Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dark and Rainy Night

UMCOR Staff Ciony Eduarte and volunteers prepare to distribute blankets and mats.  

Cold winds of December nights give us chills and excitement on the coming Christmas day. But on the 22 night of December while UMCOR staff responds to the disaster brought about by Sendong (Washi), a different kind of ‘chill’ melted our hearts. While the rain was pouring in the middle of the night, survivors take their shelter in makeshift tents, under bridges and overpasses and park shelters. The streets of Cagayan De Oro are filled with survivors sleeping wherever they can find a little warmth and shelter. Their situation moved us to distribute blankets and mats in the wee hours of that dark and rainy day.

The disaster in southern Mindanao brought us to a deeper reflection on how we can celebrate Christmas in the middle of despair. Contrary to a commercialized and festive celebration, the story of Jesus’ birth shows us death of many children because of the desire of a leader to stay in power and a pregnant Mary without a place to stay in the night and to give birth. Just like the story of the first Christmas, the entire Filipino people and the world are grieving with the high number of deaths in Cagayan De Oro and Iligan City. And, like Mary, survivors will spend their Christmas in the makeshift homes in the streets.

Like the angels announcing hope for humankind, we can give hope to our people in southern Mindanao. Let us continue praying for them and let us do our share to help them in their situation. UMCOR will continue to BE THERE AND BE HOPE.

Ciony Eduarte is the manager of the UMCOR Philippines office in Manilla. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Comes Early to Nigerian Village

In rural Nigeria, mothers await monthly medical attention for their children, many of whom are ill with malaria.
Photo: Nyamah Dunbar/UMCOR

By Nyamah Dunbar

Recently, I spent seven days with the Nigeria Rural Health Program, visiting remote villages in the northeastern region of Nigeria. It was enough to humble me to the challenges and to what it means to deliver services “where the road ends.” The health professionals who provide outreach and clinical services under extremely difficult conditions left me inspired by their sacrifice and recharged to continue working towards the targets set by the Imagine No Malaria Campaign.

The Nigeria Rural Health Program operates under the auspices of The United Methodist Church in Nigeria. It is located in Zing, a small, remote village in a large country that is home to nearly 120 million people. As the most populated nation in Africa, with nearly a third of the continent’s people, most of Africa’s malaria burden and the majority of its deaths occur in this West African country.

Nigeria is enormous in size, and any government would find it challenging to deliver services to these most rural of places that lack even basic roads, drinking water, or electricity. People still live in huts built in the mountains and drink from creeks.

In Zing, which is located in Taraba State, the effects of the Sahara desert and global warming can be felt directly through sweltering days, dust storms, and cool nights. During visits with the health outreach team, I watched mothers forge through a scorching day simply to make the one opportunity they would have in a month to meet with a health-care professional regarding their children’s illnesses.

Most of the women crammed into the village hall were pregnant or had young children. The main illness plaguing their children was malaria, or “high fever,” as they commonly refer to the killer disease.

Dickens, the outreach team’s nurse, expertly vaccinated and evaluated each pregnant woman and counseled the young mothers on the importance of taking children to the health center at the onset of fevers.

But there were other issues of concern to the parents, such as the cost of medication. Many rely on subsistence farming which translates into a loss of productivity if the mother has to travel the day’s journey to the health center. She may also have to sleep over with the sick baby—which again translates into more money that the family already lacks.

One mother explained to me with tears of frustration how she had visited another health center during her pregnancy, only to learn that they were out of medicines and supplies to properly treat her.

The story does end with good news. The Rural Health Program was the first to submit an application to the Imagine No Malaria campaign, which officially launched its call for proposals last October. Now it can obtain funds to purchase critical anti-malaria drugs; expand the overcrowded hospital ward, which houses men, women, and children together; and expand community outreach efforts to not simply screen mothers and babies within the rural villages, but train traditional midwives to serve as a link between the community and the health center.

As the villagers and staff, including the outreach nurse Dickens, heard the news, their faces lit up so brightly that you would have thought Christmas had already arrived three weeks early. Sure, the road ahead will be filled with great challenges as the denomination works to eliminate deaths due to malaria, but if I could have bottled up the sunshine on each of those faces and handed it to you as a Christmas present, I would not have hesitated for an instant. Merry Christmas!! May the journey begin!

Nyamah Dunbar is grants manager for UMCOR’s Malaria Initiative.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Helping Survivors of Tropical Storm Sendong

Photo of damage from Typhoon Sendong captured by an UMCOR volunteer yesterday.  Photo: UMCOR Philippines

A Student Volunteer's Reflection from the Philippines

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I am not from Cagayan de Oro nor do I live near that city, but I still cannot help being affected emotionally by what happened to our sisters and brothers in Cagayan De Oro City and Iligan City. Watching the news really breaks my heart and I am grieving for these people.

