On the mid-December evening when Typhoon Washi struck the Philippines, 18-year-old Dens was halfway through dinner when he heard the Cagayan River had swollen to levels that threatened his community at Isla de Oro. Dens dropped everything and rushed for home, determined to save his family and his friend, Nica.
Despite being the youngest of three children, Dens was used to stepping up for his family’s sake. Illness limited both his father’s and brother’s earning power. With only his mother and sister to help, Dens took pride in handing over his earnings. Food was never much of a problem for him, after all. His amicable nature earned him the friendship of many, including village officials, who often shared their board with him.
But those friendships would not win him passage across the river this night, and in fact prevented it — the village watchman halted Dens mid-stride at the road to Isla de Oro. Down the riverbank at the narrow footbridge that also led to the Isla, Dens was again stopped. His desperation swelling by the second, he dove into the river, intending to swim to his family’s rescue. The current pulled Dens under, filling his mouth with the taste of earth and gasoline. After a near miss with an uprooted house, he made it into the limbs of a tree, where he watched as the world crumbled away around him.
Come morning, Dens found his family, all of whom had survived. Grateful for their safety, his thoughts turned to his dear friend, Nica. In blind haste, he searched everywhere for her, until there was only one more possibility. He finally found Nica, lifeless among the neighbors and other Isla residents lined up in rows on the pavement.
His spirit broken, Dens felt as lifeless as the young woman in his arms.
A month after Typhoon Washi, Dens stood in a ring of children and crouched to reach the two toddlers nearest him. Their small palms were warm, and they trembled with excitement as their fingers squeezed his hand tight, signaling him to begin.“Sisira ang bulaklak, bubuka ang bulaklak,” Dens sang — “the flower closes, the flower opens.” The children, linked hand-in-hand and skipping around in a circle, drew inward to describe the closing flower and then back outward to signify its opening.
Dens was leading the game as part of ChildFund’s psychosocial support initiatives for children displaced by the storm.
After the typhoon, with his family sheltered at an evacuation center and Nica laid to rest, Dens had been lost in grief and introspection. But when ChildFund’s call for volunteers rang out, it found home in that same nobility that has always drawn Dens to step up. “I didn’t know just what it would entail, but I wanted to see if I could help,” he says.
Dens and his family have since been moved to a relocation camp. He also went back to school, adamant in his faith in the value of an education. His new role as a youth facilitator at ChildFund’s Child-Centered Spaces (CCS) was just as important to him, and he participated as often as he could.
Whenever the youth facilitators arrived at a camp, they would be swarmed by young greeters delighted at the arrival of their kuyas and ates (big brothers and sisters). Dens and his companions brought mats and the plastic crates filled with toys, paper, pencils and crayons, flash cards, games and musical instruments. Once the mats were laid out and the tents erected, Dens let the kids start the session with a simple prayer, followed almost always by the Flower song, which all seemed to know instinctively. But there was one group that didn’t welcome the youth facilitators’ efforts — some of his peers from Isla, school dropouts who would chide him for spending so much time “going soft” and playing with children all afternoon. “Wala ’yan! [That’s worthless!]” his old friend Golben would shout.
Over time, however, their disdain turned into respect for Dens’ and the others’ dedication to hosting CCS sessions. Golben himself admits amazement over how the children’s temperaments changed in the few weeks of CCS activities in his camp.
Moved by his friends’ commitment, Golben went back to school. “Seeing what my friends have done with their new lease on life made me realize I’ve been given a second chance too,” he says. In fact, Golben has recently expressed interest in becoming a youth facilitator himself.
Through this work, Dens feels a renewed sense of purpose. Where he couldn’t do so much for his father and brother’s recovery, nor could he do anything at all to save Nica, Dens sees every day just how much he helps the kids through CCS. “I feel that as I help these little children overcome the fear and trauma of their experience, I’m also helping myself grow out of my grief,” he says.
The time for dramatic rescues from Typhoon Washi has passed, but heroics continue.