MANILA, Philippines–When Filipino-American ballerina Stella Abrera performed in the Philippines last September for the first time in her 18-year career, she danced feeling a special excitement.
Although she returned to the Philippines to perform “Giselle” with Ballet Philippines at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Abrera came back on an extra-special mission.
She had never done charity work before, but she was to travel to typhoon-ravaged Guiuan in Eastern Samar province as part of her fundraising effort to provide children in the town with school supplies.
“Every single place we visited had a tragic or heartrending story connected to it. A few of the main roads we drove on were once lined with bodies. Reflecting upon that fact while you’re driving along is like a punch in the gut,” she said.
“Countless uprooted decades-old trees, with names of the dead hanging from the exposed roots,” she said, describing an unforgettable sight on the road to Guiuan.
It was also an experience full of contradictions. Abrera noticed that the road to Guiuan was filled with such natural beauty, yet tall tree trunks had no branches—only leaves on top, and people were dragging scrap metals to rebuild their homes.
Abrera, 36, was raised in the United States, where her parents have spent most of their adult lives. But they keep close ties to family in Manila and bonds with Filipinos in Los Angeles.
“I grew up with the Filipino culture at home and the American culture outside the home. As with any teenager, it can be a struggle coming to terms with your identity. Luckily, I grew up in a very culturally diverse city. So many of my classmates and friends were also first-generation Americans. We could all identify with and respect both the American culture and the culture of our parents,” Abrera said.
So when news of the devastation caused by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) in Eastern Visayas came, she immediately wanted to find a way to help.
Intending her efforts to directly benefit children, and with more long-term needs in Guiuan in her mind, Abrera partnered with disaster relief organization Operation USA.
Focus on education
Yolanda affected 5.9 million children and with rebuilding efforts slow, child labor rates in typhoon-hit areas are reportedly rising.
Believing that education is the best way to combat child labor, Operation USA focuses on rebuilding schools, easing overcrowding in makeshift school houses, and easing shortages of school supplies.
Abrera has set up a charity fund called Steps Forward for the Philippines whose goal is to raise enough money to provide school supplies for 260 children in a school that is being rebuilt in Guiuan.
Goal nearly reached
Funds have been raised online via CrowdRise and have come mainly from families, friends, dancers and supporters of the dance community.
As of January, Abrera has nearly reached her goal, having raised $18,360 of the $20,000 she needs to help the schoolchildren of Guiuan.
Operation USA plans to open Honeywell Ngolos Elementary School early this year. The school, which has eight classrooms, a playground and a basketball court, will offer kindergarten and elementary education.
“I would like to be able to give the school supplies as part of the unveiling so that the children will have what they need,” Abrera said.
She traveled to Guiuan last September, staying for only one day. She said the experience was overwhelming and one that touched her deeply.
Abrera visited the school site where she distributed school supplies and was greeted and given a tour by 30 children carrying signs saying “Welcome Miss Stella.”
For Abrera, who is greeted with applause on stage all over the world, that moment was “the sweetest thing” she had experienced.
“It was extremely moving, humbling and caused me to become emotional,” she said.
People told her their stories, and she said she listened with her heart.
“One man survived the storm surge only to learn his wife and two daughters had not survived and his only son was missing. He said he looked up to the sky as he cried out in desperation, and saw his son clinging to the top of a 15-meter-tall tree,” she said.
As a woman who has achieved her childhood dream of a life of dance, she said, she reflected on those who lost their dreams to the overwhelming fury of nature.
“I was told that most people in Tacloban had spent most of their young lives working abroad so that they could build their dream homes for their families. They lost everything—as home insurance didn’t cover acts of God. They all now live in galvanized iron-roof shanties,” she said.
Abrera said the short time she spent in the disaster-hit areas showed her a different side of the locals and the common bond they shared.
Resilience of survivors
“There was a quiet reverence, calmness, a sense of equality among people—even in a very crowded mall, there wasn’t much boisterous noise. Whether they were drivers, store clerks, fishermen, business owners, it seemed they all showed each other kindness and extended a helping hand,” she said.
The resilience of the survivors touched her deeply, she said.
“I felt like there was a heaviness in the air, not caused by the humidity or heat. I didn’t see many people laughing. Smiles were few. But there is a pride and resilience that you can sense within the community. I can imagine the bond they all share,” she said.
Although it was Abrera’s first time to do charity work, it was not likely to be her last. If she could make a dream come true in the future, she said, “I would love to build nice homes for all the children and their families, fix the roads in their community, give them access to the Internet, help them to travel to Manila or other big cities to expose them to art as well as higher academic learning.”
Visit the Philippines
Though she visited the Philippines regularly until she was 13, it had been more than 20 years since the ballerina’s last visit to the country, and last September’s trip offered a special opportunity to reconnect to the land of her birth.
Abrera encourages other Filipino-Americans to come back and experience what she has found to be a “home away from home.”
“I definitely feel grateful to have been so warmly embraced by the people of the Philippines during my visit. It was unexpected and wonderful. I was just immediately taken in as one of them. Enjoy feeling included right away. Enjoy the warmth and wonderful, good humor of the people,” she said.
To help Steps Forward for the Philippines, visit https://bit.ly/StepsForwardPH