I landed in the city of Cebu on a cloudy afternoon exhausted and sleep deprived after 2 days of traveling with one flight delay after another. To make matters worse, I booked a guesthouse accommodating to my budget, which unbeknownst to me was in a dodgy neighborhood. As the taxi drove through Mindaue I kept praying my guesthouse wasn’t there. We had been driving for a while and I feared we were getting close as the taxi driver began squinting in search of the street where my guesthouse was located. I had yet to see one tourist, and the sights were quite ghastly with dozens of shirtless men walking around on a typical “work day” apparently doing nothing. The houses were boarded up with tin and had tin roofs, ongoing cock fights in miniature coliseums, and seemingly unsanitary fast food restaurants side by side in dilapidated buildings. And then my nightmare came true; he made a left into an alley and pulled up at the “Europa Mansion Inn”, a tucked away guesthouse that looked like a creepy dollhouse slash mausoleum with a bizarre Rococo type of décor. To top it off, my room looked like a scene from “The Shinning”. There was no way I was going to stay there…no way. So I quickly made arrangements to change hotels and found one in the nicer part of town.
When I arrived at my new hotel, I felt much better. But still no tourists in sight, well, except for that white older man in the hotel courtyard walking around with a much younger Filipino lady. I rested up a bit and met Crystal, My Refuge House’s director, whom I had already met in L.A., and Jamie, founder of the non-profit Joy Amp who had been working with MRH for a few years now. We had a lovely dinner, got to know each other and discussed what we would be doing the next couple of days. After dinner, I returned to my hotel to get some rest, as the next day would kick off with an early start.
The first day of my volunteering in Cebu began with a breakfast / introduction meeting with everyone who had flown from different parts of the states to attend the grand opening of MRH’s new cottage. We all introduced ourselves, explained why we were here and said two interesting facts about ourselves (mine were that I climbed Kilimanjaro and that I’ve been to 38 countries and 6 continents). Besides Jamie, who had come here to contribute financially and provide emotional support, there was a team from Dallas from a for-profit company called LWP (Leaders Worth Following) and Guille, a kind Mexican woman who had been doing missions for years through her organization Lilies of the Valley. Crystal briefed us on what we could and could not ask the girls, what were the cultural do(s) and don’t(s), and if at any point we felt too overwhelmed with emotion and felt the need to cry, to please step away until we were able to compose ourselves. Duly noted, but I thought to myself, oh shit…that’s going to be me, the girl who lost her composure and had to step away. Great.
Shortly after our meeting more staff showed up, including “Ate Gaga” one of the resident house mothers, a very animated and funny woman who began joking with us within 2.2 seconds after meeting us, and two of the girls from the refuge house. They all addressed us as “Ate” (Sister) and I was baptized “Ate Loren” and addressed as such going forward. (Filipinos address each other as “Ate” and “Cuya” [brother], an indication of their good nature). We split up into 2 groups in order to buy the materials and decorations for the cottage’s grand opening. Jaime, three MRH staff members, and one of the girls (one of two peer leaders) was part of the group I was assigned to. I connected with *Clara, the peer leader, right away. Clara was wearing a black t-shirt with over a dozen pictures of Hip-Hop artists with long shorts and a boyish haircut. She called me “guapa” (pretty in Cebuano and Spanish alike) and asked me a dozen questions about myself. Clara is a striking, slim, and radiant 17-year-old who had been at MRH for three years now. We talked about everything from her love of music to our noses and skin color agreeing we wanted to trade them (I’m not sure why she would want my beak but I’d sure as hell take her cute Filipino nose any day) to her most recent accomplishment, a scholarship to attend college! Clara wants to study criminology; an obvious choice for a girl who you can see in her eyes has had a tough life.
