A few days ago, the family (about a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins) went back to my Mom’s old elementary school to spread some Christmas cheer to about 300 kids from the barrio. My mom has been sponsoring this yearly Christmas feeding for about two years now but this is the first time she’s had the opportunity to visit in person for this occasion.
She grew up in a single room tin and wood house in a province 2 hours north of Manila. Borne one of 8 kids, she tells stories of nights when they didn’t have anything to eat, when the roof leaked in the rain, when funds were so tight that they had to sell the family dog to afford bus fare for her first day of a scholarship paid undergraduate education at the University of the Philippines in Manila. Like many other Philippine older-children, once she garnered a form of income she immediately started funding the education of her other brothers and sisters. This is a culture wrought with unsurpassed generosity, enormous sacrifice and a powerful sense of respect for parents, family and elders.
Around the corner from this house is Juliana Elementary School and last Friday, as we drove into the narrow road, a lump caught in my throat. Christmas music blared, children played in the streets, and remnants of crumbling wood buildings amidst a dirt school yard brought images of my mother as a child from 40 years ago. I knew it was going to be an emotional day.
Mom has always wanted to give back to the community where she grew up. Without the scholarships that she earned, there would never have been a way out of the poverty. In her heart of hearts, the most sincere form of gratitude for the many blessings that she has experienced in her life is to give back and provide the same opportunity to those who came from equally humble beginnings.
After an hour of children’s dances, prayers and speeches, as my aunts and uncles pulled a truck full of warm food into the school yard that afternoon, the lump that caught in my throat earlier in the day couldn’t be contained. I saw my grandfather standing in the yard, 80 years old, now a great grandfather, and I couldn’t help but cry. Four generations of us essentially came from that little barrio and even in the neediest of circumstances, my relatives still found the capacity to give joyfully to others less fortunate than they.
I felt moved, in awe, blessed by the hard work my aunts put into cooking a meal for 300 children (they didn’t sleep the night before to be able to finish). I saw my young cousins distributing drinks, straws and food. I saw the eyes of hungry toddlers waiting patiently in line for their turn. Such disparity, such hope, such innocent openness. In the poverty I witnessed a wealth that surpasses all material things: the joy of giving, the love for family and community, and an overwhelming sense of servitude and generosity. I was fortunate to be a part of the day but couldn’t possibly take any credit or thanks for the things that happened. It was the hard work of many hands and a burning desire in my Mom’s heart, led by an unwavering faith and gratitude that fed those kids on Friday. I was blessed to have been witness to such generosity.
These last few months of travel and exploring have pushed me to try and find meaning in whatever I decide to pursue next. And after a few dozen countries and cities and a trip back to the land where I was born, perspective teaches an interesting lesson. Perhaps the richest of us are those who discover early in life that love, generosity, genuine empathy and compassion for others, when recognized and acted upon, may just be the ingredients for a life filled with purpose and fulfillment here on earth.