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Helping hands, healing (he)arts
by Ofelia Empian

LOVE AND CARE -- The Children's Recovery Unit, a halfway home for recovering sick children of the Helping Hands, Healing Hearts Minisries in Camp 7, prides the love and care that children with various medical conditions, mostly from far-flung provinces, need while living with them. The organization has helped nearly 300 children, inpatient and outpatient, since they started operating in 2009. -- Ofelia Empian

Having had the opportunity to interview and write about the goodness of many Baguio folks, it is not hard to find people with stories of acts of selflessness.

But the challenge was to find people that are worth writing about, who have dedicated their lives to pursue their “calling” or quite simply, by being who they are.

This is about two worthy causes run by women, one of an organization taking care of sick children who live in far-flung pro-vinces in the Cordillera and nearby regions, and another a small quaint book shop that doubles as an arts shop for worthy causes.

Helping Hands, Healing Hearts

Getting to their address in Amparo Heights, Camp 7 is challenging but as soon as you arrive, you realize it’s more than worth the effort.

The home they rent in Amparo Heights is located in a relatively quieter area than their previous rented space in Brentwood. Upon entering the center, one could feel the homey ambiance they have created. The warm, inviting wooden walls and floors, steady humming and churning sound of the washing machines at the back of the house and the soft thud of kiddies footsteps from the upper rooms all point to a feeling of being “home.”

Helping Hands, Healing Hearts Ministries Philippines Inc. has been helping children in the Cordillera and its nearby regions with their two services – the Children’s Recovery Unit (CRU) for sick children in need of a place to recover and nearby is the Children’s Home, a safe refuge for children in various crisis situations and for kids who need long-term shelter until they can be reunited with their biological families, fostered, locally or internationally adopted.

Claire Henderson, an Irish missionary, established Helping Hands, Healing Hearts Ministries in Olongapo City back in 2002. She saw the need for a home for sick children and their parents to stay in when they had to travel long distances to Baguio General Hospital for treatment and decided to branch out here in Baguio City in 2009.

“Helping Hands is the practical side of what we do and Healing Hearts is the spiritual side. It takes both to reach people when they are ill and feeling hopeless,” Henderson said.

Although CRU Baguio was initially set up with the intention of providing a place for sick children from other provinces, it ended up offering much more. Many children who are from Baguio City itself also need a safe, clean home to stay in while undergoing vital treatment.

The CRU was first set up, where Henderson tapped her long time friend and staff Marissa Dela Peña to bring it to life. Marissa and her team have been able to make the CRU a place of healing and solace for many.

The CRU is the only halfway home for sick children in the Cordillera and the second in Northern Luzon. It mainly serves those who live in far-flung communities and need hospitalization or treatments, which can only be provided in public and private hospitals located here in Baguio.

“The recovery unit is like a halfway home, because once the children are discharged from the hospital, we offer them a place to stay while they are still not yet fully recovered. Many will have to go back to the hospital for further treatment in the coming days and weeks, especially the leukemia patients or kids who have had major surgeries. After hospitalization, children tend to be malnourished, immunocompromised and in need of nutritional buildup, so we build them up. Or, if it is an operation they need, we offer pre-operative and post-operative support,” Dela Peña said.

For her, living with the kids in the CRU is more than just a job. It is her calling.

Dela Peña, a Psychology graduate, was a preschool teacher when she began volunteering in the organization. She said that she was about to migrate in Australia with her family in 2008 but changed her mind when Henderson, the executive director, approached her to establish a ministry in the city.

Prayerfully, she made her decision with the blessing of her husband Edwin and she, together with their two children came up to Baguio from Olongapo City to run the center. Her husband returned from his work abroad soon after to partner with her in the Ministry.

It has been eight years since, and the children affectionately call Marissa and Edwin as “nanay” and “tatay” in the home and the staff members are called “ate” and “kuya.” Their own children have bonded well with the kids living with them and support the decision their parents have made to stay in the CRU.

The CRU has provided assistance to nearly 300 children in the region and nearby areas including Sadanga and Paracelis in Mountain Province, Ifugao; Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija; Nueva Vizcaya, Pangasinan, La Union and even children from Manila on occasions.

Right now they have 14 children with different medical conditions under their care. All the needs of the children living in the CRU are provided for free by the ministry.

She said the counterpart of the parents is to look for means of support for their children’s chemotherapies and surgeries and to make sure that their homes are ready for the return of the kids at the right time.

They must also network with other organizations such as the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, local government units or other agencies to find help for their hospital expenses. Helping Hands social workers work hard to enable the parents to find help and develop the confidence to ask for help in appropriate ways.

Children at CRU are mainly referred by doctors from Baguio General Hospital, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and other non-government organizations. Occasionally former patients and parents also refer children from their neighborhoods. There is normally a tiny waiting list but Dela Peña makes every effort to accommodate as many children as possible.

Looking through the transformation pictures of the children was a poignant moment. Seeing pictures of children transform from being severely malnourished and at deaths door, into being fully nourished and eventually healthy enough to be brought home by their own families is striking.

