Originally from Manila, 37-year-old Dandin Espina had always thought he’d be a minister in his Church, the Pentecostal Church of God, but God, he says, had other plans.
“I was in seminary,” he says. “I had thought I’d be a pastor, but realised God called me to do social action, rather than to do theology, hermeneutics, homiletics. There was a real urge to be part of the community, in the Church doing social action.”
He turned to study social work instead, specialising in child welfare, and had only been about two months working with a Tearfund partner organisation, the Philippines Children’s Ministry Network (PCMN), trying to mobilise action against child sexual abuse, with a focus on helping children empower themselves, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013.
Like others, Dandin hadn’t paid much attention to warnings of the coming typhoon. He was busy on his project, and ongoing typhoon warnings were a staple of the rainy season anyway.
Although the predicted typhoon was labelled a ‘storm surge’, the weather had been glorious all day with people enjoying themselves on beaches – evacuation warnings were ignored and few took any precautions other than tying down their boats. “People,” he says, “thought it was a fake alarm.”
They could hardly have been more wrong. By 2am, winds had reached a speed of 315kph – for contrast, when Storm Desmond hit Ireland and Britain in December 2015, the strongest gust of wind, experienced in Scotland – was 180kph.
The winds tore off roofs, flattened houses, and destroyed the coconut plantations throughout the poor rural province of Eastern Samar, destroying the region’s infrastructure. Roughly 250,000 people were affected, with over 6,000 killed, while some air connections were shut down for two months and the road and rail infrastructure were demolished.
Before the typhoon, people in the area – already one of the poorest in the Philippines – lived off coconuts as well as rice and vegetables, but it’s thought it will not be until 2021 that the area’s coconut plantations will have recovered to a point where they can be harvested again.
For the first two months after the typhoon, with the area accessible only through governmental air buses and helicopters, people lived off emergency kits and relief goods.
As an ‘early responder’ to the crisis, during this period, Dandin had a list of 150 children who he was assigned to help.
“At the beginning of the project, we conducted a community assessment, we tried to identify who was the most vulnerable in every community, and came up with a list of 150 children,” he says, continuing, “Most of the 150 children were abandoned by their families because of migration – the mother or father decided to migrate to Manila to look for opportunities, because there were no opportunities in Eastern Samar at that time because of what happened.”
Young children had been left behind with grandparents who were sometimes very elderly and frail, he explains, pointing out that there had been an issue with abandonment and overstretched families in the area even before the typhoon, and that problems caused by one parent leaving for Manila became far worse if a second parent left after the typhoon, or was lost during it.
“It’s really common there, abandonment, so I just tried to assess who were the most vulnerable, as it wouldn’t have been possible to accommodate all of them,” he says.
“I did case management, using a multidisciplinary approach. We have partners in the area and in Manila, who were able to help with biomedical intervention – seeing if they needed help with sicknesses or any other health-related help.
“Of course, there were legal issues so we were working with the government and law enforcement, and tried to push cases where, for example, a child had been sexually abused by her father a few months after her mother left to work as a house helper in the nearest city.”
Rather than placing the children in orphanages or other institutions, Dandin’s aim was to keep these children in their community if this was at all possible, still supported by their relatives, but with extra supports and social work oversight.
“There are two sisters who had been abandoned by their parents, but were in the custody of their grandparents,” he says as an example. “Their home was destroyed by the typhoon, and though their grandparents were still capable of taking care of themselves, they couldn’t do more.
“So, instead of sending these two sisters to Manila, we decided to keep them together and give their grandparents a livelihood – we gave them livelihood grants, two pigs, male and female, so they could start a piggery business.”
Piggery and poultry farms are good alternative businesses while the coconut plantations are growing back, he explains: “The case management is ongoing: we’re still searching for the parents, but unfortunately we haven’t found them so far, and of course we’ve also been supporting the girls’ education, buying them school supplies so they can go back to school.”
After more than two years in Eastern Samar, Dandin is back in Manila now, where he works in advocacy, doing work on sex abuse awareness with schools, churches and young people themselves, and urging the government of the Philippines to introduce better child protection policies.
“We’re still struggling with how we’re going to engage our government in our project,” he says. “They think that NGOs have their own money and they should not support us because we have our own source of finance, so it’s hard for us to engage them and encourage them to adopt and finance our projects. We’re struggling – it’s a constant dialogue about our project.”
Grateful for the support his organisation has received through Tearfund, he visited Ireland in January in order to spread the word of what he’d been doing in the Philippines, thanking people for their support whether by giving radio interviews, addressing school groups, meeting church groups, or visiting youth groups or Tearfund supporters’ meetings.
“I’ve grown closer to God because of what’s happened,” Dandin says, “I’ve always believed that everything works together for good. That’s how my parents raised us. Everything has a purpose. My faith in God has grown stronger, and at the same time, it affirms my calling that God really wants me to respond to the plight of the poor.”
Reiterating that social action is his passion, he says he loves it when the Church is obviously relevant to the community beyond its spiritual role. He emphasises the importance of the Church “responding to the cry of the poor”, and says, “whenever I teach young people, I say it’s not evangelism or social action – it should be evangelism and social action.”