Typhoon Disaster Changes Outlook
Filipino Student Lets Leadership Light Shine
Full-time student Vida Agudo is in her third semester at GCC. She grew up in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, a thriving city on the island of Mindanao, one of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. Her parents come from a family of business people; her father works in the advertising field, along with her mother, who used to run the restaurant for a hotel owned by her family. She has one sister, Ariana. And though her immediate family is small, Vida is very close with her uncles, aunts, and cousins. “We define ‘family’ differently where I come from,” she said.
The family is careful to spend their money on important things; education is a highlight, and they encourage Vida to experience new things. One of those experiences was allowing her to go on an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, the Philippines Youth Leadership Program. Though she had visited relatives in California before, the program took Vida to Chicago, Illinois for four weeks and to Washington, D.C. for an additional week. She was just 16. The program: “Building a New Generation of Citizens as Catalysts for Social Change.” In Chicago, the group participated in leadership workshops, volunteer work other community projects.
But these projects would pale in comparison with the level of community service she would be called to shortly after returning from the U.S. All of that training would be put to a monumental test.
Back home in Cagayan de Oro, Vida had begun her senior year in high school. Partly inspired by what she had learned in the leadership program, she founded an organization within her school called Kamay Ng Pagbabago (“Hands for Change,” in English) and held a few community environmental events. Little did she know how desperately those hands soon would be needed.
Right before Christmas 2011, it happened. Near midnight on December 16, Typhoon Sendong (Washi) struck, bringing chaos and devastation. “We didn’t really believe it at first, because sometimes the radio exaggerates,” said Vida. Her city was not normally in the path of the 20 typhoons, on average, that hit her country each year. Also, her family’s home was in an area that wasn’t hit as directly.
But the extent of the disaster became clear when her father piled the family in the car and began to drive around the city to see what was really going on. They crossed the bridge, and saw water up to the same level as the bridge. “You could only see the rooftops,” said Vida. “There were dead animals floating by, people trying to save pets, pets trying to save their owners.” Everywhere, people were screaming for help.
Entire villages were washed away. Within hours, more than 650 people had died in flash floods. A week later, that number had doubled. Her dad wanted to help, but tragically, there was little that could be done.
Still, Vida’s family – her sister, her mom and dad – were compelled to do something. “I was active in my school and they were having relief operations,” said Vida. Yet she noted that when tragedy strikes, what usually happens in her country is that most official assistance goes to areas that are well-known or are in more reachable locations. Remote areas, farmlands and smaller towns get limited resources. Vida urged her family to focus on the outskirts, where help was most crucial.
The next morning, Vida’s family drove to the far reaches of the city. By then, the water had subsided, leaving an apocalyptic landscape in its wake. “It was like when you watch a movie and it’s the end of the world; people were wandering and looking so lost, and they were covered in mud,” recalled Vida.
People were trying to free their homes from mud; corpses lined the streets. Roads were impassable, with branches and thick mud blocking the way. Rescue vehicles were getting stuck, and survivors were already dying because their injuries prevented them from walking far enough for help.
In the midst of this seemingly impossible situation, Vida did the only thing she could think of: she reached out to those who were less affected and more prepared, letting them know where help was most needed. She started by texting five or ten of her friends, asking them to go to smaller places within the city. All of them texted back, and all were willing to volunteer, even some who themselves had been hit by the typhoon.
“I didn’t expect that,” said Vida. When she got to the home base of rescue operations, where they would help pack goods for the victims, the drive for volunteers picked up steam. Friends texted other friends, and soon, the band of volunteers had grown to 40 to 50people. Her outreach had become a texting brigade. And Vida was at the center of the action, pulled into a leadership role she scarcely could have imagined only days before.
Most of the people were older than she. Yet they looked to her for direction, finishing one task and then asking, “Vida, what do we do now?” One organization that called to help reached her mother, who referred them to Vida. Soon, the teenager was helping to transfer some of her friends to locations where needs had emerged and generally directing relief operations in those areas of the city.
A bullhorn became Vida’s best friend during the relief operations, as she directed people where to go, arranged for everyone to line up (a minor miracle itself in the Philippines, where people don’t line up for anything!) and helped organize distribution of hot food, dry clothes and medicines. No one was more surprised than Vida that the people around her would trust her enough to do those things. “I didn’t think I was capable of that,” she said. “Who at 16 would think they could do that? I didn’t think I could.” It gave her a boost of confidence and helped her to realize her true potential.
Like Vida, others rose to new challenges. She saw first-hand the value of people coming together to help. Rich, poor – it didn’t matter, because people from all walks of life were affected by the life-changing typhoon. Even long-time classmates not known for ready teamwork came forward to offer assistance. Vida knew this wasn’t a time to turn volunteers away, regardless of their history. “In dire emergencies, you don’t get to choose who volunteers,” said Vida.
