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The mission

/ 08:26 AM January 08, 2012

As in the story of Moses, a nun was said to have discovered a baby floating in the sea on a broken piece of Styrofoam two days after her mother lost grip on her when they were struck by the flash flood in Cagayan de Oro. We saw the infant’s face on a computer-printed poster announcing a reward for whoever would find her. It was posted all over the city, on electric posts, walls and in the notice boards of evacuation camps.

Frail and emaciated by malnutrition, a grandmother recalls how she had to force herself to swim through strong currents from roof to roof with her husband, their children and grandchildren to be able to survive.

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A paralytic, half of his body immobile, waded and swam through strong currents and at one time had to be dragged by his little boy to be able to reach safer grounds.

A wife was separated from her husband and their two boys when their house was destroyed by  big waves running down from the river. She had earlier left the house with her daughters along with the neighbors to safer grounds while the father and sons were left to try to save a few of their things.

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Luckily they were able to hold on to a coconut tree floating in the current and took advantage of its fruits, opening them with their bare teeth to be able to eat. In the sea near Camiguin where they ended up, they made a raft from whatever they could get from floating debris. They also found among the flotsam a refrigerator with some food in it. Rescuers soon found them and the father appeared on national TV to tell their story.

I saw that interview on TV while still in Cebu but met the wife personally at an evacuation camp in Cagayan de Oro City when we went around conducting stress debriefing sessions as part of the University of San Carlos “Mission for CDO.”

I was among the team of 16 volunteers, mostly guidance counselors, psychologists, and faculty from the university. Our visit was just the start of a series of missions initiated by the USC Community Extension Services (CES). We were lucky to be hosted by Our Lady of Fatima Parish, which provided us hot meals, and the Religious of the Virgin Mary sisters, which gave us rooms in their retreat house.

Besides counseling primarily to those who lost loved ones in the tragedy, our task was mainly to assess their more urgent needs so that the university can avoid gathering unwanted relief goods for the next visits. The CES also aims to solicit help from different departments of the university, to see how their expertise can be of service to the Sendong survivors. Perhaps the next team can include nurses and pharmacists, or civil engineers and architects who can help in building temporary shelters.

That’s how I got to join the team. They wanted me to see how we in the fine arts department could join the counselors to conduct art therapy workshops primarily for  the children. But seeing all the boredom and lack of space for play that kids are subjected to in evacuation camps, we wasted no time on the  second day and bought crayons, pencils, and paper at the department store and immediately gathered the kids for an expressive play and art therapy workshop while the adults were gathered in small groups outdoors for counseling sessions.

As  official photographer for the mission, I was only able to interview a few survivors and none of them had lost a loved one. But my peers, mostly young guidance counselors from the “more cloistered” institutions, were themselves overwhelmed by the weight of trauma they encountered on  the ground, from people who were just too happy to  find someone willing to lend an ear.

As the sample accounts earlier mentioned would show,   how ironically precise chance or fortuity could come in. You may call it a miracle, or the invisible hand of God.

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The same faith remains even for those who lost their entire  family and all of their possessions. During the Mass  held  among the makeshift beds of evacuees at the relief center of Fatima Parish, USC vice president Fr. Tony Salas, SVD, tried to convince them to remain strong for those who are still living.

A few years ago, I was asked by then university president Fr. Rod Salazar, SVD, to come up with a slogan for the university. I wrote “Education with a mission,” having in mind the missionary character of Carolinian formation. The slogan was used for a while but was soon forgotten. But in CDO, I was glad it was no longer just a case of sloganeering.

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