She takes care of abandoned ‘lolas’

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Sister Sandra da Silva, with a portrait of the Little Sisters foundress St. Teresa of Jesus Jornet Ibars —PHOTOS BY NIÑO JESUS ORBETA
Sister Sandra da Silva, with a portrait of the Little Sisters foundress St. Teresa of Jesus Jornet Ibars —PHOTOS BY NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

If they were my mother or my father, how would I like to take care of them?”

That’s what Sister Sandra da Silva reminds herself of daily as she performs her duties looking after the 82 grandmothers under her care at Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly, the San Juan City-based sanctuary for abandoned lolas.

“We try to accomplish the words of our foundress: ‘to take care of their bodies in order to save their souls,’” she says. “We dedicate our lives to taking care of the elderly.”

Sister Sandra arrived in the Philippines exactly 10 years ago this month. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1962, she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nun, a dream her parents fully supported, though, she says, they would’ve preferred that she chose a congregation closer to home.

At 16, she left home and her college studies and became a postulant at the Congregation of the Little Sisters in Valencia, Spain. She knew of the Little Sisters since she was 8 because they had a convent near her childhood home, and she received her First Communion there.

She didn’t grow up rich, but they were comfortable, Sister Sandra says. At the end of their street were favelas (slums), and the kids from there would often come to watch television at their home. They were always welcomed by her mother, who would even serve them snacks.

“I think my desire to be a nun grew because of her. She taught us to treat everyone with kindness,” Sister Sandra says. Even now that her mother is widowed and lives by herself, her door remains open to everyone. From her mother, she unknowingly learned how to treat strangers, “like I do now with the lolas.”

Growing up the eldest of four, Sister Sandra liked to play nurse, tending to the cuts and scrapes of her siblings. She always had a soft spot for the poor—she also wanted to become a nurse, but not to work at a hospital, but to take care of the sick poor.

The poorest and infirm

After a comfortable posting in Argentina, she requested “for a poor place to go and serve Jesus there.” She was sent to the Philippines in 2014. She was, however, surprised to see a big, beautiful, sturdy home that was built to make sure its elderly residents were safe from natural disasters. In January 2023, she became the home’s Mother Superior.

Residents of Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly attend an activity.

Residents of Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly attend an activity.

Her wards had arrived at the home under various circumstances. Some were left in hospitals, others rescued from the streets or surrendered to the home by their families who couldn’t take care of them. As a volunteer, this writer has met lolas who said they voluntarily chose to go live there. Each has her own story; most are not in the best of health.

Sister Sandra says they don’t choose who comes to live with them, but priority is given to the poorest and infirm. (They’re only limited by the lack of funds to accept more lolas.)

What surprises many first-time visitors is how well the place is kept and run. The lolas are well-dressed. They seem happy and content; they’re also kept busy and entertained with various activities.

“Sometimes visitors ask, ‘Where are the poor?’ We answer: ‘Here!’ Maybe they expect the lolas to not dress nice. But when they first arrive, we show them to their room and give them a change of clothes to appear maganda. The lolas are well-dressed talaga.”

Generous benefactors

She acknowledges the generosity of benefactors, which enables the home to provide for the lolas’ needs—from their clothing to food, maintenance medicines, wheelchairs and the upkeep of the place. (Of course, she adds, they could always use more help—like for doctors to come and give the lolas a check-up, or for volunteers to help bring them to the hospital.)

“We talk to them, listen to their complaints, sometimes they’re like children… No day is the same, it’s never boring. But I feel so happy to be with the lolas.”

Sister Sandra gives credit to the social workers, caregivers, and other members of her staff, without whom she wouldn’t be able to run the place. “If sometimes it is hard for us who were prepared for this mission, how much more the workers? I am truly grateful to all of them.”

“We talk to them, listen to their complaints,” says Sister Sandra of her wards.
“We talk to them, listen to their complaints,” says Sister Sandra of her wards.

As head of the home, the challenges she faces are many—finding donors and funds to pay the workers, utility bills and general upkeep. The past two months have been extra challenging, she says, since their elevator stopped working and the elevator company has ignored their calls for repair. “The lolas are kawawa.”

Taking care of the grandmothers always comes first. “They are human beings…I cannot put the office before the lola; the documents can wait,” she says.

“I don’t need much. I start my day in front of the Tabernacle saying thank you for the new day, making intercession for all our benefactors, for all those who ask for prayers,” she says.

“This is the time to take care of me, to fill up my soul in the presence of God and ask for wisdom every day. Without this time, the Little Sisters cannot survive. I also take care of the three other Sisters. We need each other.”

Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly is located at 153 F. Blumentritt corner R. Pascual Streets, Tibagan, San Juan City. For interested donors and volunteers, send an email to [email protected].

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