She struggled but eventually found a way to assign the right tasks for everyone. “Maybe they’re not good at organizing things, but something will interest them; they can carry things, help transfer supplies or stuff like that,” she said. It was leadership in action: Let them do what they’re good at. Everyone has a purpose. Some of those who were initially met by a response of “they’re not going to help” turned out to be the very people who did the most for others.
Seeing the best in people altered her perspective and made her a better person, said Vida. “I didn’t really believe until I saw it: people I least expected to show up were there nine days in a row, morning to midnight, really helping people,” she said. “It changed who I am; I think it changed everyone. You never know when you look at someone, what experience they’ve brought with them, or what they’re capable of.”
The circle continued to grow, with friends inviting their friends and relatives. Despite a bad situation, the community came together, and people reconnected with those they hadn’t seen for a long time. “Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad you’re OK,” would be words spoken often.
Each December 17 marks an annual commemoration event. Over two years later, the recovery process continues. For a year, residents were not allowed to go to the beaches or rivers because they were not safe; the water was contaminated because of the dead bodies. A thousand people are still missing, including many children, some of whom were kidnapped and held for ransom. Many who were affected are still living in temporary homes. Typhoons and earthquakes continue to threaten the area.
Yet survivor stories abound. Some were washed away, only to turn up on different shores. One of Vida’s friends washed up from one city to the next and was in class a week later. The United Nations and other countries are helping, but it’s still difficult. “We’re a third-world country with few resources, especially in tiny towns in outlying areas; people don’t know they’re there,” she explained. “Those are the people we were trying to reach.”
Kamay Ng Pagbabago, the service organization Vida started in her former high school, is still up and running. Before she graduated, she made sure the school recognized it officially so it could continue on. She tells other students that age has nothing to do with leadership, and said, “I don’t want the next generation to think they’re too young. I believe that everyone, no matter what age, is capable of contributing to positive change.”
Coming to Arizona
Following the typhoon, Vida came to GCC without knowing anyone. She selected GCC for her education because her mom’s sister lives here, and was willing to watch over her. It wasn’t easy at first. She Skyped with her parents every night, telling them she wanted to go home. One bout of homesickness took her back to the Philippines, and she wanted to stay. But she came back, now determined to stay. She still talks to her mom every day, but since returning, she’s made a lot of friends and has adjusted pretty well.
She’s working on prerequisites and on deciding what to do after that. She’s thinking of pursuing a career in medicine. She might transfer to Grand Canyon University, or perhaps go home to continue her studies, as international student fees are high here. Ultimately, she’s leaning toward a career in pediatrics or gynecology.
Making New Friends
Vida says it took a few months for her to make friends at GCC. There was a significant cultural gap, including differences in the way people interact with others. “I don’t always get their jokes all the time,” she said.
“In the Philippines, we’re very close-knit; we’re always with family, and like spending time with them,” she observed. She noted that in the Philippines, people will treat you like they’ve known you forever even though they’ve only known you for a short amount of time. “Here, it’s a little more difficult to approach people,” she said.
Local food has also been an adjustment. For one thing, although there are places like McDonald’s, KFC, etc., back home in the Philippines, every meal always had rice on the side.
She credits the International Club for helping to connect her with others with similar experiences. “I had to get out of my comfort zone, so with the encouragement of a few of my Filipino friends, I nominated myself to be an officer at the first meeting, and then my job would be to make posters, and take them around.”
Organizing events gave her a reason to talk to people, which led to friendships. Now, she has friends from all over the world: China, Hong Kong, Columbia, Iraq, Germany, Brazil, South Sudan. “It’s pretty cool,” she said.
Also helping to boost her confidence is her job in the International Education office. Ken Bus, head of GCC’s international program, says Vida is a remarkable young woman. “She impressed me right from the start as an outgoing, energetic, and creative person; a real mover and shaker,” said Bus. He thinks she is exactly what is needed to recharge the club with more activities enjoyed by larger numbers of GCC students.
Anyone who knows her story doesn’t doubt her ability to do just that – and whatever else she sets her mind to.
Vida says Typhoon Sendong transformed her. The experience helped changed her view of the world, and of people. It also changed her image of herself, making her aware of leadership skills she didn’t realize she had. Those skills, along with training she had received, are useful everywhere, says Vida, and helped her adjust to her new life in Arizona. “It’s a totally different situation, but the same skills still apply. You have to plan, and make sure things happen; nothing’s going to happen unless you do something about it,” she said.
“If I had been too scared, or if I had hesitated even a little during the typhoon – if I hadn’t sent those text messages – none of those people would have showed up to help.”
“You have to summon the drive to do it – age doesn’t matter; there are always going to be people who know more than you do. But just thinking, ‘Someone else, not me’ isn’t going to take anyone anywhere; you have to step up and take action.”
Postscript: Vida was in the Philippines on an extended vacation last November, 2013, when it happened again – another typhoon, this time, Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit Tacloban, a city on a neighboring island in the Philippines. Though her city wasn’t directly in the path this time, she again volunteered, spending as much time as she could, packing relief goods, etc. to go to Tacloban. She missed last semester, but is now back in school at GCC.