We spent the next 7 hours or so shopping in malls and shops to purchase all the things we were donating to My Refuge House. Our first stop was the music store for the keyboard, Travel With Purpose donated the keyboard and Joy Amp donated the stand. Clara was beside herself! She told us how the girls at the shelter had been praying for months for a keyboard because the only instrument they had was a guitar and they were all eager to learn the piano. It was so lovely to share her excitement, given my love for music and career in the industry for over a decade. We went on to the electronics store to purchase a LCD screen so the girls can present their monthly research projects to the staff and also, for the staff to train future staff. Joy Amp bought them a printer and extra ink. Then we left the mall to go buy a lawn mower. The staff and the girls had been cutting the grass with shears so it was nice to know they would no longer need to do that strenuous task under Cebu’s blistering sun. Our final stop was to purchase the generator. We were able to get a really good quality one because Joy Amp and TWP split the costs. Electricity and water goes out in this area once every week or so and at times for 3 days at a time preventing the girls from showering, studying, and having running fans. Albeit these gifts were not for the girls themselves, they were incredibly grateful their little community was being blessed with materials they would all benefit from. It was surreal to see generosity in its purest form.
On the way to the hotel, we passed by Clara’s old neighborhood. First she made sure the back door of the jeep was locked and then warned us about not having our cell phones near the windows. She motioned to us where exactly she grew up and with deep pain in her eyes affirmed she could never go back there…to her family. Respecting MRH’s wishes, we didn’t probe. But she went on to say a fire had destroyed most of her neighborhood and that it was ridden with drugs and dealers. She told us about some sort of glue they sniff in order to get high. The only recurring thought in my mind as she spoke was Why? Why am I so lucky? Why me?, to the point where I was overcome with guilt.
So after a very long and exhausting day of shopping, moving around, sweating, being famished and quite a bit of internal complaining (the challenging part of volunteering is doing the “hard labor” and not complaining about it, reminding yourself that the sacrifices you are making will have the most rewarding outcome), both groups met up for dinner and called it an early night. Tomorrow would be “the big day.”
We drove out of the city into the outskirts of Cebu where MRH is located. I sat in the back of the van with Haylie from LWP (Leaders Worth Following). We talked about their company and my goals for TWP. A lovely woman she is who spoke with such high regard about LWP and what her boss, Dale the founder of LWP, did to help others. It was very inspiring.
As soon as we got on the main highway, the view changed dramatically. It started to have more of an island feel, the ocean was to our left with houses on both coasts draped in warm green landscapes. After about 45 minutes we finally arrived. We drove up a hill where the compound was built and securely fenced off and were let into the premises. My first thought was…wow this place is beautiful! MRH is comprised of 3 small buildings (the main building and 2 smaller cottages), a garden with a built-in hydroponic irrigation system in which they grow vegetables and raise tilapia, fruit trees, and a chicken coop. Because it was built atop of a hill, it has a spectacular view of the ocean. It was so breathtaking and peaceful, comparable to a retreat house somewhere in California.
As soon as we entered the building, we were coyly greeted by the girls…well, except for *Vanessa a petit 13-year-old who looked not a day older than 10 with an infectious laugh and a gorgeous face that would melt your heart. Immediately after walking in, she hugged us all one by one and just laughed as she looked up at us. I for one fell in love with her right away. Shortly after, we joined the girls in their task of finishing the gifts they were preparing for us and the other guests that were confirmed to attend the grand opening (approximately 60 people). They started warming up to us pretty soon. Within minutes Chris from LWF picked up a guitar and started playing Christian songs the girls knew very well and suddenly there was a choir. Although I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs, the love and spiritual presence in the room was tangible. Emotions started circulating through my body and I kept on remembering what Crystal said…keep it together Loren, keep-it-together.
The rest of the morning and afternoon we helped put up stuff in the new cottage from decorations to curtains to arranging and dressing the chairs. We also took turns getting to know all the girls through a lot of “chika chika” (chit chat). A few of the girls latched on to me, others held my hand, and with others we conversed and figured out words that in Spanish and Filipino were the same (the Spaniards reigned over the country for over 300 years). Jaime taught two of them how to play chess and being the bright beauties that they are, they learned fairly quickly. On the way to see the chicken coop I got a poked by some type of weed that left a splinter in my calf. Right away I sat down to examine it and remove the splinter. The girls were all so concerned they wanted to try and remove it themselves. They all gathered around me to see how they could help and were genuinely concerned about me. Finally I managed to get it out and they were all excited, it was adorable. We all ate lunch together, delicious Filipino food prepared by the staff. After lunch the girls eagerly showed us their dormitories and made us guess which one was theirs. They all had posters or art or drawings hung on their wall spaces and closets. They proudly identified whose section belonged to whom. At this point it was nearly 1pm and show time was approaching. The girls excused themselves so they could get dressed and “guapa” for the main event.
