This is a post that describes the orphanage where John lived for almost 3 years, and where we stayed with him for 5 days before bringing him back to America. Other posts will talk more about him and what we did there. The purpose of this post is to remember the place itself. To give you context, my goal more than anything with these posts is to give John-John something to read again 10 years from now when he’s looking back into his past to see where he came from.
Let’s dive in…
It took about 40 minutes to get from our hotel in Laoag City to John’s orphanage, called Shekinah Home, located about 5 minutes outside the town of Dingras in Ilocos Norte. The orphanage was built on a 6 acre plot of land that was a Japanese military base many years ago during WWII. An interesting side note there, before I even get started, is that because Philippinos considered the Japanese to be evil, and many Philippinos were killed at this and other bases (they doubled as internment camps for the trouble makers in the indigenous population). Therefore, the locals thought the place was haunted, and never came around. So, they had very little trouble, even being outside the city away from the police, from gangs or teenagers or the communists who lived in the hills (I’ll get to that later).
But anyway, we turned off the paved road and drove down a long gravel driveway to the orphanage compound. I distinctly remember driving by peoples’ houses on the left and a school yard on the right. Therefore, I got to see people (particularly women) working in their yards and children playing at the school. The children playing was pretty much what you’d expect. The women working in the yards were amazing. I remember one woman in particular who exemplified them all. Several times when we drove by (on different days), I would see her out there squatting, sifting rice (I think it was rice) in a big bowl. Big, meaning probably 2.5 ft in diameter and 2-3 inches deep. But every time I saw her, she was out there squatting, working in the sun. I can only deduce that she’s out there all day every day. I don’t know how she’s ever able to stand up after that. And another salient point … she was probably 50 or so, not some 22 year old who would potentially have the stamina to do something like that. It was crazy. But that’s the way the whole of the Philippines was, in my experience … far more about manual labor than about technology.
We pulled through the gates into the compound, which was a rectangular plot of field with a few trees surrounded by a wall on three sides, and a fence on the 4th (the one facing away from the main road). All four sides had barbed wire on top of the wall / fence. The fenced side faced a very large open field, where cattle roamed. There were a few cows within the walls too, as well as goats, chickens and a dog named Ricky – you know, the one who mauled me as we were getting out of the van.
The van pulled up to the front of the main cottage in the compound. There were three cottages total, with a forth under construction. I’ll get into each in a second. The main building was mostly white with blue trim. I was remiss in that I didn’t get a really good picture of it. Outside was a canopy on 4 posts under which the van could be parked, and a concrete slab under a big tree where other cars could be parked. Wide white steps led up to the door, and by the time Sadiri (John’s house papa and our driver) had stopped the van’s engine, the steps were covered with children waiting to greet us.
There were 12 children, including John, at the orphanage when we arrived. A few were babies and therefore kept separate from the older children, leaving 8-9 in the main house. One married couple, Sadiri and Auring, served as house parents (called “papa” and “mama”), and their children were there too. Mary Jane, the social worker, came to work at the orphanage every day as if an office, so she didn’t sleep there. Brian, the director and his wife and family, only stayed one weekend a month or so, as he teaches university in Bagio (a city 4-5 hours to the south) as a tentmaker (a missionary who has to work in-country in order to pay for his stay there to do ministry). Brian is an American missionary who started and directs the orphanage.
The main building had about 10 rooms. It was clean and well kept. We were immediately impressed by how nice everything was there; not at all what we expected. The main area served as a play area for the children, of course. The kitchen and dining areas were adjacent to it. Off to the left as you enter were the house parents’ room (the only room with a TV, which the children were occasionally permitted to watch), and the office (always closed and off-limits to the kids). To the right were 4 bedrooms for the kids (2 for girls and 2 for boys), and a single bathroom that everyone shared. John’s room was the bedroom closest to the door, which he shared with one other boy roughly his name. Oddly enough, his name was Johnny, which is why John was called “John-John”, to distinguish between the two.
