Rebuilding Bantayan Island after Typhoon Haiyan

Kristen Freeland is a One Young World Ambassador from the USA who is passionate about sustainable development, youth empowerment and volunteering. She works as a design manager for Hilton Worldwide. She recently volunteered with Habitat for Humanity on the Filipino island of Bantayan to support disaster relief efforts. 

Bantayan Island was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan

So, what happens when you are hit with a devastating natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan?  Well, first you lose your home - which, sure you can repair or gather post-storm debris to rebuild. But with no foundation, running water or electricity it can be quite challenging. Then there’s your damaged, destroyed or missing boat—for many the primary means of transportation and for fishermen, their livelihood. Add to that the pure loss of local businesses, churches and schools and, even when scraped together it is clear, you are left with nothing. This is the story of Bantayan Island after Typhoon Haiyan struck in 2013. 

In many ways, I have nothing in common with the people of Bantayan.  We are from different continents, speak different languages, have varying beliefs and definitely different hair. There is essentially no connection between myself and the people I met on that island this spring other than the fact that we, now, are family.  

Encouraged by experiences with One Young World and knowing it was my time to truly give back, I sought out Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village programme last fall.  With build sites on almost every continent, Global Village offers ordinary people the extraordinary experience of traveling to a foreign country to support a community and provide people with one of the most fundamental needs; shelter. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013 and nearly eighteen months later, many still struggle without proper shelter or resources.  

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Collaborations that supported disaster relief efforts

Joined by fifteen other ambitious volunteers and the local Global Volunteers camp, we embarked on two weeks of sweat equity to construct homes for twelve families and breathe life back into what nature had destroyed. And we didn’t do it alone.  Every morning as our jeepneys pulled into the job site, the flood of children greeted us with big waves and brighter smiles. They taught us words in Cebuano and Tagalog, sang us songs, watched in awe when we performed magic tricks and kicked our butts in basketball.  They embodied everything that was important about the trip; and taught us the undeniable strength and spirit of Filipinos. 

These collaborations couldn't have taken place without the Filipino government, religious institutions, charities and volunteers coming together to do good in the world.

M.A.R.C.H. for Christ has been working in the Philippines long before the Global Village effort arrived.  Years ago, prior to Typhoon Haiyan, the government surveyed living conditions across all of the islands and identified “red zones”.  Being a red zone was loosely defined as an area at serious risk if/when a major natural disaster occurred.  The government, along with outside funding, created a sub-list of those families in the greatest danger and began building homes at various sites to relocate them.

M.A.R.C.H. for Christ owns the plot of land we were building on, now known as March Village, and donated part of it to Habitat in partnership for the post-Haiyan building effort. In addition to supporting the Global Village program with building efforts, M.A.R.C.H. does so much more for the community.  In addition to new and safe housing, the village includes a church and community center, a ministry team that meets with families on a daily basis and holds all sorts of activities from prayer services to movie nights and family dinners.  Committed to improving the livelihood of these families in need, M.A.R.C.H. also purchased new boats for every household—critical in this region where fishing profits are the primary source of income.  Eventually, they plan to construct a commercial fish drying facility and continue to grow the development into a thriving community. 

Both M.A.R.C.H. and Habitat continue to expand their efforts in the Philippines – with several new build sites slated to break ground in the next few years. 

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Collaborating strengthens relief efforts

"I have peace like a river, I have peace like a river.  I have peace like a river in my soul."  (Excerpt from a Church song that the children of Banatayan Island sang to us)

It’s amazing how much a child, in many ways naïve to the world and all of its triumphs and terrors, can teach you about strength. In two weeks, “We”, the people of Bantayan and our team of sixteen, ploughed through 2200 blocks, trucks of cement and the intense sun in hopes that life could get a bit easier for our kids. It takes a village. And in those fourteen days of working and laughing and teaching one another, we became one.

The two job sites where we worked will eventually house over five-hundred families, a church, community center, fisherman facilities and, most of all, overwhelming hope for a rebuilding community.  What was on that first day a clan of strangers soon evolved into my Global Village family.  We came from the U.S., Canada, Singapore and New Zealand – all with the sole purpose of serving others which, in the end, served us as well.

It’s difficult to describe what it was like working in the sun with no more than a trowel, cement bucket and the few common English words between us.  It was powerful, emotional—life changing.  Our gratitude for the opportunity to be there; their gratitude for having someone just there.  There to help and there by choice.  Somewhere in the middle of digging trenches alongside the mother and son that would one day inhabit that block home, there was a world of unspoken understanding and pure thanks. It’s interesting how, when you eliminate all of the “significant” parts of modern life—material things and social status and maybe even a long hot shower—we so easily connect.

I went into the experience expecting to help people, to learn about the islands and feel that I made a difference. But what I was not prepared for was the true beauty and spirit of the Filipino way. If it was up to me, I would still be slugging baldis (buckets) of masa (cement) and having lunchtime magic shows with my village. There is and was a lot of suffering and hardship, but overcoming that is the beautiful spirit of the Filipino people.  That is Bantayan Island.