I was ankle deep in mud, trying to brush away disease-carrying mosquitoes that seemed to be fascinated with my exposed legs, arms and face. I had a 30 pound concrete construction block in each hand, which made swatting at nasty bugs just a little difficult. The tropical conditions on the Philippines island of Bohol were offering me some challenges that I’d never had to deal with before. The bugs were one thing, the daily rain storms that deluged the countryside were another. And then there was the heat — relentless and disinterested in my personal discomfort.
I was on a short-term mission trip to the Philippines with an organization whose purpose was to construct church buildings for needy congregations. Now I’m not a construction guy. I’m a former high school special education teacher who was just trying to do something “good”. The situation I found myself in was surreal. For those of you who have never been in a third-world country before, let me sum it up by saying, life there is truly different.
There was a dining area set up next to the work site. It was a simple affair of a few wooden benches and tables sitting under a very large tarp. It was surly no four star restaurant, but it served our needs. The first few days there were rainy. The mornings weren’t too bad, but part way through the day, the rain would come. Sometimes it was torrential, but most of the time it was just a slow steady rain.
During one of those rainy days, I found myself hanging out under the tarp at the dining area. I wasn’t the only one. A few of the Filipino workers had also come in to take a break from the weather. There was a young man whom I had noticed several times there at the work site. This boy was, in my estimation, of high school age. His name was Raymond. Once I began to recognize people a little better and put names to the faces, I soon realized that Raymond wasn’t just at the work site once in a while – he was there every day.
“Raymond,” I asked him. “Why aren’t you in school today?” He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. This was his church and his mom was one of the kitchen staff helping prepare our food. But his shrug wasn’t an answer to my question.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“I don’t have a pencil,” was his reply.
“What do you mean, you don’t have a pencil?” I queried further.
Later on I spoke to Raymond’s mother and she confirmed that the boy was not in school due to a lack of basic school supplies. I was stunned. She went on to explain that she had many children. If she had any hopes of the younger ones ever completing the sixth grade, the older ones would have to drop out of school. There simply wasn’t enough money to go around.
I did some research and found that the typical Filipino student could get through almost an entire year of school for around twenty-five dollars. The older students, like Raymond, did have some extra requirements for school, but even then the amount they needed was minimal. I vowed that Raymond would go to school. I would ‘support’ him so that he could finish his education. It’s one thing to chose to live a simple Filipino life, but it’s another to live that life because you didn’t have a choice. It was my goal to make sure that Raymond did indeed have that choice.
The next week, I met several other children who were in situations similar to Raymond’s. I soon learned that nearly 40 percent of all Filipino children are unable to finish elementary school because they don’t have basic school supplies. Nearly half of these kids never finish high school for the same reason.
I had been truly touched by these children and their situation. When I returned to the US, I began a non-profit organization with the primary purpose of providing school supplies to needy Filipino children so that they could at least graduate from high school.
I’ve since returned to the island of Bohol, where I’ve met with several children and their families who need help. One of the communities is an isolated village called Datag. Many of the children who live there don’t even have shoes to wear. Many more don’t have proper clothes, and they surely don’t have the supplies they need for school. School starts in the middle of June, so Educate: Bohol has spent the past several weeks gather clothing and shoes for these children. We’re also collecting funds so that we can purchase and distribute school supplies.
It’s a very emotional assignment for me, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other. The Filipinos are beautiful people who work hard and appreciate God’s blessings. I will be back in June to help with the distribution of school supplies, clothing, and shoes. But there’s another village nearby . . . and the situation there is actually worse. Through God’s guiding hand, I’m ready for the challenge.
* * *
Scott Berry has published Return to the Middle, a non-fiction account of his recent experiences working as a missionary in the Philippines.
“We’ve all struggled with trying to do the ‘right’ thing,” says Berry. “But sometimes not everyone agrees with our actions and we quickly find ourselves in an uncomfortable conflict. Often, that struggle beats us down and, if we don’t take criticism well, we just quit. That’s what happened to me. But God offered me the chance to try one more time. He opened a door. I stepped through it.”
Return to the Middle is the story of how Berry allowed God to lead him through not only a foreign land, but also through foreign places in his heart.
His pastor and close friend, Tom Caffery, spoke of the man he met upon Berry’s return from the Philippines: “Like most who experience a mission trip, Scott was struck at the heart of what we can accomplish for Christ’s mission today.”
Berry founded a public charity, Educate: Bohol, as a response to his visit to the Philippines. He has since returned to the province of Bohol, where he has provided school supplies and other educational needs for over 125 children.
“The need there is tremendous,” Berry says. “We take so much for granted here in America. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to come visit the Philippines with me. I’d love to introduce you to some of the kindest people in the world who work extremely hard every day of the week just to survive. We can send a Filipino child back to school for an entire year for only 35 dollars. An American family spends that much on one fast-food meal that they don’t even remember a day later.”
Berry is a former special education teacher who taught in an inner-city school in Albuquerque. His passion for writing started at a young age and continued on through college. His writing skills were sharpened when he worked as a military historian, writing about the various operations of U.S. Air Force units around the world. Upon retirement from the military, Berry moved to Rio Rancho, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, where he lives with his wife. They have an adult son and daughter and two grandsons.
Here is a link to Scott’s website and blog Educate: Bohol that describes his work further.