Philippines With a 7YO: Teddy Bears & Life Lessons
In November 2011, I decided to take my well-traveled 7-year-old daughter Bronte (and her equally well-traveled, much-loved teddy, Frank), to join her Daddy in Manila, where he was working.
I remember thinking at the time that this might be the perfect place to introduce Bronte to the concept of childhood poverty, something I felt it was time for her to understand better, being a somewhat privileged only child.
The Philippines would be our first third world country out of more than a dozen Bronte had already experienced. I knew she would see a different kind of poverty than she had glimpsed in cities like Moscow or Bangkok. She would see poor children every day in the streets, unsupervised, hungry, barefoot, bathing in buckets and begging. I was hoping she would come to appreciate the reality that many children are so much less fortunate than she’s been. But helping her to make sense of what she would see and figure out how to react to it would be new territory for me as a parent. I didn’t discuss it with her before we left and decided I would talk about it with it her—carefully—only when she asked questions.
As usual, I bought a locally made wallet when we arrived, this one made from recycled bottle tops, where Bronte could keep pesos. We’ve done this since she was about two, partly to teach her about foreign currencies and calculation, but also to teach her the responsibility of protecting a valuable possession. She uses the money in this purse to buy souvenirs, but she also gives it out to babushkas in Moscow, street performers in Central Park, or a blind man anywhere.
As I was handing over the new purse I mentioned as nonchalantly as I could that this time she might be giving her pesos to children and perhaps mothers with babies.
Now as it happens, Typhoon Sendong triggered devastating flash floods in the Philippines In December while we were there. At that point, what I thought would be a mildly eye-opening family trip turned into something entirely bigger.
Bronte asked me what flash floods were and I wound up showing her images from cities like Cagayan De Oro and Illigan, where more than 120,000 families had been affected. I also showed her a map so she could see the safe distance between Manila and the southern part of the country where entire villages were being washed away.
We talked about what it would be like to lose everything and I could see a distinct shift in her eyes. Just losing Frank forever was difficult for her to imagine. And I think she understood that this paled in comparison to what had been swept away from some of these kids by the dark swirling water.
She digested it all for a few weeks and in mid-January asked if It was possible to send some of her extra toys to these children. Then she decided to make a video for her classmates back home asking them to do the same.
Bronte’s video inspired her class to incorporate the entire school. And before we knew it her small gesture quickly evolved into a larger Typhoon Toy Drive. We had donation drop off spots in several US cities, Manila and Australia.
New and used toys were delivered to our hotel with sweet notes from children giving up the snuggly or cuddly that had come through for them in some time of fear, stress or grief. Bronte handed toy drive flyers to hotel staff and guests, taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, toy store employees and all the people waiting in the line behind us when we went out to buy another sixty or so plushies with donated funds. She checked to make sure every toy was up to her high ‘huggable’ standards and that none needed emergency seam surgery.
The excited sparkle in her eyes when the concierge called with another package, or a thank-you email from a complete stranger landed in my inbox, or a hotel employee chased her down with a bag full of pre-loved toys is heartwarming. Bronte could sense that she was actually going to make a difference. Many children in Cagayan De Oro and Iligan show symptoms of what is likely PTSD after their exposure to multiple traumatic events at one time. Stuffed toys really can be amazingly comforting to children in even the most devastating situations.
Bronte’s goal was 3,000 animals by Valentine’s Day. She got a few more than that, which we packed and sent off with help from a local shipper and an aid organization on the ground.
The stuffed animals kept coming, though, and we were able to deliver some of them ourselves, an experience that taught all of us about communities living in poverty and about government corruption and illegal logging, which clearly caused the flash flooding.
When an earthquake hit the same region a few weeks later we delivered 650 more toys ourselves in heavy rain with the help of several organizations and local military transports.
I’d like to share with you exactly what brought Bronte to this point, but I honestly can’t say I know. (I believe Frank and her great attachment to him had a paw in it). But this is the great thing about family travel: It gives you the opportunity to let the world surprise you and to let your kids’ reactions to what they encounter surprise (and impress) you even more.