It happened during the weekend while everyone was busy preparing for the coming holidays. Students were excited, it being the last day of classes. Parents were probably busy planning what gifts they would buy for their children. Families were busy planning for their Christmas break. Even offices and schools were busy planning for their Christmas parties. No one, not a soul, was prepared for a calamity that would surpass the death toll of Typhoon Ondoy two years ago.

The first image that I saw of the aftermath of the typhoon was when I logged into my Facebook account and a photo of a car on top of a gate caught my attention. Then streams of photos were shown online: of young children, young men, and old people meeting their cruel end because of the unexpected flash flood. A photo of a young father hugging his children until the hour of death really tugged at my heart.

Then came the day when I travelled to Cagayan de Oro, helping survivors of the calamity. My personal experience is nothing compared to the suffering the Kagayanons and people from some parts of Iligan suffered, including the loss of water--even in hotels. I became more aware of the impact of the typhoon when I joined the United Methodist Committee on Relief as a volunteer at Cagayan. Twenty-three barangays [villages] were reportedly affected by the typhoon due to the overflowing Cagayan River putting Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City in a state of disaster. Nine families in Barangay Lambaguhon died because of the overflowing and fusing of two rivers. Indeed, the stories of death are simply terrifying and beyond comprehension, the devastation so shocking, and the grief so deep--especially in a time when we were supposed to have festivities. It is truly ironic.

But just as Noah’s rainbow from the Bible story, we have also seen rainbows after tropical storm Sendong. They come in the form of the immediate response of individuals, companies, advocacy groups, civic organizations, government institutions, churches, and more that have responded in many different ways. Help was not isolated from Mindanao, but came from the entire nation, from people of different walks of life.

How gratifying it is to know that we, as a nation, are ready to help our affected sisters and brothers instantly. Many organizations and offices have even donated their budgets for their Christmas parties to help the survivors, for they believe that the true meaning of Christmas is giving love to our sisters and brethren!

It is my fervent hope that we as Filipinos will continue to stand together and be united in helping each other, especially in times of calamities.

As of this moment, the survivors still need our help. They need water, food, clothing, and shelter. They need our support, so let us continue praying for them and responding to their needs. You can help by donating through UMCOR Philippines: UMCOR Advance #240235.

By Clinton Dy, an UMCOR Volunteer from PCU Soccer Team Varsity at Philippine Christian University.

Earlier this year, volunteers for UMCOR Philippines wade through Typhoon Negat flood waters to deliver relief supplies to affected families. Photo: UMCOR Philippines

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marking World AIDS Day 2011

The following is an excerpt from a talk given by UMCOR head, Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, during a World AIDS Day commemoration at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas.

I wound my way around Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. I found myself in a corner room of the hospital reserved for needy patients. The room was bare, sterile, and cold. In the bed was a withered young man, who appeared so small and frail. It was my friend Steve—alone, dying of AIDS.

We talked for several hours. He gasped for every other breath, but there was so much he wanted to tell. I reached across the bed and took his hand. He pulled back. It startled me. “Are you sure you want to touch me?” he said. “Most people don’t want to even get close to me, much less touch me.”

I didn’t say a word; I just took his hand again as he continued to tell me the stories of his life. It was a sacramental moment for both of us, as we made eye contact, and he smiled…. Steve died a few days later.

Friends, there are millions of Steves in our world. And they need a hand to hold, a heart that cares. If we, the church, are not going to respond, then who will?

For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick, and you took care of me; I was in prison, and you visited me….

The Center for Disease Control estimates that about 1.2 million people currently live with HIV/AIDS in the US; 240,000 of them do not even know they are infected! Roughly 50,000 people are diagnosed each year in the US.

In 2009, African Americans continued to experience the most severe burden of HIV, accounting for 44 percent of the new HIV diagnoses. According to the CDC, at some point in life, one of 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV, as will one in 32 black women.

These are startling statistics, friends, and, frankly, overwhelming, but when we put a human face on those numbers, the story becomes even more real. We are compelled to respond with a great sense of urgency.

The numbers on the global stage are equally startling: 34 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS; 2.7 million people were infected for the first time last year. Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes.

Around 68 percent of all people living with HIV in 2010 resided in sub-Saharan Africa; about 70 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010 were in sub-Saharan Africa.

As of 2009, it was estimated that more than 16.5 million children were orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. I remember visiting Zimbabwe in 2008 and meeting an alarming number of children raising children because their parents had both died of complications of HIV/AIDS. I remember Patience, whose mother died just days after we interviewed her.

But there is a bit of good news—while not acceptable, last year, 15 percent fewer people were infected for the first time compared to 2001. That is 21 percent fewer than in 1997, the peak of the pandemic; 1.8 million people died from the disease in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the 2000s.

