Volunteering with Rucksack Coach and Cleftfriends

Help can come in many different ways. In April 2016 my dear friend and former colleague at Deutsche Bank, Andrea Kahland, came with my god-daughter Hannah (7) and brother Finn (5) to volunteer for Rucksack Coach. They met our cleftfriends in the Philippines and shared tears and joy with us.

She wrote about her experience: Travel report from Andrea Kahland

My stay at the Philippines in April 2016

I admire my friend Annie, together with my children Hannah and Finn, how brave she is, when she told us 2 years ago, that she aimed at supporting disadvantaged children all around the world. Hannah is very proud of her godmother… and so am I.

My Promise to Support
She probably didn’t know how hard this travel would be, how much strength it would require of her and how many adversities she would have to face. Two years ago, I gave her my word, that we would come and support her, and her daughter Malia’s, work in person. Finally, April of this year, we embarked on this life altering trip. I took my daughter Hannah and son Finn, over their Easter school break and an additional two weeks out of school. I sold used children clothes, DVDs, books and CDs, to collect some donations. Again, I wrote donation­ emails to my friends, (and continued to do so on our return), packed two extra suitcases filled with gifts for the families, like clothes, school supplies and toys. In total I had 375 euros in donations­ not much, I know­, but better than nothing.

Getting There

Our flight is long and tiring, hardly enough time to make it to our transit flights. My friend Annie, her daughter Malia – both arrived on the very same day as we did, in the Philippines – and Mel, the Executive Director of NCFP (Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation of the Philippines) is waiting for us at the airport. The traffic in Manila is a nightmare, we make it to the Christian accommodation where we´ll be staying, very late at night. We stay with the nuns at their residence, our cleft patients live in a separate house, called the transient house.
The group of patients, which Annie is supervising, hasn’t arrived yet. The organization takes a lot of time and nerves. For a complete cleft repair treatment, several operations are necessary. Depending on how severe the case is, some children need at least three operations. For „Annie’s cleftfriends“, how she lovingly calls her patients, it will be their second operation. Even that NCFP Foundation covers the complete cleft treatment, there are still families who can’t make the trip, through many different challenges.

Getting All Cleftfriends To Manila

Annie has several telephone conversations with the affected families and after a long period of twisting and turning, they finally start telling her the truth:
Norlita has no money to repay the loan for the sack of rice she bought to feed her four children, nor have her kids shoes or clothes for the trip. Estrella has to repay a loan, that she took a few month earlier in order to pay the hospital bill of her cleft daughter Niña Grace, who got admitted to hospital due to a asthmatic attack. Mama Estrella is picking sea shells early in the morning, which her older daughters are going to sell, so they can cover the weekly loan payment. Daddy Resmeel is worried, he has to support his wife and newborn at home, but takes all his strength to make the trip to Manila for the operation for his son Leemcer Zeus.
Annie promises them, that she will support them the best she can. How and from where to take the money, she doesn´t know yet. But she has learned dot trust and she knows these families need help, now! She takes a loan herself, on her personal account, to send money for their transportation costs and to pays back the loan for the rice. Only after that, the patients were able to make their way to Manila.

Volunteering on the Check up Day

Monday is check up day at the „Our Lady of Peace Hospital“ in Parañaque. NCFP hires a van for our group. A circle of filipino doctors volunteer and work with the cleft patients. In a rotation system, they share the Monday check up, where they test the blood, take x­-rays and check their overall health. It is very important, that the lungs aren’t infected and the patients can breath freely, otherwise an operation would be too risky.

When all results are good and the patients got cleared, then the operation will happen the day after the examination.
For our first three patients the outcome looks good. Only, there was no operation spot available for the next day, so they got scheduled for the following Tuesday.
While some of the children are evaluated, Hannah, Finn, myself and a doctor organise a children’s program. We make crafts, painting and origami; folding paper dogs, airplane and dolphins.

Life at the Transient House

My new daily routine consists of going to the market, purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables (with my personal funds). We buy diapers, milk powder, cocoa and many ingredients to cook at the transient house. The money is gone so fast, I am shocked how expensive life is in Manila. The prices for fruit and vegetables are the same as those in Germany, no wonder none of the patients with a monthly wage of 50­ to 100€, can afford a balanced diet for themselves let alone their families!

The kitchen is run by Cyntia, who is in charge of the Transient House. My daily yoga classes seem to make her a bit more cooperative. At th time of being there, there’re about 40 patients living at the Transient House. We see a wide variety of cleft and other cases all waiting for an operation.

Our three families, in total 9 people, share three beds, it is far from perfect. Norlita only has her oldest son left at home, the younger brother and sister and of course Charly, the cleft patient have come along on the journey. Four people must share one bed. It breaks my heart to see this. There is not even a fan for Norlita’s and Estrela’s families. But it has almost 40 degrees Celsius. In the first nights, Niña got a fever at night.

The next day we go out and buy a swimming pool for the Transient House, so that the children can cool down a bit through the day and a fan which we can set up between the two mums in the bedroom.

Christian Altruism?

We take Charly and his sister Princess Hannah Marie in our room and let them sleep with us. It does upset the nuns and as a result Annie and her daughter can’t stay anymore at the nun residence, as it was originally planned.…. I question where exactly the christian altruism
has gone?

Special Souvenir

And we got a special travel souvenir: lice. We Kahlands, were so happy to have such thin hair, hardly a louse could stay in our hair. But all the others struggle aquiet a bit, but they all take it with humour.

Eating Together

Our meals are a large happening. Together, we bless the food and say our thanks, and we begin the meal. We wait for each other to ensure each person has a serving of vegetable soup, salad, fruit and bread. That is also something that is not so typical at the transient house. Usually, it is not enough just to be filled, the soups are often very stretched and the flavor leaves something to be desired.

