WITHOUT industry or historical fame, Santo is a nondescript Filipino town. A harsh one at that. The sun beats relentlessly while the sea breeze is so salty that plants shrivel. Another reality, poverty, plagues the 40 per cent who do not commute elsewhere for salaried jobs. With income from odd jobs, there’s just not enough cash for necessities.
It has always been that way for the Romeros. Cesar upholsters sofas and chairs and his wife Maria sews chair and table covers. Some months there are several orders; occasionally there are none. On the average, the family takes in $25 a week. Three quarters goes for food and school transportation for their five children. The rest must cover everything else.
The chronic sickliness of their middle son has been a drain on the family finances, and so the Romeros were glad when they received special assistance from a donor agency. Twelve-year-old Juan is one of 45,000 Filipino school-age children sponsored by World Vision Philippines, a Christian development aid organization parented by international headquarters in California. World Vision’s Philippines programme is their largest in Asia and the world, Three quarters of the country programme’s budget — topping $4 million this fiscal year — goes into the child sponsorship programme.
When Juan was six years old, a WV social worker affiliated with a Protestant Church in Santo interviewed his parents and chose him to be sponsored by a family in the United States, which would send $18 thirteen times a year to assist Juan and his family. The Romeros do not receive cash. That was stopped in the l960s.
When they were first enrolled, the Romeros received occasional gifts — a mosquito net, bedsheets, cooking pans, a kilo of meat and school clothes and supplies for Juan each new school year. But in 1978 WV altered their intervention to promote community development. Mariejo Y. Benares, Manager of World Vision’s Philippines’ Communication Department: ‘We want to avoid spoiling families. We’re giving less and less food; instead, for example, we use the funds for training in food preservation.’
Juan’s sponsors, the Carltons, live in America’s Midwest. Supposedly they received a description of Juan, his family and the ‘WV project center in Santo which handles 300-500 sponsored children. I say supposedly because Juan had not heard from them for five years, not until December 1981. World Vision encourages the sponsors to write and insists that the sponsored children write four times a year.
Juan said that before Christmas all sponsored children were given paper to copy a letter to their sponsoring families. Since it was in English and not translated, he does not know what he wrote. World Vision provided Christmas cards and mailed the letters. The national office screens all letters which are passed on to the social workers for delivery.
In response, Juan received a note-card picturing a cocker spaniel, the favourite member of the Carlton family. They write of their dog. ‘She is a very good girl and we love having her with us.’ Among the Philippine poor, dogs do not merit special favour, except when they are roasted with spices as a rare feast. Juan made no comment on the mention of the dog.
Mrs. Carlton also asked, ‘So you like to walk?’ noting that ‘it is a nice way to see and hear the beauty in God’s world which is all around us.’ Juan sat quietly in his World Vision ‘Jesus Loves You’ T-shirt, self-consciously rubbing the foam on a sofa that his father would soon cover. He has never thought about walking as a pleasure; it’s a daily fact of life, a necessity to reach school a half kilometre away. If he had money to take a ‘jeepney’ — a communal taxi — he could go farther, see more of God’s world.
Juan is fond of boats and wants to be a sailor in the US Navy to be precise — so that he can earn dollars. Each one becomes eight pesos. ‘That would be more money to help my parents.’ With thousands of Filipinos working abroad, often earning at least double what they could make on the local pay scale, many children aspire to do the same.
Juan must have mentioned his ambition because Mrs. Carlton commented that her husband used to be in the Navy and still likes boats. Then she offered some pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps advice. ‘You will want to study hard in school so you can learn all you need to be a good sailor.’ This sentence may have made Juan twinge. Because of extended absences from school due to illness, he is only in Grade 2; others his age are in the sixth year of their schooling. He takes quite a bit of teasing because of this, his mother says, and even missed the annual WV camping trip for Grades 5 and 6.
Juan’s limbs are stick-thin, his flesh wan and leathery, possibly a sign of anaemia. His body is covered with itchy sores that he frequently scratches while watching television. This skin disease showed up several years ago, and a doctor has told the family that Juan suffers from a blood ailment.