By 2pm the guests started to arrive. Shortly after, the ceremony began with an introduction by two of the girls, the main hosts of the entire event. They opened with a song by the girls and Chris on the guitar, followed by a powerful performance emulating being saved by Jesus Christ from “that life” and finding hope. I was so touched by this performance the tears started to form, discreetly I used my finger as a wiper under my sunglasses. Loren please keep it together, please….you don’t want to be that girl that has to step away, remember what Crystal said. Later that day, Clara had confessed that during practice they cried a lot during the “salvation piece” because it triggered a lot of memories and emotions for them.
The performance was followed by a comical skit consisting of two of the girls performing to a song in Cebuano in which a man was trying to win and even buy the love of a woman who consistently denied him. Although it was in Cebuano, the message was clear because the girls are naturals on stage. To close the show, they performed a traditional dance with tambourines in hand and concluded the ceremony by thanking all of us who attended. Crystal, MRH’s director, was called to the stage to say some words. She thanked all the guests one by one. When she got around to thank me, I felt so important. I felt as if I had won some type of award or medal. I just couldn’t believe that I, a woman from Miami / LA who one day decided to do a campaign to help girls, was half way around the globe actually there, in the flesh, being thanked by a true hero just for donating a few things. It felt so great to be acknowledged for doing such a small deed of kindness. Really, it did.
Next on the mic was Dale, the founder of LWF, who had donated the funds to build the entire cottage. He spoke beautifully and eloquently about how he wanted LWP to be different and that despite the fact his company was for-profit, his vision was always to change the world. That resonated with me deeply because I share the same exact vision. Half way through his speech…he broke down in tears. Dale! Didn’t you get the memo? Crystal said no crying!! Here we go. I started to sob, I mean SOB. Thankfully, I was sitting in the front row so no one could see I was breaking the rule. He kept speaking in between sobs and at this point I was shaking. I did a quick sneak peak and saw that the entire audience was in tears! Whew! We all broke the rules so now I could let the river run its course.
Dale is an incredible human being, an inspiration, and a true leader. After his speech he called up his team and the two local directors of MRH to the stage and with that grin of his told them he had a surprise for them. He handed them a check for $5k USD in order for them to realize one of their long time goals, to launch an outreach program! The staff was speechless. Rose Ann burst into tears. We all did. We all wept…a lot. And so the ceremony ended with the cutting of the ribbon and lots of runny noses and sniffles. It was truly a magical moment to be able to witness real altruism.
Naturally we ate again after the ceremony because Filipinos love to eat! As soon as I was done, the girls handed me a giant 8″x11″ thank you card with 12 individual notes inside. I told the angel face that handed it to me that if I read it then I would be in bad shape and promised to read it later in my hotel. She laughed. The last part of the day was very unexpected besides the fact that I was very unprepared for what was about to happen. Most of the guests had already left so only the LWP team, Guille, Jaime, Crystal, myself and the local staff were left. We were all sitting inside the main house and suddenly the girls asked us to get up so they can rearrange the furniture into a circle. Then one by one they started thanking us. Some were eloquent and spoke perfect English and others like Vanessa, mumbled words in Cebuano between laughter translated by some of the other girls who were more fluent. Then as expected, each of us was summoned to say some words. Shit!!! I was not ready for this so purposely I went last. Mind you, I had already sobbed after everyone’s speech. And sobbed even more watching the girls cry as they listened to each person’s speech. It was both heart wrenching and empowering…sad yet hopeful. I sensed their deep-rooted pain but felt that glimmer of hope each of us was bestowing upon them, at that very moment in that very room.
When it was my turn, I told them I needed to put my shades on before giving my speech and the entire room broke out into laughter. But that neither calmed my nerves nor stopped my voice from quivering. I don’t remember what I said verbatim but I do know I told them I loved each and every one of them before I had even met them and that sometimes we don’t find love in our own homes but find it in other places. It was incredibly difficult to continue my speech as I watched them weep, as they stared at me with their dark and striking eyes, the mirrors of their pain. I affirmed that they were the most “guapa” girls I had ever met and that they were so strong and that I knew that they were going to make it, that they were going to be happy in life. I assured them that the real gift was not what we gave them but what they gave us…LOVE and the opportunity to be a part of their lives even if it was just for one day. I concluded my speech by saying, “I don’t know if I will ever see any of you again…but I will never stop thinking about you girls, I will never ever forget you. I love each and every one of you. I mean it!” Weak in the knees, barely breathing and looking like a wounded animal, I sat back down and was hugged and held by all the girls who were sitting next to me. I can’t even express what that felt like…but I can imagine it to be comparable to being blind and being able to see again or meeting your son or daughter for the first time.