Yoga Practise and More 

In the morning and in the evening we practice yoga, there is a lot of laughter. Annie has brought Yoga pants from India for the parents of her cleftfriends and even one for Cynthia and Mel.

During the day, Annie has many meetings with the patients, they come together in a circle, plan the next steps and strengthen the self­confidence of those concerned.

We distribute our clothes and toys, try to give each child in the facility a snack and also give a box of toys to the transient house. The principle of sharing does not work so well, soon, the box is empty and each child is looking for their own to have.

Personal Stories

In individual interviews, with the three families, I obtain the extent and the cause of the debt, the circumstances of their life and the cost of schooling:
Estrella is in total almost 14,000 PHP (Philippine Pesos) or 258 Euros, in debt. I think about, that we buy back in Europ with 258 Euros, groceries for two weeks? A new handbag? For these families this is more than what they make in several months. How can the debt be so much, I ask? Then I begin to understand… 5000 PHP within 6 months becomes 7200 PHP with interest, the level of the interest rate is unbelievable! At this moment I make a promise to myself, to help these families, to get donations for their loan repayment as well as to find sponsors for the children who are permanently ready to finance their education.

The story of Norlita, who is a single parent, makes me the most sad. Without a husband and support of their parents, she must struggle. The house does not even have power, she works everyday, 12 hours as a maid, Charly and the small son Prince (2 years old!), spend the entire day locked in the house. Why, I ask, your parents live next door?
Well, the accountability has never been there… initially her mum looked after Norlitas children, but she slept during the day and her (at the time 1 year old) son was found on the roof of the house. It was not easy to get Norlita to Manila, even worse yet her oldest son called to tell her that he has nothing to eat and of course the grandparents will not help… We wire money for a bag of rice. So the bonding of the families continues to be strengthened in the framework that Annie offers daily, the bonding program offers so much support and with support, hopefully we can help Norlita have more time for her children!

Resmeel seems to have the best business sense. To his credit, he has recorded many business ideas. Together we must consider whether there is a solution to the problems here, perhaps a good business idea. Maybe there is opportunity for Norlita to create friendships with the other families and then no one is as alone and without support.

Annie, Mel (NCFP) & I consider what options are available. Is there such a thing as a relief organization for single mothers women?

Visiting the NCFPI Head Office
We visit the office of Mel, to learn more about the staff there. There is even an orthodontic and therapy treatment room. On a wall we find before and after pictures of treated cleft patients. It is unbelievable what these doctors are able to do!

Special Day Out

I know it is extravagant use of the extra money I had, when debts could be paid for the families but I wanted to help create a special memory for them and give some hope to the children. So we plan an excursion and cook up a huge amount ahead of „Pansit“­ a traditional Filipino rice noodle dish with vegetables, order a van and make our way. We drive to a ferris wheel and ride on a tram, eating ice cream and everyone is enjoying the view of the sea. The only ones again to gripe, saying it is boring and silly, are my children. I can not describe how grateful these patients are who are fighting daily to get by and then when I see the ingratitude of my children, I wonder whether there are such people who are educated and have not realized that they live in a sea of prosperity at home. It is probably something one needs to see and experience to understand…. I feel like this experience certainly opened my eyes.

What will happen next?

While we are waiting, we find out that Charly may have tuberculosis, perhaps even his entire family! Oh no, we pray that this is not so. Because if the treatment window, it could take at least 6 months before he can have this surgery. But who will this time take on the burden and fight until they come to Manila? Does this mean that Annie must in 6 months, once again, come to the Philippines?
And then the results are here, Charly is positive for tuberculosis. So that he become healthy, Norlita must have the chance to stay at home, but she needs an amount of around 2 euros per day to collect her wage and a little money for food, and for the purchase of rice.
We will try to get donations for everything that is required and cross our fingers that it all works out. Can you help?

Lemceer Zeus has a cough and is underweight and also for him it means to wait, Resmeel is nervous, he must urgently send money home… and Niña Grace has diarrhea and can’t be operated, we must all continue to help so they can have a better balanced diet. The news is hitting us all very hard, now we can only wait, hope and pray.

On the day of my departure I invite our group to a farewell lunch in a Thai restaurant and it is really nothing special, but for these people it is a great honor. Resmeel leaves, afraid his son can break something in the restaurant. So we pack them something to eat and bring them later on.

Full of new impressions and emotions troubling myself, we start our return trip. At home I immediately start stepping into action. The Internet in the Philippines is extremely unreliable, so I complete the updating of the donation page on the Better Place website, for Annie. I am editing the pictures, writing brief descriptions of our project and writing down all of the costs incurred by now and that which are still open, either advanced by Annie or are still required. I know from experience that nothing comes with writing emails, I have had no response back with donations. I send over 80 WhatsApp voice messages, pendant images and the donation link and I hope we can close the gap, at least temporarily. Feverishly I think about what more I can do­ I am working on flyers for „Yoga for kindness“, which I think I would send to two fitness studios. Instead of an hourly wage, I would like to ask participants to make a donation, we will see. The posters of Better Place will soon be printed and then I can distribute them at the local pharmacies, supermarkets and banks. I know that it is only a drop in a deep bucket­ but it is better than nothing … at least if it works, so that those 3 families & 8 children can have a school education and thus also the chance for these children to escape the relentless spiral of poverty.

Please Help

Annie is already working on new concepts to reach a larger number of people. I look forward to your steps and please know that every cent of the donation money goes to where it belongs, the faces above! Anyone who would like to provide monetary donations, or others in kind or ideas would like to support the project, below are the enclosed Links:

If you can, please donate her:  YES, I want to support!!!

Andrea Kahland, Frankfurt Germany. April 2016

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