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Wednesday16 April 2014

The Promises We Keep

By Trish W

PhilippineTour1He looked at me questioningly, with tears brimming and I answered "welcome home." Those expressive brown eyes spoke to me as they always have and all I could do was hug my 14 year old son. A man of few words, Gregory said nothing as we entered the customs line at Manila Airport. His eyes were alert and focused on the official behind the booth as he showed his U.S. passport. The last time Greg was in this airport, he was an infant leaving on a Filipino passport with John and me, his new parents. Visiting the Philippines has been an urgent need for our son Greg for as long as I can remember.

When Mary Lou Eshelman contacted our family in 2004 about the Homeland Tour of the Philippines in August 2005, it was a prayer answered. John and I had always promised our three children that we would make a trip to visit their birth countries with them... someday. Who better to guides us through this emotional journey than Mary Lou? She has played a part in all three of our children's adoption stories and been a support to our family for nearly 20 years. Our Korean born daughter Alanna would be 16, Gregory would be 14 and Neal would be 12. It appeared that someday had arrived for our Filipino born sons, Gregory and Neal, and so we began preparing.

Anyone who has made that flight to Asia is aware of just how long the flight can be. This was my third trip to Asia. It was different and yet hauntingly familiar. Coincidentally, we flew on Korean Air and Alanna happily selected the traditional Korean meals on the menu. While she had no desire to visit Korea, she reluctantly agreed to support her brothers' desire to visit their birth country. It was serendipity that we were flying on this airline!

Traveling through a day and night provided an opportunity to get to know the other members of our group. As the plane flew toward our destination, we shared our stories. There were many parallels in our lives with our children being the common denominator. I had the opportunity to get to know WHFC social worker Deb Shrier. This intuitive and friendly woman was making her first trip to Asia. I felt like an old pro as I shared our previous experiences. Deb was an incredible emotional support for all of us during the two weeks we spent together. It was a privilege to have her share this experience with us. When we landed half a world away, the seeds of new friendships were planted and we were ready to begin the journey.

Our first night and day were spent settling into the Intercontinental Hotel in Makati and journaling our thoughts. We also met the charming Che Naval, liaison for WHFC in the Philippines. She was an important connection and an invaluable resource. Located across the street is the Shoe Mart and Glorietta Mall. Shopping and relaxing poolside allowed all of us a chance to collectively catch our breath and adjust to the time change. Some of the store signs in the mall were familiar, but it was clear that we were a long way from home! Gregory noticed that many people were staring at our group. "How does it feel to have everyone stare at you, mom?" Alanna was surprised when the clerks knew that she was Korean. Neal had a whole new audience to entertain with his jokes and stories. All of the children clearly enjoyed being the Asian majority!

We shopped for traditional Filipino clothing to wear at the formal farewell dinner planned at the end of our visit. Gregory and Neal looked so handsome trying on their elegant white barongs. It was another emotional moment; to see them in their native shirts was a glimpse of what was to come. The girls had a wider range of choices in their clothing selection and it was a rainbow of color and textures to sort through! In the end, everyone was pleased with their selections and we were able to experience everyday life as we meandered through the mall.

PhilippineTour2Personally, I dreaded the trip to the Enchanted Kingdom scheduled for Sunday. An amusement park is my least favorite destination no matter where it is in the world! However, this proved to be the perfect first outing for our children. It was a rainy, overcast day and the park attendance was minimal. This afforded the children a chance to ride to their hearts content! Mary Lou's idea that we experience some destinations typical to a Filipino family was a wise one. We all enjoyed the day and it was an opportunity for the children to truly get comfortable with each other and to relax in these new friendships. The analogy of this trip being a roller coaster ride was not lost on any of us! The strength of these new friendships would provide support during the emotional days ahead of us.

The first institution we were scheduled to visit was Heart of Mary Villa. This home for unwed mothers and their babies was the first home our sons had ever known. As we drove in silence through the streets of Malabon, the sights told an important aspect of the children's early history without a word ever being spoken. When Che opened the gates to HMV it felt surreal, for all of it was exactly as I remembered. It had been twelve years to the day since we left with our youngest son Neal. Gregory was impressed with how nice everyone was to him and it gave him comfort to meet the beautiful babies during the nursery tour. The donations of baby care items we had collected from family and friends were gratefully accepted by the staff. Alanna hid her emotions behind the large dark sunglasses she wore in spite of the rain. She observed it all from a distance. Later we were all treated to an incredible Balikbayan party. The children's homecoming was a warm and welcome extravaganza! My sons left with a clear sense that they were loved and cherished from their earliest days. Our mission was accomplished.

