Ten members of Shelter Cove Community Church in Modesto left for the Philippines for a two-week mission project Nov. 3, just in time for Typhoon Haiyan.
“It was the worst storm any of us had ever been in,” said team leader Gene Grover, reached by phone in the Philippines on Monday afternoon, which was this morning there. “It was very windy and rainy, with debris flying around everywhere. But we were safe where we were and had God’s provision over us.”
They were on Boracay Island to help a nonprofit organization called First Love, which offers a medical clinic, daily meals for impoverished children, educational facilities and other ministries. The Modesto team had planned to help construct a building for First Love in the mornings and help feed the children in the afternoons, putting on a vacation Bible school-like program with skits, songs and other fun activities for the youngsters.
They settled into a house on the beach, but warnings about the typhoon left them scrambling.
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“Obviously, (the beach house) would be a really bad place for them, so they went further inland,” said Shelly Walker, Shelter Cove’s missions director, who maintained contact from Modesto with the group. “Then, when the typhoon was upgraded from a 4 to a 5, it meant there would be mudslides, and they were in a building on a hill, so they were removed from that.”
There were so many people trying to evacuate by boat, Walker said, “the team couldn’t leave the island. There was nothing they could do but find the safest place to ride out the storm.”
They ended up in a solidly constructed facility owned by the island’s director of the Red Cross. They helped her prepare the buildings for the typhoon. Grover said the group rode out the storm in the middle of three floors, but had to go to the upper floor in the middle of the night to shore up sliding glass doors that were buckling inward and perform other tasks.
Besides Grover, the other team members are Steven Barbieri; Michael Bystrom; Joe and Ester Drago; Kevin Green; JP Hurlbert; David Johnstone; Erica Vail; and Gene Grover’s wife, Jami.
“The eye passed right over where they were staying,” Walker said. There was no communication from the team for hours. Then, Walker said, “There are no words to describe about how I felt to receive a text at 2:35 in the morning saying they were fine and the worst had passed.”
Walker has lived in Africa and visited other countries on long- and short-term mission trips and knows how unexpected challenges sometimes arise.
“But I’ve never experienced a typhoon before. It was scary,” she said about waiting for word of her team and the island’s other residents. “It definitely reminded me of the trust and faith I needed to have in the Lord because I was so out of control of this situation.”
News reports say that although the typhoon touched down on the island and there was significant property damage, it was far less than on other islands and no people were reported killed. The island is still without electricity, so there have been no emails from the group. Walker said there have been short phone calls focused not on what’s happened, but on how the team is doing and making arrangements for them to fly home Friday as originally planned.
“Since the typhoon, they’ve been cleaning up, serving food, administering supplies wherever they could,” she said.
In fact, one of the group’s goals was to travel to an indigenous village on Boracay to help members of the Ati (pronounced ah-tee) tribe, which has faced racial discrimination. Instead, the typhoon warnings sent 60 of the villagers fleeing to the facility where the Shelter Cove team rode out the storm, so they interacted with the group there.
The team also traveled Monday and today to a nearby island called Panay to help Ati tribe members there lay foundations for a new school and to distribute food to the neediest families in the tribe.
“(Boracay) is pretty much cleaned up,” Grover said. “There were thousands of people praying for us and this island. It’s amazing, the power of prayer. You see the widespread devastation on other islands, and we are so thankful that there weren’t any deaths here at all.”
The group knows that in its limited time it won’t be able to help many of the victims displaced by the worst typhoon to strike the Philippines.
“While we were all concerned about our Shelter Cove loved ones, it is important to remember the people who live in the Philippines — many in huts or in homes of light materials that were not able to stand up to this storm,” according to a church email. “It was a tremendous blessing for our team to be on the ground there after the storm settled to help people pick up the pieces.”