So there is progress, albeit slow.

Whether in the US or abroad, HIV/AIDS remains an issue that reaches beyond infection and being sick to intersecting with complex issues of poverty, gender equality, prevention, education, and sexuality.

When we are brave enough to call our church to action—to show compassion to persons stigmatized and living with the disease; when we invest our gifts and resources in a real way to stop the spread of this dreaded disease that debilitates families and entire communities and leaves the poor and weak even more vulnerable; when we dispel misunderstanding and when we demand on behalf of the millions of silenced voices that it is no longer acceptable for those with AIDS to die alienated and ashamed—only then do we stand for change and have a chance to destroy HIV/AIDS.

As I have said, there is some positive news and hope, which we lift up to celebrate this day.

The annual number of new HIV infections has steadily declined each year since 1990, primarily due to an increase in [the number of] people receiving anti-retroviral therapy. Significant education and awareness efforts have also positively impacted the efforts to slow the HIV/AIDS infection rate.

Another mark of hope for us as a denomination has been the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has the privilege to take part in the denomination’s effort to combat this disease of poverty.

The Global AIDS Fund has received more than $3.4 million in gifts from around the world. Because of the extravagant generosity of congregations, we have distributed $2.3 million in grants to 213 projects in 36 countries.

Globally, UMGAF-funded programs range from educational seminars for pastors in India, to purchasing diagnostic tests and training AIDS counselors in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of UMGAF funds distributed internationally go to Africa, where the disease burden is the heaviest.

A highlight of the domestic focus included co-sponsorship earlier this year of the first HIV/AIDS summit for African American women held in Columbia, South Carolina, a region with some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates among African Americans in the US.

As much as we are doing—it is not enough. Too many continue to be infected with the disease. Too many do not have access to the life-saving drugs that can provide a more abundant life, even when infected; too many infants are born with AIDS even when prophylaxes to inhibit mother-to-child transmission exist; and as United Methodists, we should be aware that there are some do not see the church as a place for love and care.

For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick, and you took care of me….

Friday, December 2, 2011

Touching lives in the Philippines

UMCOR staff and volunteers bring food supplies to submerged communities in the Philippines after a series of typhoons struck the country this fall. Credit: UMCOR Philippines


UMCOR. Be There. Be Hope
UMCOR’s mission is to alleviate
Human suffering, whether caused by
war, conflict, or natural disaster, with
hearts and minds open to all people.

As a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, I am well aware of the various problems the country faces. I grew up near the sea, where the waves were my playmates and typhoons just “part of the season.”

As a typhoon gets nearer, the community grows apprehensive. Even with the forecasts and all the warnings, residents have learned to “expect the unexpected.” One typhoon may cause more or less damage than what was foretold, and this is just natural anticipation by Filipino citizens. The Philippines expects around 20 – 25 typhoons per year, besides other calamities such as landslides, floods, and earthquakes—enough disasters to be worried about.

When I first volunteered with UMCOR, I learned basic preparedness and response. When I finally got the chance to join the field work in various communities, I came to realize that typhoons and calamities are not just “part of the season.” Communities are immersed in water, houses are destroyed, properties are damaged, people go hunger and are injured, and the worst: lives are lost. These are the inevitable problems of my country, and being an UMCOR volunteer enabled me to be part of the solution.

Recently, I attended a mission in Isabela, where people were having food shortages after three consecutive typhoons hit their province. One strong typhoon after another was enough to clean their fields of long-awaited crops. Their agricultural products turned into a sea of ruin, where very little could be collected for food. Crops the people planted with their bare hands, under the heat of the sun, where swept away by those three typhoons.

UMCOR learned about this situation through the help of the local churches and prepared to respond to the situation. Goods were packed, and the 10-hours journey by land to Isabela followed. When we reached the people, all our body aches, fatigue, and sleepless nights vanished. Just the sight of our needy sisters and brothers made personal discomforts seem small. The people were given food supplies, which they received with gratitude. On our way back home, we were blanketed with the ultimate joy of sharing.

I think the sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters is the primary thing that keeps UMCOR going. The goods that we pack for distribution are packed in the hope that these will not only ease the hungry stomach but, also, give hope to the recipients. These goods remind them that they are not alone in their situation and that there is a God who commanded His children to love others as themselves. The survivors of calamities may not fully understand why such disasters have happened in their lives, but their smiles tell us they are glad we’ve come in solidarity.

It doesn’t matter how hard it was to reach their places. It doesn’t matter much body ache we have to endure. At the end of the day, our hearts are filled with uncontainable happiness. We may not even know all the names of the people we meet in a day of mission; there’s just the ringing truth that lives have been touched.

By Archelaus Joseph Q. Laudes, a volunteer with UMCOR Philippines.