Today is the 1st January 2014; This time last year I, along with 70,000 other people were reflecting on our experiences as volunteers with the London Olympics. Even then, I wasn’t aware of how big an influence those few weeks would have on me. My personal experiences are all here on this website, including some final thoughts, but as the curtain fell at the closing ceremony, the media went back to business as normal and turned the focus on ‘legacy’ i.e. stadia, infrastructure, finance, etc. etc., I suspect that I was not alone in thinking that the real legacy might be the preservation of the spirit we experienced during those few weeks when London was really buzzing; when 70,000 people willingly gave up a fair amount of their time to do ‘something for nothing’.
So this year, when I look back at 2013, I have two special stories about ‘doing something for nothing’. The first involves a remarkable group of people with whom I continue to volunteer, and the second is the story of a remarkable man who took it upon himself to ‘do something for nothing’ in the most horrendous circumstances.
Lets deal with the group (Saracens’ Pioneers) first of all. Early in 2013 my favourite rugby club, Saracens, moved to a new stadium in north London. I’ve been following the club for years as a season ticket holder, and more recently as a committee member, and am currently chairman of their supporters association. With the move to the new stadium, the club opted to abandon any idea of traditional stewarding (high-vis jackets and jobsworth attitudes) and to set up a matchday volunteer force (Pioneers), based along the lines of the London 2012 model. The majority of the recruits, me included, had been London 2012 volunteers. They were subject to interview and then training (BTEC Level 2 Spectator Events) before being accepted to fulfil a number of matchday roles including ‘meet and greet’, ticketing, spectator services, and hospitality and media services. The outcome is a unique ‘customer-facing’ ambience to the stadium that has drawn an amazing and positive recognition from home and away fans. But the most remarkable thing is the intense level of camaraderie, dedication and fun that the Pioneers experience. I’ve made a whole host of new friends through this initiative, but that’s only part of the story; amongst the Pioneers there are some amazing people who give up so much of their time to different worthy, and often difficult causes – doing something for nothing – and who take pleasure and pride in feeling they made a difference. The fact that it is a rugby club is irrelevant to a good number of the Pioneers, but for those like myself who are ingrained in the sport, it adds another dimension. Over the past few days the Pioneers Facebook page has seen an overwhelming outburst of genuine goodwill messages and gratitude for the friendships and experiences the group has shared, with the reward being the feel-good factor and personal satisfaction of knowing you make a difference without any demand for monetary reward. It’s been a highlight of the year.
The second story, however is far more serious, and is about the father of one of my closest friends. Let’s call him Robert, as he’s not looking for any personal publicity. Robert runs his own business with part of his supply chain being based in the Philippines, where he’s a regular visitor. In response to the devastating typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in November, Robert set out on a personal mission to help with the aftermath. This is his story:
With estimates of between 3,000 and 10,000 people dead and up to 750,000 homeless (nobody really knows yet, it could be more) it is also feared that there could be many hundreds of children orphaned and certainly many thousands in difficulty or injured. And as the aid rolls in it is the strong and healthy that are first standing in line to receive it, not the sick, poor, shy and lonely. I guess its Mother Nature’s way of ensuring our survival. Through my contacts, I am connecting with the actual ordinary Philippine people on the ground that are doing their best to collect together these orphaned and injured children and keep them safe and alive. My intention is to raise as much cash as I can, go to the Philippines, work with the local community leaders and actually put the cash in the hands of the caring uncorrupted people that can use the money sensibly with immediate effect. (Unfortunately as in most poorer countries there is a lot of corruption in the official governing bodies)
Business has allowed me to travel to many places around the world but I have never found a race of people as generous and caring as the Philippine people; 99% would share their last bowl of rice with you gladly. Like many of you, I have been sympathetic to disasters around the world and given to
various charities but always wondered how much actually arrives where I intended it to go. Now I have the ability to actually do something myself to make a difference and make sure the money gets where it can be used most effectively, when it is most needed, by actually putting the cash in the right person’s hand. I cannot hope to solve the problem but with your help we can save a lot of suffering and hopefully children’s lives. I don’t want to be here in the safe, cosy UK this Christmas knowing I could have made a difference but did nothing for them. These children really do need help now.
There are so many devastated areas that need our help but I have chosen to concentrate and help the orphan children and poor families with children in the smaller overlooked communities. They are, at the moment, currently quite low priority for busy charities who are overwhelmed with helping people survive in the larger towns and are just lost in the enormity of the tragedy.
