“There’s only so much you can take,” says Rick Wells, co-founder of a new duo of American expatriates in the Philippines who have taken it upon themselves to be philanthropic missionaries. “You see the poverty, and it breaks your heart. The saddest part is the kids.”
“You learn to say ‘no, no, no,’ over and over to the beggars,” says Wells’ friend and fellow American expat Kevin E. Lake. “And you have to really, because there are just so many, but it doesn’t mean you can shut it out, or turn off your heart.”
Many Americans, especially former military personnel like Lake, who is an Iraq War veteran, find themselves living in the Philippines. The Philippines is America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia and they have a very westernized culture. Many veterans, especially those who suffer from chronic pain from war or military related injuries find that the tropical environment offered by the island nation only seven degrees above the equator allows for more pain free living than in the U.S. without the necessity to take the onslaught of medications so many veterans are being given through the VA hospital systems in the U.S.
“You can only be here for so long before you stop thinking about yourself and your own reasons for coming,” adds Lake, who’d found it difficult to transition back into civilian life in The States after his time in Iraq. “And then you have to start doing something for those around you.”
“I came here four years ago, to stay,” says Wells. “I’d been coming for years. My wife is a Filipina, and our children love it here. I saved up in The States, we got some land here, and we’re doing okay with banana farming, but after a while, you find yourself with time on your hands, and why not do something with that time to make a difference?”
What these two Americans have been doing to make a difference is travelling around to the poorest neighborhoods outside of their community and handing out shoes, flip flops, medicine, food, and even school supplies for fifty three students at a small pre-school they’ve decided to adopt.
“We keep it separate from our personal lives,” says Wells. “We make sure we’re far enough out that we don’t find people lined up at our door step the next day with their hands out. That may sound somewhat offensive to Americans who have never visited a third world nation. Here, most people, even adults, have never seen a white foreigner anywhere other than on television- let alone, speak to one. It isn’t offensive, it’s reality, and a reality we face on a daily basis and have to keep in check.”
“Rick had been doing this on his own for a while,” Lake says of how he joined the two man team. “We were having coffee one day. I’d actually just gotten out of the hospital. I’d worked myself ragged over the past year and succumbed to a severe case of bronchitis.” Lake is a writer and in the past year has published two novels and written nearly fifty journal articles for Yahoo News and Joe the Plumber’s website, where he is a veteran’s affairs contributor. “I’d told Rick that I wish I had more to do here than just work. He asked me if I wanted to go ‘give a kid a smile.’ I asked him what he was talking about, and he showed me instead of telling me. We went to the public market, bought and bunch of slippers- kid’s sizes- and then we headed out into the provinces to give them away to kids who didn’t have any. When we came back into town, the first thing I said was, ‘we’re doing this again tomorrow!’”
The two men continued their missionary type work and finally decided to take it to the next level.
“We saw that we could really make a big difference if we had a little help from folks back home,” Wells says. “We decided to open a Facebook page called ‘Give a Kid a Smile’ and start a Go Fund Me account so anyone who wants to contribute can.”
“We are not affiliated with any church or government,” Lake points out, “nor do we ever plan to be. We are private individuals giving our own money and money that is donated from other private individuals, to people who are in desperate need. We have no plans of filing for 501c status and we want to make that clear to anyone who is considering donating. Because of where we are, none of that is necessary, but any donation you make will not be tax deductible.
“Also,” Lake continues, we URGE people only to give what they can, IF they can. Do not send us your rent or mortgage money. Do not send us your utility or grocery money. If all of your needs are met and you can send a few dollars, please do. But if you are going to put yourself in a bind if you do, then don’t. Like our Facebook page, follow our progress through the daily pictures we post of what we do, and keep us in your thoughts and prayers.”
“It’s hard to explain the feeling we get when we go out in the hot sun all day, riding around through the jungles or along the beaches and just stop and hand out shoes or rice, and see the reaction from the people,” says Wells. “It’s addictive.”
“One of my biggest frustrations in living here has been the fact that if you are a white foreigner, you are constantly singled out,” says Lake. “’Hey, Joe!’ That’s what they yell as you pass, and they laugh, and sometimes you cringe. And as much as I hate to admit it, there’ve been times I’ve come dangerously close to hating some of the people here because of this.
“Well, this week, we ended up going through this squatter’s barungay (neighborhood of very poor bamboo shacks) where I’ve heard more ‘Hey Joes!’ than anywhere else I’ve passed through locally. I had a bad feeling about it. Then we stopped and started talking to the people that had heckled me in the past and looked around at their living conditions and everything changed. An old man came out of one of the shacks and he wanted a pair of our slippers. We waved him off and told him they were only for the kids. He looked dejected and went back into his shack. My eyes followed him in, and I saw that he only had three walls. The back of his little eight feet by eight feet shack was open, except for two barbed wire fence lines that ran through horizontally at about waste level. I looked down and saw that his floor was not dirt, but mud. The only item in the shack was a bamboo bed- no mattress. Just wood.
“I said, ‘Rick, we’re giving this guy a pair of slippers.’ Rick was surrounded by kids and he said, ‘These are just for kids.’ I said, ‘Come look in this guy’s house.’ He did, and we gave the man his pair of choice, and man, was he happy!
“We talked over a liter of Coca-Cola at the end of the day, and I said, “Rick. I cannot hate anyone here.’ This was a feeling that came over me after looking inside that man’s shack. There is no dollar amount that can be placed on what a great spirit somewhere did for me through that experience.”
If you would like to contribute to the ‘Give a Kid a Smile’ fund on go fund me, you can do so at this link.
You can follow their progress in pictures and words on their Facebook page.
“It will get as big as it becomes,” says Wells of the plans for ‘Give a Kid a Smile.’ In two weeks we’ve brought in $500 in donations through our online efforts. We’ve used far more of our own money than we have that’s been donated from the time we started helping. If it we don’t grow, and we have to continue using our own limited resources, we will. But if the funds come in to do bigger and better things, we will.”
Lake and Wells foresee opening 24 hour first aid stations in the many squatter’s barangays they visit. “If we can afford to build them and staff them with a medical professional, like a nurse’s assistant,” says Lake, “we will. Most of the common medical nuisances here are mosquito and ant bites, and a really nasty skin bacterium called talipaso. It’s not fatal, but it is very itchy and uncomfortable. It is derived by unclean living conditions and can be simply treated with anti-biotic creams that only cost about $5. But that’s also enough to buy four kilos of rice, and twice as much as these families earn in a day. I don’t think that most Americans realize that half the world’s population survives on less than $2 a day.”
“If the help comes,” says Wells in closing, “we’ll build it!”Kevin E Lake, Author of the best selling novel, “From the Graves of Babes” (available on Kindle at the link below)