A VolunTourist Birthday to Remember

In 2009, I celebrated my 25th birthday. To be honest, I already decided a long time ago that celebrating my birthday was not important. It was just another day of the year. But to my surprise, my 25th birthday was a day that I will remember my entire life.

One of my assignments in the Philippines was to interview the poor families now living in the Gawad Kalinga communities and document their story to share with others. It is through story telling that the organization inspires people to help. It's how they inspired me to join the cause.

Gawad Kalinga Village Philippines
A Family at GK Hope Village

I was discussing with a fellow volunteer my desire to visit a GK village in Talisay City, Negros Occidental where 4 houses were donated through the efforts of myself, my friends, and a church back in Canada. He suggested, "Why not visit the village on your birthday and spend your time with the community?"

The thought never previously crossed my mind but the more I thought about it, it made so much sense to be an example to others. I was never one to throw lavish parties but I thought that there are many people that spend hundreds even thousands of dollars on birthday celebrations. Rather than waste all of that money on material dreams, I should share my birthday with people less fortunate. Birthdays should not be about the material reward but about celebrating your life and sharing it with those who bring special meaning to your life every day of the year.

Gawad Kalinga Village Talisay Negros Occidental Philippines
A row of houses in the GK Hope Village Community

I decided immediately that my birthday would be the day that I would visit the village to collect stories. I did not tell anyone that it was my birthday and only the village coordinator knew that I was coming. We started the day touring around the different houses on the site. The village coordinator actually knew that my birthday was in September but didn't know when and so when he asked me when it was, I could not lie to him. This provoked a string of humbling and inspiring events.

He immediately gathered all of the community leaders, and any available adults or children and we all stood together in the centre of the village. Led by the village coordinator, the community prayed over me. They thanked God for my presence, my inspiration, and for bringing me safely to them. They prayed for the blessing of the work that God sent me to do and they asked him to protect me and support me in my future endeavours. During the prayer, I felt a peacefulness transcend over all of us as we gathered in the countryside setting of the village.

After the prayer, they brought a large bag of rambutan fruit, pastries, and coffee for everyone to share. One of the women even brought a plate of spaghetti she made for lunch to give to me. One member of the community thought it would be nice for one of the young girls to sing a song for me. With a little encouragement to overcome her shyness, she eventually burst into a sweet melody. This led to numerous other members of the community serenading me with their favourite solo one after the other. Each singer ranged from young to young at heart. I was so humbled that these people cared for me enough that they brought up the courage to sing to someone they had never met in their entire life. I have known better acquaintances that haven't gone to such great lengths. There is a lot of beauty and talent hidden in the poor. All it takes is a visit from someone outside to unlock that beauty. Everyone made an effort to give me a gift. But what made each gift special is that it was not material, it was through themselves.

Gawad Kalinga Birthday Philippines
Receiving Birthday Gifts

After all of the individual songs, everyone got together in a group to sing happy birthday to me. As they sang, random members of the community brought flowers up to me that they had picked in their garden. Nobody could afford to put together an entire bouquet but when all of the contributions were put together, it made the most beautiful bouquet of flowers that I have ever seen. It was reminiscent of what the spirit of giving and the Gawad Kalinga sacrifice is really about. Nobody on their own will necessarily be able to afford donating a school, donating a house, or even donating an entire village but when we give whatever we can afford no matter how big or small and put it together with the contributions of others, we can build dreams and miracles. Every bit counts. That was evident at this village where everyone made the effort to give whatever they could to a stranger they didn't even know for more than 1 hour.

GK Birthday Gift Philippines
A Birthday Bouquet Fit for Royalty

I was so touched and humbled by the generosity of this community. Even though the people had far less than I have ever had my entire life, they still made the effort to celebrate the life of a stranger for nothing in return. What those people don't realize is that they gave me the greatest birthday present I could ever imagine: the gift of presence.

Gawad Kalinga School Philippines
The PAX Learning Centre - Two-Classroom School

This experience later inspired me to campaign to raise money for a two-classroom school at Hope Village to bring badly needed education to the community. In 2010, the project was completed thanks to the kindness of our corporate sponsor, PAX Integrated Solutions.

Gawad Kalinga Classroom School Philippines
The children of Hope Village learning in their new school

If you would like to find out how you can help support poor communities in the Philippines, please send me an e-mail.

*This article was originally published in the December 2009 edition of The Diocesan Messenger, official newspaper of the Diocese of Victoria, Canada.

1 comment:

  1. You had an excellent birthday. One would say it was almost transformative. It lead to so many good things for you and other people. If all of us were able to give back to the community around us in some way on every birthday, what a different world we would have. Thanks for sharing.


Powered by Blogger.