Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reflections On Travelling To The Philippines With Compassion (part 1)

I want to start this blog by saying that for whatever reason, I have been, and am incredibly blessed by God. I take no credit for whatever encouragement or inspiration you get out of the following stories – that goes to the Almighty. I am humbled and privileged to be used by God to impact other people.

In September 2012, I travelled to Brazil, to meet ten of my Compassion-sponsored kids and their families. It was an incredible, profound experience with so much joy, and set off a chain of events that I couldn’t imagine.

I’ve always loved to travel. I first travelled overseas in 2002 and have now visited 13 countries. I actually sit on an aeroplane and think “How blessed am I to be able to do this?” But my travel has to have a purpose. I can’t just go to some island and sit on a beach for a couple of weeks. To me that’s such a waste. When I came back from Brazil, I couldn’t wait to see where I could organize to go next. So, in a moment of madness I made arrangements to visit 14 more of my Compassion-sponsored kids in 7 countries in Central/South America in January 2013.

Around the same time in November 2012, I received an email about a Compassion Insight trip to the Philippines in April 2013, which just happened to fall in the school holidays between Term 1 and 2. It also just so happened that I sponsored 3 kids in the Philippines, so I thought “Why the heck not?” God had given me both health and $$$$. This trip was a group tour, visiting several Compassion Projects, churches and homes to get a “behind-the-scenes” look at what Compassion does and the impact that it has. We would also get to meet our sponsored kids. I have now visited 29 of my Compassion kids in 11 countries, but before this trip I had never done a group tour. I knew it would be very different to what I had experienced previously. I was right.

To be devastatingly honest, I didn’t think a whole lot about the Philippines trip until two days before I was to get on the plane. I read what I needed to read and I paid what I needed to pay, but there were other things going on. What I saw and experienced during the 3-week Central/South America trip in January really messed me up, and consumed me for quite a few weeks afterward. Add to that the fact I started a job at a new school two days after I returned, and moved house four days before the trip. We had parent-teacher interviews in the previous two weeks and I had lost my voice and wasn’t feeling that crash-hot.

So it was with a suitably reserved and subdued sense of anticipation that I boarded a plane at 1am on a Saturday morning, and headed off to meet my teammates. Our team consisted of 12 people and 2 leaders, from 5 different states of Australia, very few of whom had actually met face-to-face before. We had three online teleconferences before we left, and I was only able to get on one of them, because I was either in the Dominican Republic or in Parent-Teacher interviews. Surely it would take a miracle for this thing to work?

My original plan was to visit my 3 sponsored kids (Cashofia (7), John Dave (8) and Princess Joy (12), who live on three different islands) at their homes and Projects in the first week of the holidays, then join the rest of the team in Manila for the group tour in the second week. However, as the Central America trip went on, with the amount of dosh I was spending, and the fact I was officially unemployed during this time, it was apparent that this would not work. So I figured it would be better instead to fly them up to Manila for the child-sponsor visit day. Princess Joy, in particular, often referred in her letters to the fact they were very poor and couldn’t afford or do basic things, so I figured this would be a life-changing experience for her.

Because I was the only team member from Victoria, I flew to Singapore separately to the others, which gave me a nice little 11-hour stopover at Singapore airport to wait for the others. A bit annoying, you might think, but with the gift of perspective I tell you the truth, there are many worse places you could be stuck in transit. Finally met up with the team and made our way to Manila.

We were a motley crew, and at first glance a combination unlikely to jell. Strangers, really. Fourteen people from five states of Australia. A 60-40 advantage to those aged over 50. Nine women, five men. Two couples, one mother-son combo, one pregnant woman and the rest of us had come alone, whether single or married. What we had in common: We sponsor kids in the Philippines, we love Compassion and wanted to see God do something amazing. What united us proved to be bigger than our differences.

This trip presented a number of challenges for me. I’ll come right out and say it: I am essentially not a people-person. I am not really social, and I am more task-oriented. I relate to people better when we’re doing stuff together, instead of sitting together at a cafĂ© and just chatting. I’m the sort of person at an eat-and-chat gathering who ends up playing with the kids rather than engaging with adults. Conversation is not one of my favourite things.

I guess I could also be considered a “seasoned traveller.” An early source of frustration for me was in the fact that a fair number of this team were first time international travellers. When you’re in a group of 14, it is impossible to stay out of the way of others, but it is exacerbated when people are just standing there, looking around and unaware of their surroundings. God gave me grace and patience, and I bit my tongue and resisted saying potentially harmful things to team members several times.