“The families often cannot believe that their children were able to recover. We are able to give them hope, a chance of recovery and life, and to learn that the Lord is still good,” she said.

Parents visit the children but because of the distance of the places where these kids originate from, many are not being visited regularly.

One of the children they are currently tending to is 15-year-old “Grace” who is afflicted with Japanese encephalitis and is now on her second year with them.

She was referred to them by the BGH, where she was hospitalized for eight months. Grace could not walk or talk and had lost her sense of balance due to the virus caused by mosquito bites that affected her brain. She was bed ridden and deteriorating rapidly. Prior to acquiring encephalitis, she was a healthy 13-year-old girl, Dela Peña said.

She said children like Grace are one of the reasons why they exist. She said Grace is from one of the far-flung areas in Nueva Vizcaya. To get to their place, they have to ride a bus for five hours from Baguio to the town center then trek for another seven hours to reach their place, still unreached by electricity. Now, Grace can sit up on her own in a wheelchair and loves to watch all that’s going on around her. She no longer needs oxygen or a tube in her throat though she still needs assistance from her mother (who also lives with her in the center) when eating and doing other daily tasks such as washing.

The length of stay of the children varies on case-to-case basis.

“Some of the children are admitted here for three months, others up to three years, depending on their recovery times,” she said.

Aside from giving them medical and nutritional care, the CRU also brings the children to school through their partnership with Genext School in Loakan. They also bring their children who need physical therapy to their partners, STAC 5 in Trancoville, and kids who need OT and speech therapy to Play and Say in Legarda Road.

Dela Peña lives with her family in the center, at the basement of the rented home. One of the rooms in their family space is currently a hospice room for patients with terminal illnesses such as leukemia. Someday the ministry is hoping to open a separate hospice for these children and their families.

During the interview, I was able to see one of their female patients, along with her mother, with the nurse busy feeding the little girl via tubes.

Maraming nagsasabi na ‘di ko kaya iyong ginagawa mo’ kasi there are times that we have lost kids in a year, siguro mga 15 kids in one year some of them leukemia patients so it hurts. Hindi ako nasasanay every time a kid goes. Christian ako and we believe nandoon na siya sa heaven, but still we’re human and it hurts. But to witness the transformation of the child from dying to a better looking child, that’s the reward,” she said.

Dela Peña then led me to the nearby Children’s Home or the orphanage to take a look.

The CRU is quieter than the orphanage that is just a stone’s throw away from each other. There is a striking difference in the two centers; the CRU is much more quaint-looking and its setup is more of an old family home while the orphanage is much more dorm-type design. Twinkle Vizcara, one of the staff members, says the design suits the setup since there are a lot more children in the orphanage.

The homes aren’t perfect but they will suffice until they can achieve their dream of building a Children’s Village on a half to one hectare of land. They still haven’t been able to find a piece of land that’s suitable or affordable but it’s a dream that they hope someday will become a reality by the grace of God.

Vizcara toured me around the center as Dela Peña put her “nanay” hat on and dealt with two little sons from the center who were having a disagreement.

Vizcara led me to the second floor where she relayed the story of each room. The first room had three beds for three siblings and judging from the cute blue bed sheets and Superman pillows, that was an all boys’ room. Other rooms had pink sheets and girly decorations for the little girls. Each room was cozy and not at all uniform. Each had its own personality, just like the kids who sleep in them.

She said the three male siblings aged two, five, and 10, who have already been matched with adoptive parents from Europe, occupy the room with the Superman pillows.

“They needed to stay together to help encourage their bond since they were not initially that close as siblings,” she said, adding that other sibling groups who are mixed genders, often share rooms with other children instead.

She said most of the children in the Children’s Home are up for adoption, mostly by international adoptive parents as they are no longer babies.

Vizcara, a registered nurse, has been with the Helping Hands for five years. She said the children, presently numbering to 23, live in an environment where they belong as one family. The Children’s Home also has a mother and father figure, called Mama Mina and Papa Jun, who also live with their family in the center. Mina is a registered social worker and also believes she is called to live in and be the mama to the kids until they get their forever family. The Children’s home is led by center head Marie Grace Demandante, and the Social Work Department of Helping Hands Ministry is led by Jovi Lui, the senior social worker based at Children’s Home.

Dela Peña said not all patients in the children’s recovery unit have a family to come home to after they recover. They have also taken in neglected, surrendered, foundling or abandoned kids. If they need medical attention, they stay at the CRU initially and are then referred to the children’s home once they are healthy.

These kids will eventually be matched to possible adoptive parents either locally or internationally.

Dela Peña said every help they receive is gratefully appreciated. Every peso and donation counts. Simple acts like receiving a sack of rice or enjoying food from a person spending their birthday at the center are a huge help for them. They are thankful that many groups and local organizations are beginning to connect with them and support them in various ways.

When asked how the rent was being provided, after seeing how beautifully fully furnished both the centers are, Dela Peña, paused and said: “The Lord provides.”

Healing arts

Maricar Docyogen, on the other hand, integrates business with charity.