The next destination was a government sponsored institution, the Reception and Study Center for Children. We were greeted with long stem roses, drum beats and all the fanfare typically reserved for important dignitaries. We were also treated to another Filipino feast and a show by the children. It felt like Christmas morning, as we handed out the gifts of toys we brought to share. The frenzy and excitement of these children opening a pair of sunglasses or a box of crayons was both heart-warming and heart-breaking. The ease with which some crawled up into our arms, the arms of strangers, reminds us of how much a hug and a simple gift can mean to a child. It was a quiet, shy boy named Michael that climbed silently into Gregory's lap and into his heart forever. Later, as we left, Greg got off our bus to give Michael one last hug. Saying goodbye was not an easy thing to do and I knew that there would be a lot of emotion to process later that evening.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was our visit to Chosen Children Village. This is a remarkable place where children with special needs are raised with love, dignity and excellent care. This village represents a dream fulfilled for an amazing woman named Lita Fullerton. When Lita escorted us to meet our son Greg in 1991, she spoke to us of her plans to build a village in the mountains for "her angels." We felt a sense of deep pride, as we toured the Wide Horizons Reception Center and Infirmary. This building was constructed with donations from families like ours, who adopted through WHFC. It was here that Alanna's heart was lost to a little boy named Nino. She spent a good part of the visit talking to him, playing with him and listening to his stories about his cartoon hero, Spiderman. As soon as we arrived back in Manila, we sent a Spiderman action figure to Nino. We also made a family commitment to become sponsors to one of the children here. I know that we are forever changed by the experiences we had meeting these children and the dedicated people who care for them. We are renewed in our commitment to supporting WHFC's fundraising efforts in our own small way.

We spent much of the two weeks touring sights of Metro Manila and exploring the culture with our children. We were moved by the American Cemetery, some families' toured Correigador Island and we all enjoyed our visit to Intramuros. Here the Spanish influence on the Philippines was especially obvious in the old architecture. We visited the Malacanang Palace and saw where the President and her staff meet. We toured Ayala Museum and viewed an extensive display depicting the history of the Philippines. We spent a memorable weekend relaxing and processing our experiences at Lago d'Oro. Gregory experienced his first massage beneath a coconut tree beside the South China Sea. Alanna and the other children enjoyed a cable system of knee-boarding and water-skiing around the lake in Batangas. Neal sang Karaoke everywhere we went in the country where it was invented! John and I had the incredible privilege of experiencing our children's birth country and watching them get lost in a sea of Asian faces.

The Philippines is a country of contrast and contradictions. The raw physical beauty of the land is contrasted by the harsh realities of third world poverty. The Filipino people are proud and generously shared whatever they had with us. Everywhere we went, we were met with warmth, Mabuhay hospitality and a welcoming smile. Their humble circumstances do not diminish their enjoyment of life. We have much to learn from them about what really matters in life.

It was an emotional two weeks for all of us, but John and I had confirmation that it was a worthwhile trip on our final day in the Philippines. All of us were among the guests at a special luncheon at the Inter Country Adoption Board. After the formal speeches of dignitaries marked the end of the Global Conference, the adoptees were invited to offer testimonials. Gregory was asked to share his thoughts about the tour. Words do not come easily for Gregory, but with a voice barely masking his emotions, he held the microphone and said a few words that touched the heart of everyone who heard them. "I want to thank my mom and dad for taking me on this trip. Thank you for finding me a good home and please find homes for the other kids too." Those words are a gift that will forever remain a treasured memory.

The days and nights were filled with a blend of cultural experiences, moments of personal growth and just plain old-fashioned fun in the Philippines! It was an amazing process to watch these 8 young people form an intricate support system. They celebrated each friend's triumph and comforted each other in pain. I saw compassion and empathy that exceeded my expectations of typical adolescent behavior. Mary Lou, Che, and Deb celebrated each child during a farewell dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel on our final evening together. The candle lighting ceremony was symbolic in many ways; each child has their individual light but all eight together really glow! They instinctively offered each other something we as parents could never provide. As the young people danced and chatted after the planned program, it was obvious they had grown and carried within themselves a new sense of their place in the world. Words cannot capture what we witnessed over two weeks. Our children possess a resiliency that is a tribute to their character and a testimony to the human spirit. We are all richer for these experiences.

Parents can't predict which of the promises we keep will mean the most to our children. Nor can we know exactly how to support them as they reconcile their personal adoption stories. In February 2006, we had a reunion of all 5 families from the summer tour. One family hosted all of us for a ski weekend in Stowe, VT. Surrounded by the dramatic winter scenery and majestic mountains the most remarkable sight of all was the bond of friendship between all of us. The eight children who traveled together during the summer of 2005 now refer to themselves as Filipino cousins. They formed a kinship on the other side of the globe. Remaining in touch with those families who shared the journey is another promise we are glad to keep.

A heartfelt thanks to Mary Lou, Deb, Che and WHFC staff who made it easier to keep one of the most important promises this mom has ever made. Wide Horizons always has been there for us, sharing the journey! Salamat.