Time is short, my information indicates that the critical time for the children will be in a few weeks’ time when the food that they are scavenging from the wreckage runs out. The Philippine children are tough little characters but they cannot sustain being continually wet and malnourished. The orphaned children are being cared for by other families and friends but these people have their own problems and grief to survive. I could have put photos of wide eyed beautiful children on this letter but I know you will know they are there and in desperate need.
I am not even sure if what I am doing is even officially legal but I don’t care; these children need help and they need it now. Maybe it’s a little selfish of me too because I want to sit down to my Christmas dinner this year knowing that what we have done together has allowed many Philippine children to be dry and safe with food to eat that may otherwise have perished. I can with your help make a big difference in these areas where it’s most needed with no waste.
This is a private personal mission based totally on trust, I don’t have time to get involved with charitable red tape, they may even try to stop me and make me redirect the money through expensive or corrupt official channels if I did. Once the money is over in the Philippines and I have distributed it, there is nothing they can do to stop the children benefitting from it.
A month later, Robert was back – mission accomplished. This is his account:
THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE
The place the aid agencies forgot, apart from another generous donation of some basic medical supplies from a Philippine businessman, we were the first food aid to arrive at this location with substantial amounts of rice, canned and dried goods. Some families were down to boiling the chicken feed to feed the family. After we returned to Cebu City we made sure the food aid people there were aware of these people and that the aid we took would only last through Christmas, they promised that they would send a truck with rice into the area on 27th Dec. We gave them the mobile of our contact there.
We are ready to leave, for the first and longest trip that took 12 hours we were packing 500 food bags and 1,000 children’s gift packs until 2:30am the previous night. One 2.5 tonne truck and a 1 tonne 4×4 Hi Lux very overloaded!. People and neighbours came from all over to give their help packing the previous evening.
This was one of the first heart wrenching stories that I came across just after arriving at our first stop, many more followed especially from the children’s hospital, Sorry but I found it too upsetting to photo the children in hospital.
Once little Marilyn and her little sister Angel heard we were coming they arrived at the meeting place at 7am and waited patiently for 4 hours until we arrived, They had already tragically lost their parents in a bus accident one year previously, the other photo is their elderly grandparents’ house with whom they were living after their parents death, both grandparents perished in the house during the Typhoon, Marilyn and her sister were found alive huddled in a space left in the corner of the wrecked house and are now looked after by a relative, neither child has spoken since.
The photos below are of these wonderful Malingin Daan Bantayan children that although they had very little to smile about still sometimes managed it with the gifts of food bags and small presents containing some candy and snack treats for Christmas that you all helped to provide (although many of the young ones could not wait for Christmas and who could blame them!) Some are holding a thank you message to the kind people of the UK and Eire that helped make a huge difference to their lives and will get them through this Christmas.
Second on the list of stops was Siocon Bogo, As they has a concrete road unlike the remote part of Malingin Daan Bantayan that was approached through a large garbage dump and miles of mud track, Some aid had got through but not nearly enough for the 2,400 people that lived there, one village elder told us it amounted to about only 2 kilos of rice per family. Again many children were orphaned here so we made sure the children were the ones to receive the gifts to take back to the family supporting them. The one thing that struck me before I arrived and was only reinforced once I was there was how disorganised most relief agencies are, all we did was contact the local teacher and the Barangay chief (sort of elected mayor) a few days in advance then when we arrived they had people arranged to help us who knew who was most in need. A lot of aid is just dumped into a village with little regard who gets it.
These are the children and people of Siocon Bogo
Our last stop of this particular journey was in the area of Tabogon, The village we stopped at was beside a main highway, remarkably they too had had no relief food, they had watched various trucks going north loaded with goods but no one had stopped there despite a large sign asking for help. It would seem that the aid people and American army thought as they were on a highway someone else must have stopped before but no one had! The photos below just show how damaging the Typhoon was in this area even to more robust concrete and steel structures, also the long term damage to the palms that they rely on for both food and income, palms that have withstood many Typhoons before but not Typhoon Yolanda. It is hard for us in the UK to imagine what a wind that gust so strong (recorded at nearly 220mph) can do. Our ‘Great Storm’ as we call it of 1987 recorded a gust of 120mph on the coast of Norfolk 100mph less than Typhoon Yolanda and look at the devastation it caused here in the UK! It was no surprise to hear of stories where some children and adults were literally blown like a leaf in a storm getting thrown around against trees and debris some badly injured some not so lucky. One small boy of 5 was retrieved dead by his family hanging from a tree limb his feet 3feet off the ground. We cannot begin to understand the grief some of these families have been through, yet they still look after each other and share what little they have. Some stricken with grief for their own personal loss still take in other children who have lost their parents. I saw and witnessed acts of such amazing courage and generosity of spirit from these people, Acts and compassion that made me feel very humble and will be with me forever.