We stayed there for a while, ate lunch with the kids, and then were taken to our cottage with John-John to have several days to bond. We thought the transition would be taking place more slowly, but not so. They took us over there and left John-John with us only hours after arriving at the compound. Good thing John took to us as quickly as he did or it would have been a really interesting stay.
Our cottage was on the other side of the compound. As I said, there were 3 finished cottages, and 1 under construction. A narrow, very raised concrete sidewalk connected the main building to the other three cottages by running down the south side of the compound (the side with the fence, facing the open field). It was half the width of an American sidewalk, and twice as tall. I learned later that it was narrow because they’d poured it themselves and it saved money to be narrow, and it was tall because monsoons were common, brought lots of rain, and this kept it above water.
Halfway down the walk (so in the middle of the compound on one side) was a big honkin’ tree with a beautiful treehouse built in it for the kids. John and I played under the tree house a few times, and Faith played in it with him. I’d have loved to climb up in it, but it would never have held my weight. It was neat though. One room, but a full house – thatched roof, windows, etc. Kids must have loved it.
Also connecting the cottages was an extension of the gravel driveway, which ran more through the center (maybe a bit on the north side) of the compound. This is how we went the first time, given that we had to take our luggage. But after this first trip, the sidewalk was clearly our favorite path, especially since John loved to ride on my shoulders almost from the beginning. The first time we walked it, I wasn’t paying enough attention, so I accidentally smacked John’s face into a tree branch. Ugh! So, we adopted a policy that John would keep an eye out and say “Duck!” if I needed to duck while he was on my shoulders. It’s actually worked great and been lots of fun. He’s so cute the way he says stuff like that.
So, anyway, we drove to the cottage. As you stood in front of these three cottages (which were lined up in a row), your back would be facing the main building to the west. From left to right (or north to south), the three were…
1) The unfinished cottage. Brian went into great detail about how cost of building materials had skyrocketed recently, and how what used to be enough money to finish it no longer was.
2) The baby house. This is where all the youngest children stayed. Two sets of house parents rotated between morning and evening shifts to care for these kids, but didn’t “live” there per se. I never did get their names.
3) The cottage we stayed in. This was designed to hold a group of children like the main building does today – the vision of the orphanage is to have 5 of these cottages, each with two missionary house parents and 8-10 children. Actually, I think the newer cottages being built had another room or two to facilitate this many kids. This was the 2nd building built, and served as the home of the director, and his family (wife and two adopted children) for some time. Now, they stay there when they visit. But while we were there with John, it was our home.
The cottage had 4 rooms. Two bedrooms (one for us and one where John slept), a kitchen + dining + family room all in one big open area, and a full bathroom. I took a bunch of pictures of the inside of the cottage, so you could get a feel for where we were.
Now that you’ve gotten a feel for the orphanage itself, I thought I would post one entry a day describing the activities of the day at the orphanage. We did a number of special outings as well, which I would think should get their own entries. But our time at the orphanage will read more like a line-by-line journal of our everyday life together.
Here’s an index for your convenience…
Day 1: Wednesday, October 1 – Arrived at Shekinah
Day 2: Thursday, October 2 – A Day at the beach
Day 3: Friday, October 3 – Outing to Laoag
Day 4: Saturday, October 4 – A Day with the Whittles
Day 5: Sunday, October 5 – Church and Departure
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You will be so grateful to have this log for yours and John’s benefit. Great idea!
I’m really excited to read about all of your experiences at Shekinah Home! I am volunteering there for 3 months this summer and your blog is by far the most valuable information that I can find to prepare myself, so I really appreciate that you took the time to write about it.
Hi Jeff, it’s very heartwarming to see people from the 1st world do this act of kindness. I have been in search for orphanages around my hometown (Abra, 4-5 hours away from Laoag) so I could sponsor them in the future. I am a 22 year old employee working in the Middle East and I am hopeful that someday I can offer support to these kinds of organizations. I’m happy that you’ve picked John-john to be the beneficiary of your good helping hands. God bless you and your family always!