In the eye of a superstorm

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstore

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstorm

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last November, new JMU graduate Michelle Taylor (’13) was at ground zero. She and 11 fellow Peace Corps workers were holed up in a hotel, listening anxiously as the superstorm pummeled the city.

Michelle had arrived in the Philippines just months before the storm began gathering strength in Micronesia and feeding off a low-pressure system with the right ingredients to brew a monster storm.

Shortly after graduating from JMU in May 2013 with a degree in social work, the Tidewater Virginia native found herself on Biliran, the fourth smallest island in the Philippine archipelago. The island, she says, “has mountains and water. You name it, we have it.”

To navigate the system

On Biliran, Michelle worked with children, youth and family facilitators through the Department of Social Welfare Development, a Philippine government program that gives financial assistance to families. The program requires multiple layers of accountability, such as classes and parental sign-offs.

“Basically, I was doing social work with at-risk populations,” she says. “I worked with needy families in the local villages in helping them support themselves through various forms of livelihood….I kind of walked alongside families to help them navigate the system.”

She also assisted officials who didn’t have social work backgrounds, using skills learned at JMU. She helped them create case studies. The Philippine system has 1000 individuals in the care of every two workers, she says, adding that they are very dedicated people who work 12-hour days. “They taught me more than I could ever teach them.”

When she first came to JMU, social work was not Michelle’s choice of majors. She switched after working with a valley organization that helps refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her helping out one day a week turned into mentoring youth. Through the process, she says, “My passion grew for international service.” Serving in the Peace Corps had “always been in the back of my mind.” She applied during her senior year, was accepted and enlisted shortly after graduating. Initially, Michelle expected to be assigned to Africa, but she left the United States in July, bound for the Philippines, only months before the arrival of Yolanda, the storm’s Philippine name.

No one knew where

In early November, a tropical depression southwest of the Philippines began churning. It moved westward and rapidly intensified, becoming a tropical storm on Nov. 3. Warnings went up throughout the region. As the storm approached, Peace Corps officials made the decision to evacuate the outlying islands, consolidating their people in Tacloban, the main city in the Philippines. It made sense. Three hours from Biliran, Tacloban had an airport and a large infrastructure.

Unknown-2“Peace Corps Philippines and headquarters in D.C. had the volunteers’ safety as their first priority and needed us to be in a space where we could have access to resources, if needed,” Michelle says. “Downtown Tacloban provided us with the resources we needed to get out even after the storm. The Peace Corps was also in contact with the U.S. and Philippines militaries who were able to provide them with information about our safety after the typhoon hit.”

Michelle and her 11 Peace Corps colleagues were brought to Tacloban. No one knew exactly where the storm would hit. “No one knew how bad it would be,” Michelle says.

The typhoon made a direct hit on Tacloban.

The dozen Peace Corps workers were barricaded on the second floor in an interior, windowless room of a concrete building in the heart of the city. For several hours, as they listened to the storm rage around them, they heard windows blowing out and the floor above them evaporating into the wind. Below them, the first floor flooded completely. Outside whole neighborhoods were being reduced to rubble.

“We could tell when the eye had passed because the wind direction changed. It was an experience I know I will never forget.”

After the storm passed, “I was in the center of the city, so when we walked out, it was a different place. It destroyed Tacloban,” she says.

According to news reports more than 6,000 people died, and three months after the storm, 2,000 were still missing.

Resiliency and strength

Michelle and her friends were on their own. For three days, Michelle says, “My parents knew I was in the middle of it. They were in constant communication with Peace Corps headquarters and were informed of our safety as soon as possible.”

UnknownVenturing out of the building after the storm subsided, Michelle was invited to share a meal with a family of 10 who had a single pot of rice — and a house that was completely flooded. “They didn’t have enough for themselves, yet they wanted to share it with me.” Incredulous, she asked them: “You’re still inviting me to eat?”

They did.

Michelle has come to realize such generosity is part of their culture — one she has grown to love. “The amazing spirit of the Philippine people — they are endlessly selfless. [It was] easy to focus on the devastation, but I always found something positive…. They have a very strong belief that God is with us,” she says.

“To this day I am still amazed by the consistent resiliency and strength of the people in Leyte and other areas affected by the storm,” Michelle says. “My Peace Corps friend in Tacloban updates me weekly on progress [there]. They don’t stop, every day is a struggle but they continue to appreciate what they have and hope for a ‘better tomorrow.’”

In the storm’s aftermath, Michelle also saw modern day heroes in action. One group of 20 men on motorcycles moved throughout the shattered city, rescuing people and clearing roads. They also found and cooked buckets of spaghetti, she says.

Michelle and friends did what they could to help. They joined the community immediately after the storm to clean up the sewage drains to decrease the flooding.

Realizing they would have to take action to get themselves out, she and one co-worker started walking through the broken city. They followed the helicopters and went to the police station. Eventually, they were able to piece together some communication with the help of a CNN news crew. Through the CNN crew, they learned that the military was bringing in planes filled with relief supplies and taking people out of the city.

The group walked for four hours, making their way through the debris-laden city, to the airport where they flew out on C130s.

