself, now giving back under the bridge

Another thing that struck me as we were under the bridge - there were the CG boys working away, dishing out food, parceling up rice, playing with the kids. Not long ago it was them living under bridges, sleeping in doorways. Now here they are, rescued, and already giving back.
It's just part of the CG family culture.

Naptime in the van - Manila traffic makes you patient

I couldn't help thinking as I watched the CG boys playing and working (and later sleeping in the van as we wended our way through Manila traffic) just how PRECIOUS they are. Each one, a life so full of potential; each one with dreams and aspirations. Once abandoned and alone.
How many more are out there, just like them?

Family sleeping space under the bridge
A family of five sleeps here: mum and dad + three little kids.
At night they drape a mosquito net over the sticks. This is their home.

It can be pretty overwhelming when you come face to face with such obvious poverty, such desperate need, on such a huge scale. At first, driving (slowly) through Manila's streets I felt weighed down with the size and scope of the problems. I felt hopeless and helpless to do anything: any effort to make a difference would be like a drop in the ocean.
Until I remembered that thing I've learnt, my life's mantra: Use what you have, where you are.
We start by doing what we can, right where we are.

Wall mural I painted in the CG Kitchen
While I was at Childrens Garden I painted them a sea view. A little piece of NZ in Manila.
It's the "Loaves and Fishes" principle. Put the little that we have (as insignificant as it might seem) into God's hands. He does the rest. We do what's possible and let God do what seems impossible.

Loaves and fishes: we do our part, God does the rest

That's what Sharon did, that's how CG got started. She and a group of friends started hanging out with street kids that they met in their area, giving them food and getting to know them. Later on they were given the house they are in now, but that came after years of just using what resources they had, out of their own pocket.

Now there are miracles. What started so small has seen lives completely changed. Futures changed forever. It's not a drop in the ocean, it's a pebble dropped in a pond - the ripples go on and on.

Individuals whose lives are transformed go on to reach others, who go on to reach others...

CG Boys scrub up beautifully for church!
In the CG basement there's now a Ping-pong table thanks to Mr G and Billy's DIY efforts

I've returned to New Zealand with Children's Garden (and Manila) in my heart. I caught it. We've caught it, as a family. I am certain this is just the beginning of a long association, which will include our children (soon-to-be-13 year old Dash's first comment when he saw the pictures: I want to go to the Philippines. Yep, son. Next time Daddy goes, you're going too).

Me and Sharon on our last night in Manila - a beautiful time

What is most on my heart is to support Sharon, personally. I know from personal experience the toll that heading up a venture reaching out to "the neediest" can take on your soul. It's exhausting, draining, discouraging at times. Souls which give out so much need replenishing. Sharon is the mama to those boys, and you know that if Mama aint happy, aint nobody happy.

So I want to take care of Mama Sharon, and make sure her soul is in good health. I'm not talking about the spiritual (which she has nailed), I'm talking about every girl's hankering for beauty and girl-time: Green pastures and still waters that restore the soul. Time out, coffee dates... and as she gets married, that all important husband-and-wife time.

This is my personal mission: Take care of Sharon.
I asked myself, What can I do? And here's what I came up with: I'm directing all proceeds from my Etsy shop to the "Sharon's Green Space" fund. It's earnings may be small-change in the scheme of our household finances, but with the peso-dollar exchange rate being 1:30, it will go a long way. That's what I can do.


Now I'm gonna ask you to think: has this story pinged in your heart? If not, all good. No worries. But if as you've read something stirred in you and you would like to do something, can I ask you to think about giving a little to one of Billy and Sharon's projects for their wedding?


That's all. This will not be the last you hear from me on the subject of Children's Garden, but for now - I feel like I got something off my chest. Thanks for reading!

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