Docyogen runs Bookends, a bookshop-cum- arts shop where buyers get the lowest deal for the highest quality of used books or artworks or both. And while you buy, you get to help out beneficiaries as well.

It all started in 2009, when she just got back from Saudi working as a nurse for three years. It was there that she further developed her love for reading and when she got back in the country, she carried it with her.

She said she could not find books in the bookstores here in Baguio so she ended up scouring the Internet.

“I could not find the books I wanted so I ordered online and I would send my orders to my mother-in-law in California. My orders would then fill in one huge balikbayan box, then they will send the box to me,” Docyogen said.

The process would then be repeated until she got more books, reaching up to 27 boxes, than she could read. These she ended up selling to her friend who was into book sale back in La Azotea.

An opportunity came in 2010 when she took over her cousin’s rented space in T. Claudio St. There she started displaying her collections of Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and other books. Surprisingly, other voracious readers such as local newsmen and poets in the city came asking for other book titles.

“I said, I’ll look for them, interestingly, those were books I would love to read as well, that’s where I also started to get acquainted with all kinds of people,” she said adding these people eventually became her link for her charity works.

She started expanding her bookshop and linkages until she met a visitor from Manila who linked her to a person online, a 72-year old Filipino based in the U.S. who trusted her enough to send two trucks of books.

“That’s how I was able to build Bookends. He had been my supplier for three years; then when I had a chance to personally meet him in Manila, I said to him: ‘I owed Bookends to you.’ He was speechless,” she said.

She said her advocacy has been to bring back the reading habit of Baguio people.

“Brand new books are so pricey, some books are not even available here. If I can offer them at a lower price then that would be better,” she said.

As her collection of books grew, so was her rented space and much more people from all walks of life began coming in and looked for books to read.

One time, she saw a woman getting various children’s books. She approached her and asked what the books are for and she said it was for their mini library in her classroom.

“She said she teaches in elementary and when I asked her who is paying for the books, she said it’s from her own pocket. Imagine that kind of dedication to her students. So I told her to get all the books she need and I will give it all for free,” she said.

Docyogen has then helped various schools and organizations build or open their own libraries by giving away free books to them.

As the advocacy continues, she started to extend support to dialysis patients as well.

“We’ve been supporting dialysis patients silently in the past. We have certain days where 50 percent of our book sales would go to dialysis patients,” she said.

They continuously support 20 individuals undergoing dialysis, staring out since 2013. Docyogen is also one of the supporters who drumbeat the free dialysis campaign led by retired government information officer Ramon “Mondax” Dacawi.

Docyogen said she was reluctant at first to be interviewed to publicize what she is doing. But this has changed when Dacawi encouraged her to speak out.

“We just work and I don’t want to promote what I am doing but the point is, like what Mondax said, I become an avenue for people to help others,” she said.

“There are people who are willing to help but they do not know who to help or how to send their help,” she said, adding that anonymous people started coming to her to extend help to dialysis patients as well. But she clarifies that for monetary help, she either directly connects them to those in need or refers them to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Enter the artists groups that lend their artworks and time for a cause.

That’s when the “Sketch mo, buhay ko” was born last year along with the Pasakalye art series which they are maintaining. Part of the proceeds of the events went to various beneficiaries like dialysis patients, children with heart ailments, and even cancer patients.

Another beneficiary during the art exhibits are, of course, the local artists. This is why Docyogen opened up part of her shop as a gallery for various artworks.

“Before I used to display foreign artworks that are commercial paintings but many tourists look for local artworks. When I was able to link with this artist, we started to conceptualize and saw this as an opportunity for local artists to display their works,” she said.

Thus, she has led the organizing of art exhibits in partnership with various malls and hotels in the city. The exhibits, which benefit artists and patients with needs, were well received that they were able to stage about 30 events since last year.

“It is our vision to see all establishments in Baguio have pieces of local arts decorating their walls and not the mass produced arts,” she said.

She said it’s still a long way to go, since they are still building the awareness of the locals when it comes to appreciating the works of Baguio’s homegrown artists.

With all the advocacies she is handling, Docyogen said it takes a toll on her sometimes, having to juggle scheduling events and taking care of artists.

“It’s a little depressing when artists are depending on you to find them clients. But I am thankful for some individuals who are helping me connect with other people,” she said.

Maricar Docyogen and Marissa Dela Peña both have their own families but extended their lives beyond their own families to help others. Their work is reminiscent of the Benedectine order’s motto “ora et labora” roughly translated from Latin to “to pray is to work, to work is to pray.”

It’s the love of people and the value of life that has kept them going in spite of difficulties they are facing. With that said, they challenge and inspire people around them to look beyond their self and see what they can do to help.

Ultimately, they acknowledge that it is not only them that is working for the welfare of others but it is the help of the Baguio community itself which made it possible for them to work and pray for the upliftment of others.

“Baguio folks are very generous, from the simple giving of sacks of rice to the fundraising activities they do for us is very much appreciated,” Dela Peña said.

“This is not me alone, the shop becomes a conduit for people who wants to help,” Docyogen said.

These women are channels of blessings and no doubt, their works inspire people to lend a helping hand as well.
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