What true happiness looks like

After leaving the Philippines, Michelle was sent stateside to wait for reassignment.

Michelle Taylor ('13) and a Filipino friend

Michelle Taylor (’13) and a Filipino friend

“My job is pretty much gone after the storm because the whole area was in a state of emergency. The workers of DSWD (my organization) were mobilized in Tacloban to do relief work in the evacuation center. My counterpart is still working there,” she says.

While waiting, Michelle has taken the Peace Corps message to anyone who would listen. “I had three goals when I joined the Peace Corps,” she says. These were to be a U.S. ambassador, to bring what skills she had to help, and to take what she learned to educate Americans.

“I have learned that you never know what is going to be around the corner,” she says. “Being in the Philippines I have begun to learn what it means to live in the present. The Filipino people have such a strong commitment to community that the loss of material things does not dampen their present joy. They suffer from the loss of their loved ones but rely on their supportive community for peace. I have learned from the people of Tacloban what true happiness looks like.”

She adds: “My hope through sharing this story is to change mindsets of American who only see the devastation from the lens of the news. Tacloban is a happy city. They understand the value of community outside of just the materialistic needs and are beginning to get back into the normalcy of their daily lives pre-Haiyan.”

Michelle will return to the Philippines this spring but to a new area, Bicol, a region on the southern tip of Luzon, the largest island. She will be working with the same department as before but at a center for young children awaiting adoption.

She looks forward to returning. “It’s my family. I was only there for six months but never felt more welcome,” she says. “I have people I want to go hug.”

To learn more about Typhoon Haiyan and its impact on the Philippines, go to an NPR story embedded here.


He shuffles when he walks…..

He shuffles when he walks and tilts his head up so he can look at you through thick glasses. He’s not tall and is usually heavily laden with clothing, even in hot weather. His beard is scruffy. He is unwashed. And he is homeless.

Around Harrisonburg, he’s a fixture — well, a moving fixture. Sometimes he sleeps on the porch of local college students. Sometimes he comes to Carrier Library to do “research.” During Fridays on the Square, he is an eager volunteer. He often shows up at the Sunday evening service of a local church. “Hello, Phil*,” the congregants greet him.  Despite his disheveled appearance, Phil is part of the Harrisonburg community, every bit as much as the residents of the stately old Victorian homes up and down Franklin and Paul and Campbell Streets.

Phil doesn’t fit the mold. Still, as one Old Town resident told me, “his network of friends is incredible.”  They feed him, provide him a place to sleep. They look after him.

I don’t know Phil’s circumstances, why he is homeless, or his life’s back story. Neither do most of the students who live downtown nor do the residents of the stately old homes. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Phil is a neighbor, a homeless neighbor, but a neighbor nonetheless. He is a also reminder to them that homeless individuals have names, histories, needs. They are not statistics, even though they are often gathered together as such.

I’ve heard it said that Harrisonburg is the perfect size city. For Phil, it seems to be. He is not forced to live over a grate or under a cardboard box; neither is he mocked or preyed upon by those who might take advantage of one with so little worldly wealth and such an unfamiliar societal position. Here, at least in Harrisonburg, he is treated to the kindness of friends.

To the casual observer, especially one who looks at statistics instead of faces, Phil might be deemed a burden, a bother, an inconvenience. After all, in the traditional sense, he hasn’t produced much. He hasn’t cured a disease or rebuilt a community, piloted a successful business or inspired a classroom. To my knowledge, he has not built a bridge or a program or even a committee, as so many students will go on to do during their lifetimes. But he reminds us  that all humanity has worth. He brings a perspective like none other.

Last Saturday while hundreds of students celebrated their JMU commencement, their official launch into successful, conventional and productive lives, Phil was there.  The students called him by name, gave him hugs and high fives. He celebrated with the graduates, as welcomed as the students who sat next to them in classes on international relations, finance or chemistry. He was  part of the Madison Community that day.

Being the Change we want to see in the world doesn’t always mean accomplishing something that is newsworthy. In fact, the operative word is “be,” not change. Anyone can change the world, but few of us are as gifted as Phil at reminding us that life is of little value without each other. It is recognizing the wealth of humanity and seeing the needs of others — the children living in a garbage dump in the Phillipines,  the elderly neighbor no longer able to mow his own grass, the unwed teenage mother with no layette, the laid-off employee without prospects, the college student short on tuition, families caught in war-torn nations, communities recovering from natural disasters, the homeless in our cities.

Kindness is the first step in changing the world, and a whole lot of JMU students and community members who have befriended Phil know this already. Their kindness resonates, not only through Phil’s life, but long and loud in their own. This is how changing the world starts: with heart, with compassion, with the magnanimous acts of kindness that cost us so little.

You can’t get a degree in kindness, but then again, you don’t need one to enrich one homeless man’s life with friendship.

To learn more about another group of students dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals like Phil and many others — students majoring on social work — visit JMU’s website:
You might also be interested in learning about a JMU student, now an alum, who spearheaded a program to house Harrisonburg’s homeless during the winters. You’ll find it here:
*name has been changed
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