One thing that was highlighted for me was the difference between group and individual travel. Before this trip I had been on three individual trips with Compassion to visit my sponsored children: Bolivia/Colombia/El Salvador (2009), Brazil (2012) and Central America (2013). I was under no illusions that this group tour was going to be very, very different in so many ways.

I have to say that on this occasion I enjoyed being a “sheep.” Having someone else in charge of the itinerary, telling me where I needed to be and what I needed to do. Someone else having the responsibility of guiding and leading. Karl and Lil did this very well, I might add, and I couldn’t do their job for quids.

Overall, I concluded that, when travelling, I still like to be in control. In sync with my “lone ranger” personality, I like to know where I’m going and when I’m going to get there, which I can do much better on an individual trip, rather than travelling in a group.

It was also very different for me visiting Compassion Projects and homes with which I had no personal connection. In which I wasn’t the “centre of attention.” While that may sound egotistical, it’s not meant to. Before this trip I had visited 26 kids I sponsored through Compassion. from 19 Compassion Projects. At each one, because it was an individual visit, my presence was the main focus. I enjoyed this, and basically had the floor. I have either sung, played guitar, drums or piano at every Project I have been to, whereas on these trips I took on more of a background role, as part of a team. I still had an amazing time and I was still able to engage with many people during the Project visits on this trip. I’m not saying they were better or worse experiences, just different to what I was used to.

During the trip, the team were also privileged to visit four homes of Compassion-supported families. Previously, the visits I had done were to the homes of my Compassion-sponsored kids, so there was that extra level of significance and personal connection. Having said that, I know that the rest of the team and I were always incredibly impacted by these home visits. Despite the circumstances many of them lived in, they always displayed such joy, contentment, gratitude, generosity and hospitality that came from their faith in God, and the assistance that Compassion was giving their family.

With all the travel I have done with Compassion, and all the experiences and knowledge I have gained, it would have been very easy for me to go into this trip with an attitude of superiority and “know-it-all-ism”. I know it was there at the start, at least internally. Whether it seeped out, you would have to ask one of my team members.

I have to say that I have been so inspired and encouraged by my fellow team members, however “inexperienced” they may be compared to me in terms of Compassion trips or experiences. One couple have been sponsoring a girl for 12 years since she was very young, and got to meet the now-18-year-old on this trip. They have recently sold a property, and plan to use the freed-up money to sponsor more kids and go on more trips. Now that they have seen first-hand what an impact we can have as sponsors, and Compassion has, they are so well-equipped to inspire and encourage others to make a difference.

Another couple’s young adult son severely injured his ankle and had to have surgery in the week before the trip. They had arranged to meet their sponsored girl in the week before the tour, but this had thrown their plans into disarray. Fortunately for all the team, God made a way, and they were able to do the visit and then come on the tour, which was a blessing for all of us.

There was also a young 20-year-old guy who came with his mum and stepped massively out of his comfort zone to experience a different world, engage with people he might not usually have a bar of and impress everyone with his gift of photography.

I loved being with people who are as passionate about Compassion as I am, and this was the main reason I wanted to go on the trip. There were so many inspiring and encouraging moments, and we all concluded that only God could bring together 14 strangers from different parts of the country and create such a cohesive group. While I don’t know whether I will have gained any life-long friends from the group (once again, more to do with me rather than them), the experiences we shared were God-sent, and will always connect us.

One thing was clear, and was confirmed by our trip leader Lil. Every person on this team loved and effectively engaged with every person we met. We showed them the love of God, if only for a painfully short time. With my experience of what I call the “little pockets of heaven” a.k.a Compassion Projects, I personally can’t imagine going to one and not engaging, but according to Lil she’s led groups where the members have intially stood back and struggled to get involved. No such problems on this trip. In many cases we were also the first group or the first people to visit the Project, which was quite significant, and a privilege.

Two guys I have to mention are Ian and Cromwell. Ian is the Tour and Visit Specialist for Compassion Philippines. He basically organises every detail of the group tours. He was with us the whole time, and went out of his way to accommodate us and make sure we had everything we need. In his “spare time” he was also organising a trip that was to happen the next week. Ian was an amazing blessing from God, and we were all thankful to have him.

Cromwell has been working for Compassion Philippines for 25 years, and loves his job. He is the Partnership Facilitator (PF) for the region that we were visiting, which included the island of Bohol. The PF is in charge of coordinating a number of Projects, and visiting them, making sure everything is running as it should. Cromwell travelled with us for most of the trip, and was an absolute delight. His insight into the area and the way Compassion works was invaluable, and at each Project you could tell the respect he commanded, as well as his heart for the children and staff. He and I connected and enjoyed a couple of late night walks in the stifling heat to local coffee establishments.

Still to come: more specific details of our visits.

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