Juan is clearly undernourished. A World Vision doctor examines sponsored children once a year, but there is no follow-up. Each year doctors recommend vitamins for him. When the World Vision doctor recently checked Juan, she gave no explanation or instruction, only a prescription for three kinds of medicine. Mrs Romero is upset that the treatment was not supplied. She feels torn between the impossibility of paying for it and guilt for neglecting to buy what her son needs. ‘I worry that he will get fever again because the doctor who used to give our family free service has migrated to the States.’ (The Philippines is the world’s second largest exporter of doctors with 40 per cent of the country’s physicians practising elsewhere.)
Mrs Romero appreciates World Vision’s new development thrust. She pointed to bright nutrition posters in her dialect. ‘Since the five-day seminar I know that if I serve fish I must also have fruits and vegetables.’ But often the Romeros eat their usual fish and rice. ‘If I had money, I would choose different foods,’ she explains.
World Vision also give and monitor loans to their 350,000 beneficiaries. An $88 loan enabled Mrs Romero to buy two piglets last October. When they became sick, she sold them prematurely for $113. She paid back $25 on the no-interest loan and received permission to begin paying again when school is out and the family is relieved of their children’s school transport costs.
Several attitudes of Mrs Romero may affect whether or not she actually completes repayment. She does not take it lightly that no letters or personal remembrances arrived for Juan during the first five years of enrolment, ‘His friends in the programme got money, birthday cards and presents from abroad.’
Sponsors are told that the 13th payment goes for Christmas and birthday goodies. Some do not send it because they forget or because it is beyond their monthly tithe. Further, says Benares a bit hesitantly, there are more children than sponsors and so one child’s 13th contribution goes to cover another child’s enrolment in the programme. With more cuts in World Vision’s cake, the pieces grow smaller. Perhaps Juan never had a specific sponsor until last year.
Distrust of the Santo staff’s honesty is a very active part of Mrs Romero’s attitude towards World Vision. ‘We know that the project at our church gets thousands of pesos, but… why does donated butter show up in the town market?’
Mr Romero interrupted, looking up from his measuring. ‘At one point favouritism towards certain families was so bad that we asked to withdraw from the programme.’ Social workers attempt to appease displeased families but accept withdrawal from those who have improved their income.
Sponsors are spared complaints from disillusioned families. This is one reason Filipino families are not given the address of their sponsors. Benares explains that by screening all letters World Vision prevents begging, which would be ‘bad for the Filipino image.’
Mrs Romero would like to have the Carltons’ address so that she could ‘thank them directly.’ Juan says if he could write to them, he’d ask them for a ‘Game and Watch’, one of the electronic games that are a fad among well-off youngsters.
He also dreams about going to live in America. ‘It’s nicer there because it’s much colder, much better for my health. There are no flies or mosquitos and I would get smoother skin.’
A sign in the World Vision office sums up the donor agency’s purpose: ‘Reaching the Unreached with the Gospel of Salvation and Self-Reliance.’ Eighty per cent of the projects are affiliated with churches and participation in their services and home bible studies is virtually required. Rather than describe attendance to the latter as compulsory, Benares says that there is ‘group pressure to participate.’
Mrs Romero has a Catholic background. Since she joined the programme and ‘accepted the Lord’ — concurrent events — she has been attending services at the Protestant Church in Santo three times a week — bible study, prayer meeting and Sunday worship. She admits that those who drop out are threatened with withdrawal from the World Vision programme.
‘Baptism is not World Vision’s goal, but it is the pastors’, says Benares. ‘A change of lifestyle is an indication of Christian faith. We hope that the families have a personal relationship with the Lord… After all, it was because of God that World Vision began.’
Like the majority of World Vision sponsors the Carltons are Christian believers. Their interest in the Bible is reflected by a question in their letter to Juan:
‘Do you know what Jesus did when he was in a boat?’ And they gave him the New Testament reference to look up the answer.
For Juan, World Vision is several parties/outings a year with contests and chances to win a prize. It’s getting a new T-shirt, shorts and school supplies each school year. It means new ideas for his mother that may become a part of the fabric of their home. World Vision is also dreams of living in a nice place and being well and eventually finding success as a sailor in a foreign navy.