By now it was time to go and boy was I not ready to leave. I was not ready to part ways with joy, with love, and with the beautiful angels who offered that to me. With runny noses and heavy hearts we all hugged each of them and say our good byes. I found Clara and hugged her again, told her she was very special, and that one day she was going to be a great leader. I asked her to please write “Ate” on the back of my thank you card. She did, and little did she know her handwriting would be inked on me for life upon my return to the States. I walked down the steps and got in the van. Looking back at them from the car and watching them wave at us in between smiles and tears was sad and beautiful…but I knew that although we physically left that day, we filled their hearts with hope and that, was exactly what we were all there for…
Most of the ride back home was silent. Half way Crystal broke the silence and asked us if we had any comments or feedback about the day. A couple of us expressed how moved we were and our disbelief that such angels had suffered so much. We got into a discussion about what exactly was the meaning of sexual trafficking. Crystal elaborated that sexual trafficking is not limited to a situation where a person gets physically moved from one place to another and commercially exploited for sex, it also means applies to situations in which pimps, friends, and even family members lure, coerce, or force people into the sex trade. The problem in the Philippines is similar to the one in the U.S. Young women in most of these cases, of which 90% have a previous history of sexual abuse, incest, and/or rape, get lured into the sex trade by a pimp, friend, neighbor, or even a family member. Most of these young women come from broken homes and impoverished families making them vulnerable to making bad choices. In a country where for some families, a 6-month salary is equivalent to $50 USD where opportunities are scarce and to some nonexistent, getting into the sex trade is a matter of survival.
In the Philippines poverty and being robbed of one’s innocence are two of the major factors that lead some of these girls to voluntarily enter the sex trade. Regardless of whether these girls made unhealthy choices, how can we judge them when really all they ever wanted was to be loved and in some cases find their next meal? How many bad choices have we made in our lives? Is not driving under the influence and putting your life and others’ lives at risk comparable to selling your body? Is a partner cheating on their spouse and living in dishonesty, after exchanging lifelong vows, not comparable to a woman who chose a career in the sex industry, who has most probably been abused and came from a broken home? When you put things in perspective, it is simply wrong to judge. Because we’ve all made bad choices, all of us…at some point or another in our lives, we have all done things we are not proud of.
I myself have never been compassionate towards women who voluntarily enter the sex trade. It’s always been easier to judge so that I can feel better about myself, so that I can reassure myself that I have morals and dignity….not them. But see, I grew up in a loving family, in a financially stable home free of domestic violence, went to great schools from kindergarten to grad school, and had a father and mother who would have taken bullets for me (they still would). Visiting My Refuge House and spending time with these girls not only changed my life, it changed my perspective. I realized that most people make really bad decisions in life because they lack love, support, and/or stability. If any of us ever found ourselves in such despair, marginalized, treated less than a human, and unloved or uncared for…we would probably make the same and if not worse choices.
Everyone deserves a second chance in life. MRH is a piece of heaven on earth that offers second chances for commercially sexually exploited girls. A chance to leave their past behind, to find love outside their families, build friendships, get nurtured by mother-like figures, attain an education and attend collage, learn a vocational skill, discover hope, and more importantly to be free. Words cannot express the beauty, resilience, intelligence, and radiance each and every one of these girls possesses. I am forever grateful that they changed my perspective and touched my heart in so many ways. I forever vow to fight sexual trafficking…I also vow to lead society to be compassionate towards women actively in the sex trade. Thank you My Refuge House and the 12 Angels that gave me the gift of love and compassion that forever changed the course of my life.
*Clara and Vanessa are not the real names of the girls I wrote about in this article. Their names have been changed in order to protect their identities as many of them currently have open cases against their perpetrators.