Pismo resident brings a gift of hope to those devastated by Typhoon Haiyan

A Pismo Beach woman’s fundraising effort is bringing food, holiday presents and supplies to help rebuild a Philippine town devastated by Typhoon Haiyan

acornejo@thetribunenews.comDecember 24, 2013 

The trail of devastation left behind in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan in November will be felt for years to come.

Yet thousands of miles away, a local effort is underway to help rebuild what was lost.

In the rural village of Dumarao on Panay Island, the storm, the deadliest of its kind on record, destroyed fruit trees and rice fields, reduced homes to piles of wood and bamboo, and leveled schools.

As families continue to cope with the disaster, the small community has banded together to move forward. From the rubble emerge stories of hope, gratitude and generosity.

Pismo Beach resident Kathleen O’Neill has a heartfelt connection to the small village; her daughter-in-law Alma Ochs was born and raised there.

In 2006, O’Neill traveled to Dumarao with her son, Kevin, and Alma to celebrate the christening of Alma’s family’s new concrete home, which Alma had helped the family build by sending them money each month for three years.

When Typhoon Haiyan hit Nov. 8, it was the strongest tropical storm known to ever hit land anywhere in the world. Its devastating 195-mph winds and torrential rains killed 6,100 people, left 1,800 missing and rendered more than 4 million people homeless.

In Dumarao, the typhoon destroyed many of the village’s fragile structures.

But Alma’s family’s sturdier home withstood the storm and protected her father and many of her 10 siblings who still live there.

“Little did she know when she was sending money home every month to build a concrete home for her aging parents that it would save her family and some other villagers, who crowded into it during the storm,” O’Neill said.

Alma, who now lives in Tracy in San Joaquin County, works as a registered nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

She talks with her sister, Sally, in the Philippines by cellphone or Skype as often as she can.

“Sometimes, when I talk to my sister, it gives me goosebumps as she is telling me all of the stories,” Alma said. “Stories of people who need help and don’t have anyone. Sometimes, I feel like I need to be there, but I have my family here, too.”

Shortly after the typhoon’s 200-mph winds destroyed her hometown,

Alma heard from family members who had to walk to another village to borrow the only working generator to charge their cellphones and computers.

It was then that she learned of the destruction.

Fruit trees were left naked, rice paddies were flooded and villagers were left scrambling to gather whatever fruit they could find on the ground before it rotted. They were hungry but only craved a bowl of rice.

“When I was growing up, I could walk into the forest and see food and just take a guava,” Alma said. “Now, it is all gone.”

O’Neill immediately wanted to help.

“At first, there was no way to send money,” O’Neill said. “But soon we learned a Western Union office opened in a neighboring village, and we were able to get money directly to them.”

Alma’s sister, Sally, used the money to go to the only grocery store that remained open. Just two items were left on the shelf: rice and canned sardines.

She purchased as much as she could and began distributing it to anyone in the village who was without food. More than 175 families were given a bag of rice and a can of sardines — enough to feed them for a week.

O’Neill and Kevin’s father, Richard Ochs, shared the story of the village’s plight with family, friends and members of the San Luis Yacht Club and SLO Skiers. Donations trickled in.

So far, she has raised more than $6,000 to send directly to Dumarao for relief efforts.

That money has fed families, helped others start to rebuild and kept the village moving forward from devastation to hope.

Sally, who communicates the needs of the village, recently asked for $200 to throw a Christmas party for the 400 children living there. Many of those children lost their homes, their personal belongings and their schools to the storm.

Sally, dressed up as Santa, visited with and gave small gifts to each child.

“It melts my heart,” Alma said. “The children were so happy … so thankful.”

The village’s rebuilding effort will take time.

“This will not be an overnight recovery but rather will take years for the fruit trees to grow to production again and for lives to be rebuilt,” O’Neill said. “We have so much to be grateful for here on the Central Coast, and I hope to open others’ minds and hearts to the over 4 million homeless people in the Philippines who struggle every day just to survive.

“My dream is that San Luis Obispo County will adopt the village of Dumarao, feed them and help them rebuild their homes, schools and other structures with concrete that will survive future storms.”

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HOW YOU CAN HELP

Kathleen O'Neill set up a special fund at Rabobank called the "Dumarao Philippines Relief Fund." Interested donors can contribute at any Rabobank. All money goes directly to the villagers of Dumarao, Philippines.

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