During the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, it's easy to forget victims of a natural disaster on the other side of the planet.
However, one Kamloops organization dedicated to relief and improvement efforts in Third World countries isn't missing a beat over the holidays.
Developing World Connections is ramping up to several projects in the new year, starting with ongoing rebuilding activities in the Philippines, which is still recovering from the catastrophic November typhoon.
The organization is seeking volunteers for a mid-March trip to the village of Tabogon on Cebu Island, which was laid to waste by typhoon Yolanda.
"The very northern part, the small islands that are part of Cebu, 80 to 90 per cent of all facilities were wiped out," said Wayne McRann, Developing World Connections president.
"All the homes, schools, resort communities flattened as well as banana and coconut trees."
Residents are now living without shelter and without the means to feed their families.
"The people in those fishing villages, once you lose your boat you don't have anything," said
Ernie Toews, who recently returned to Kamloops from the ravaged region.
Toews is leading the winter trip in co-operation with partner organization Rise Above Foundation.
Three years ago, after three months of research, Developing World Connections chose Rise Above as its host partner for Filipino humanitarian work.
"Their philosophy very much fits with ours around sustainable development," said McRann.
"They very much believe in gender equality and environmental sustainability, social justice - all the same things that Developing World Connections works towards."
Kamloops resident Grant Iverson knows Cebu because he helped build a livelihood and community centre there during an all men's trip organized through his Kamloops Daybreak Rotary Club (to which McRann also belongs).
Iverson is actually in Cebu right now helping collect, sort, bag and deliver 325 aid packs in Tabogon.
"It was very hard at times to hold back tears as I watched the young and the old, the weak and the strong struggle to carry their goods away," he wrote in an email interview with The Daily News.
One particular experience was seared into his consciousness. While visiting families whose homes were destroyed, Iverson met a 13-year-old motherless girl whose father was often absent for work.
"A lot of children in this area only have a mother or a father but the difference in this case is that the young girl is blind," he wrote.
"Her grandmother brought her out to meet us and it was one of the most emotional things I have ever experienced. I am struggling to control my feelings again just writing this."
Iverson didn't actually intend to participate in service work during this trip, it was meant to be purely a vacation. But when Yolanda hit, Rise Above contacted him to see if he'd be interested in helping out.
"There is a definite need, I am available, I have some skill sets to help out and given that my life has pretty good for the most part, I felt the desire to give something back to the global community," he said.
Such trips don't have to be entirely about service, however. Iverson plans to return to holiday activities in February and March when he heads to Taiwan.
Toews also knows the area well after joining the Developing World Connections project in Cebu City, which the typhoon bypassed, to build a community centre.
Toews, a Kamloops resident of 36 years and retired concrete contractor, has been participating in humanitarian trips since 2006.
"I like the idea of a working vacation. I'm not one to lie on the beach or something. That's what drew me," he said.
He's taken nine such trips so far, building schools, houses and community centres.
And he quickly discovered that true satisfaction lay in the life-altering difference he was making for families around the world.
"It's pretty awesome because the people you're helping are so appreciative," he said.
"You're actually working with the people that are there. It's very gratifying because people there can't believe sometimes that we do that."
Scheduling some holiday time into humanitarian trips is a typical approach among the number of people participating, which soared after the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, said McRann.
"Now it's more that second wave of people and we're seeing more corporate groups, more high schools, any kind of create your own groups - family and church - who are wanting to travel," said McRann.
The trip can take its toll on a person's emotions, especially when doing relief work.
"It takes some courage, it takes some bravado for people to step up and say, 'I want to go give of myself to help these people find some way to get back into a home and live a life where they're not going to be sick or dying from exposure to the elements and potential disease,' " said McRann.
He made it his prime objective after an experience in Guatemala in 1998 that "basically changed my life forever."
"On my very first international service exploratory trip, I encountered conditions that just directed me towards wanting to do this kind of work for the rest of my life," said McRann.
"It's been unbelievable. With the exception of family, it's probably been the most rewarding experience of my life."
Developing World Connections is now looking for at least 12 individuals to pay their own way on the two-week trip, which will focus on replacing a school roof that was shorn off during the typhoon.
"If we have enough people and money we'll also want to rebuild houses or some sort of shelter," said Toews.
The residents' traditional bamboo structures could not withstand the high winds, so the plan is to use concrete blocks.
"It will be entirely based on what they wish for us to do, but it very much looks like they're rebuilding basic eight-foot by eight-foot homes," said McRann.
The cost is usually about $4,000, much of which is tax deductible.
The organization also sends money for aid packs, material for building a small home (at about $1,200) and for building a boat (at about $250).
And organizers have also launched the fourth annual Aeroplan Beyond Miles campaign. If they raise 90 per cent of their 100,000-mile goal, Aeroplan will match the rest.
For more information, call 250-434-2524 or go to developingworldconnections.org.
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