It was a glorious day, the weekend of January 25. I went very early to The manila Bay area to meet up with the mission team that were to assemble in front of the historic Manila Hotel. This is the designated assembly point for those who are not familiar with the Ulingan and Helping Land locations of Project Pearls, the organization that is working now with the communities that we were going to visit. I did not know what was ahead of us then, but I was to find out later on that we had better be prepared for a real mission.PROJECT PEARLS MISSION

I got to finally meet Tom Conti, a cousin of a former parishioner in one of the well-off suburban parishes of the Chicagoland area.  Tom has been an online contact for a while, and when he told me that he was retiring, leaving California, and moving to Manila to be a full-time volunteer of Project Pearls, I was more than intrigued, and looked up what the work was about.  Project Pearls is an initiative of a Filipina and her daughter, who came across the community of Ulingan through some simple introductions, and the initial relationships developed into a full blown quest to help the poor people have a better life.  Tom Conti was the one who introduced me to this initiative, and paved the way for me to eventually point to this mission, when the doors opened for me and some friends, who were also interested in doing a mission in the Philippines.  Getting to this point was the easy part.

We hired a jeepney and loaded the bags of toys that we brought for the day.  From the posh and chic environment around Manila Hotel and the Manila Bay area, we quickly passed through the realities of Tondo and the Pier communities.  Even just by the streets that we passed, looking on from the jeepney it was obvious that poverty prevailed in this part of the metropolis.  The jeepney ride was short and pensive, and soon enough, we were at the so-called entrance into the neighborhood of what is known to the volunteers as the Helping Land community.  There was a crowd where we arrived, because there as a new arrival – a dump truck was unloading garbage, and there were many men who were collecting them and taking them in boxes and sacks.  Needless to say, we were instantly welcomed by the smell of garbage, and as I looked in, I realized that this experience was going to stretch me and take me out of my complacency.


The walk through the neighborhood felt like forever.  Carrying a bag full of toys while half-breathing to garbage air was not easy, but everybody else was putting a brave and happy face, and I was for a moment ashamed of myself.  People were smiling as we passed by; they already know what sort of work Project Pearls did in their community, and so when they see people in the company of the volunteers wearing the Project Pearls shirts, they are welcomed in like longtime friends.  Everyone was very friendly, and their smiles were a great distraction to the filthiness of the surroundings.  As we walked, we were given a window into their lives.  A woman was washing dishes by the street, another was taking care of her children, who were probably getting ready to go to the mission site.  There were men classifying garbage in one corner, and at another corner, it seemed like some people were actually cooking a meal, in the midst of the garbage of Manila.

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Close to the venue, I could already hear the sound of the children talking, and cheering in excitement.  This is one day in their week that the children of Helping Land look forward to – their friend called Kuya Juan, brother of the founder of Project Pearls, and the team of Project Pearls volunteers, would come to give them a respite from a hard week of living in the slums, so they can eat for free and just be children in the midst of their poverty.  As we started, Kuya Juan got me talking to the kids, introducing everyone in the group of visiting volunteers, and even taught them an action song called “Si Kristo ang Sandigan” (Christ is the Foundation).  We gave them a brain booster activity for the week, which is to draw a cross and design it, and write what they pray for often.  Then I had to choose the ten best work that would receive a prize of candies, book and school supplies.  It was a hard task to choose from among the many entries, I stayed in a corner and bawled my heart out just reading the prayers of the children.  One prayer said, “Thank you, Jesus, because my family is healthy and we are happy every day,”  or “Jesus, please help me not to be a sickly child anymore…”  Another child said in his prayer, “Lord, help me to become a good child,” and still another said, “Jesus, please help me so that I can go to high school and college.”  Some of them came to me, took my hand and put it on their forehead for a blessing, and called me by my borrowed name, “Father…” It was emotional to be around these children.  The light of God was shining down upon the little children that morning.

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We were set out to help with the feeding; we chose to sponsor the food that they would usually get on a special occasion – pancit and put0 (sautéed noodles and rice cake).  The volunteers helped to organize the children, but it was hard, it was obvious that they were hungry.  But the children were easy to talk to… we told them to line up and they did, they each brought their food containers from home, and they were very respectful, even when asking for a water.  They said thank you when we served their plates, and they ate peacefully.  It was literally a blessed meal, I wished I prepared an even bigger banquet with more food for each of them.  I wished we had ham and chicken and fruit salad and chocolate cakes, I wished we prepared for each of them a Christmas table.  But it didn’t seem necessary; they were happy and grateful.

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After the meal, we asked the people to clean up.  Many of the children themselves helped in the cleaning.  I took notice of two boys, who were enthusiastically picking up garbage throughout the place.  They were on a mission, and they did not look for anyone for approval.  They just did it.  While the other children were already lining for toys, these two boys were still just preoccupied to keep the place neat and clean.

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When the hall got cleared, we lined up the children again.  Another level of commotion started, more intense than the first one.  The children were giddy, excited and at this point, there was no mistaking that they wanted what we had – the toys.  No child should ever be deprived of a toy and the opportunity to play, and so indeed, this was a special gift.  Some children today will never be happy to receive a simple doll, or a ball or a little piece of match box for a toy.  It seems that in the affluent communities the children would only be satisfied if the toy is a gadget, a computer game, a new console or the latest game for the x-box.  But in Helping Land, every child that received a toy showed appreciation for what was given.  There were a few kids that were looking into the bag, to check what was left, but once they got to their turn, if they did not get the toy that they wished they got, they still said thank you and went on to play with what they got.  Many kids ran to their parents or friends to show them joyfully what they got.  Many immediately went into their own world and played like there was another world in their midst.  If there is a gift in poverty, it must be that appreciation for even the simplest things in life, and indeed I saw in the faces of these children the meaning of true joy.

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When all the children got their toys, there was a sense of accomplishment… Everyone was playing and laughing, and talking to each other… like the world was the way it was supposed to be.  The children saw that we were packing, and some came to us and said thank you again… “You’re leaving already?” said a little girl.  “We still have to go to the other community…” said Kuya Juan.  As the children and the local volunteers were going back home, there were still some children that escorted us out of the place.  One child held me by the hand and walked with me all the way to the entrance of their little neighborhood.  People waved goodbye to us, everywhere, saying “thank you” and “come back again.”  At this point, it seemed like the smell of garbage and human excretions did not affect me as much.  I was just too preoccupied with wishing and praying that the children of Helping Land would grow in a better environment than the one I saw, because every human being deserves something better, especially these children, who in their joyful gratitude and disarming goodness and faith, are so easy to love.  As we walked to the next neighborhood I prayed for help, for Helping Land.

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  1. Am very happy that your mission was successful. I wish I could join you someday. I thought I’ve seen enough poverty when we used to do case studies at people who lives in the rail tracks of Manila while in college. I thought that’s how the poorest of the poor lived. I bet what you witnessed is worse than any I have seen.

  2. ted & phyllis Bergeron says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us Fr.Sunny…wish every person we know and in our parish could read this..feel the need for God’s giving graces in this little community. We are so blessed to know Hannah had a opportunity to be part of your journey…we know it has changed her life! Maybe our parish family can do more positive things to bring a better life to these children thru Project Pearls,,count us in!

  3. Thanks for sharing a more extensive description of your experience. I am happy that St. Teresa made a little difference in the lives of these children and it warms my heart to hear how grateful they all were.

  4. Thank you for sharing Father Sunny. A very moving story and pictures. Your compassion and care is very inspiring.

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