After this trip to the North I was taken to a children’s hospital, We still had a few hundred children’s gifts to give out, and a reasonable amount of cash. About 70% of the children there were from the results of the Typhoon, some had lost limbs are eyes others with all kinds of injuries from flying debris and falling trees, The staff here were amazing, the love and attention they gave to these poor children was so unselfish, no clocking on and off here they all worked many many more hours than they were paid for. I had been forewarned that the managers (government employees) were not so compassionate and were suspected of syphoning off funds allocated for the hospital. (The Philippines does not have a national health service but some government money is allocated to a few institutions for the very poor) We made sure that the money went into the hands of the Matron, a wonderful lady so she could buy some extra food for the Christmas period and some basic cheap toys and games for the young ones to share. As I said earlier I am sorry but I did not take photos in this place, I really did struggle just to keep myself together here and had to leave to get some fresh air a couple of times and pull myself together. The Matron, her amazing nursing staff and all the children of this hospital send their most warm and grateful thanks to you all for making everything seem just a little bit brighter.
The last visit was to an institution that gave support normally to poor parents with disabled or terminally ill children the head of this group told me they normally had between 20 and 30 sets of parents and children to look after but now they had 158 because of the Typhoon and so many people in Cebu City had offered homes to these orphaned and damaged children from the north, most of them so poor themselves that they needed a little support and help. I was taken to the local covered basketball area where the parents and children were gathering for a service and small party. They had so little food to make any party for 158 children so after a quick call to the supplier that sold us our food the previous week, luckily very close, we sent out 3 Dads with the last 8,300 pesos (approx £115) in cash to buy some cooked chickens, sausages, snacks and jelly, we also gave out the last of our gifts. Again I saw so much love and kindness by the volunteer staff and the people who offered what little home comforts they had.
MY PERSONAL THANKYOU! I cannot finish this somewhat hurried report (so I could get it to you before Christmas as promised) without offering you all my deepest deepest thanks for supporting me in what for me was one of the most emotional, worthwhile but rewarding things I have ever done in my life, You all have made a difference no matter how small or large the donation you made you have made a difference to so many. You have allowed me, because I was in a position to, to actually directly help these children and families in areas that had been overlooked and forgotten by the larger agencies, making every last penny get to those in need. I only wish I was more able to express the gratitude these people sent to you all more eloquently. More than 1,000 children and 500 families will have a better Christmas because you cared enough to give something and to help, and on their behalf I thank you for that.
As I said in my original appeal letter I did not want to sit down in my cosy Cornish home this Christmas with my family without knowing I did something to make a difference, you all allowed that to happen and you should feel the same, We were never going to solve anything, the problems are too huge but together WE DID MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
This is a truly remarkable story. When typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines, it was headline news; we probably couldn’t even imagine the extent of the devastation and destruction, not to mention the enormous loss of life. Sadly, once the news value of the devastation had waned, the media move on and we’re left not knowing how the people of the Philippines were coping, what aid was available and whether they are able to rebuild their lives. Robert’s story does at least give us some idea of the aftermath and what an amazing personal contribution he made. As I indicated earlier, Robert didn’t want any personal publicity for his efforts, but the story absolutely deserves to be known.
So, this has been a long post, just to make a point about giving up personal time for no monetary reward. Two stories, from different ends of the spectrum, but both in their own way serve as an antidote to a lot of unsavoury aspects of modern life with its obsession with trivia, celebrity and personal gain. Thank you for reading if you’ve got this far, and in particular I hope Robert’s story will resonate with you.
I read your post and had a tear in my eye, I wish there are more people like you, you did make a difference and I have nothing but admiration for what you have done, and thanks John for sharing this story.Ibrahim