Santiago is a municipality in the province of Agusan del Norte, on the northern end of Mindanao, the major island in southern Philippines. Davao City lies approximately 225 kilometers directly south. On a 2006 business trip to one of his company’s holdings in Mindanao, Marshall Farris found himself in Santiago, moved with compassion by the poverty he encountered there, especially the lack of medical care and its profound effect on families and children.
When he got back home to Vancouver, he told his wife, Angelica, a Filipino-Canadian registered nurse, “We have to do something.”
The Farrises believe that health is wealth: that in order for a community to thrive, it needs healthy individuals who are able to work well and support their families. So to them, a medical mission seemed like the most logical way to help alleviate the poverty Marshall witnessed on his Philippine trip.
In July 2007, after a year and a half of organizing fundraisers, talking to potential donors, collecting goods like used eyeglasses, and recruiting volunteers, the first medical mission organized by the Farrises and their friends arrived in Mindanao to care for the community that had captured Marshall’s heart back in 2006.
“It was a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” says Angelica. She recalls arriving in Santiago and feeling the need of the people there hit her with all the overwhelming impact of the heat that strikes you as soon as you step off the airplane in the Philippines.
The mission lasted for five days and treated more than 1,700 individuals, ranging in age from one to 85 years. More than 480 people received eye exams and approximately 64 people received basic surgery. Common illnesses treated were tuberculosis, colds, coughs, skin diseases, mumps, toothache and dental decay, and malnourishment – just to name a few.
“Once the news of a medical mission breaks out, more communities join in,” says Angelica. “Even the ones who were not originally targeted show up.”
In Santiago, the three communities (barangays) originally targeted for the mission turned into nine served: four in the Municipality of Santiago, and the others in neighbouring Tubay and Jabonga.
The North American volunteers on this first mission stayed in the Cabadbaran barangay, while the mission was held in E. Morgado, the most central of all the barangays. According to Angelica, there are health clinics in E.Morgado and La Paz barangays, but the clinics are about thirty meters square, with no medical equipment. Usually, the medical missions are conducted at the Barangay Hall.
“At first I thought, how are we going to be able to help all these people? Somehow, we did it. And yet there are so many more people still in need,” says Angelica. “We knew we had to come back.”
To ensure that the missions would continue so that more communities could be reached, the Farrises formed the Ascenta Foundation in 2008, together with a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to help. They have been hard at work ever since.
In 2008, Ascenta sent a second mission to the Philippines, this time to Tacloban City on the island of Leyte.
“This was another locale that Marshall visited for work reasons,” Angelica explains. Since they are just starting out, the Farrises are first trying to help those communities where they already have some kind of tie – for example, Marshall’s work.
“We select rural places, far from urban centres, where the people are in poverty and in dire need of medical care. Wherever possible, we use local resources. For example, we recruit nursing students from nearby colleges, and we ask the local and national police and the army for security and medical staff as well,” says Angelica.
“In Mindanao, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) committed to provide two dentists and three to four nurses. Volunteers also came from the Deptartment of Health (DOH), the Municipality Health Office, and the Provincial Health Office. Three midwives and one nurse came from the Municipality of Santiago.”
In Tacloban, 110 volunteers treated over 3,500 men, women and children from the communities of Suhi and Palanog. For some of the patients, this would be their first time to receive professional medical care.
Marshall beams over a photo of a woman being fitted with a pair of eyeglasses.
“She’s able to see clearly for the first time in her life. Now she can work and take care of herself without worrying about being a burden to her family.”
“We heard later that this woman was able to go to Manila by herself and visit her relatives for the first time ever,” Angelica adds. “To us, it might be just a pair of old eyeglasses. To her, it means freedom.”
In October 2009, a powerful typhoon devastated the northern part of the Philippines. Ascenta funds that year went towards providing relief goods for the communities there.
Marshall’s company staff in that part of the country rented a truck and drove it themselves to the communities which had been cut off from the rest of the world by damage and flooding.
Back home in Vancouver, the Ascenta team is getting organized for their next mission, with a fundraising target of eighty thousand dollars. The mission will serve the communities in northern Philippines that were hardest hit by the 2009 typhoon.
“Since we’re so new, nobody has heard of us – yet,” says Marshall, who has taken on the role of primary fundraiser. He plans to target corporate donors among his many business contacts.
Little things help as well, such as collecting and cleaning used eyeglasses, and partnering up with local high schools whose students can organize “care packages” which the mission team members can take with them and distribute to their patients. Students interested in entering the medical field might also want to join a mission as volunteers.
“Once, during a presentation, we were asked what’s so special about us,” Angelica recalls. “Why do we need to be special? There’s a lot of need out there and we are trying to fill at least some of it.”
Marshall agrees. “If we can change the lives of 2,000 people with every mission,” he says, “I’ll die the richest man on earth.”
The Ascenta Foundation is a registered charity. Donors receive tax receipts for contributions. For more information, please visit http://www.ascentafoundation.com or send an email to email@example.com.