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Photo courtesy of David Valera

Older children help the younger ones duriing the after-school feeding program in Tondo, one of the most depressed areas of Manilla in the Philippines.

Photo courtesy of David Valera

Marisel Tompong

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Bowls of hope feed kids’ bodies, moms’ spirits


Sophia Agtarap and David Valera
May-June 2016

In the heart of one of Manila's most depressed areas – Tondo – is a pocket of hope. There, kids gather every school night for a warm meal, and moms gather for community that feeds bodies and spirits.

Here you will find Marisel Tompong, a nurse from Mary Johnston Hospital and graduate of Mary Johnston College of Nursing.

Mary Johnston is the only United Methodist hospital in the Philippines. It has been serving the poorest patients in Tondo for 105 years. The majority of the patients live in Manila's slums and squatter areas and go there for care, says Edna Imperial, dean of the College of Nursing.

In 1906, through the Women's Foreign Missionary Society (today's United Methodist Women), Dr. Rebecca Parish, from Logansport, Indiana, went to the Philippines as a medical missionary. The first female doctor in the country, she established Dispensaria Betania (Bethany Clinic). The hospital was the church's response to the lack of sanitation, drinking water and proper nutrition.

The late Philippine President Elpidio Quirino once said, "I wish there were more hospitals in the country that could render as much service as this hospital has rendered. "

Inviting the children

As Tompong makes her way through the skinny alleys of barangay [barrio] Parola, a mom with a one-year-old child in her arms and another child in tow stops her.

The mother, gesturing to her older daughter, asks about the after-school feeding program. "Can she join?" Pointing to the one-year-old in her arms, "How about this one?" Tompong asks a few questions and is on her way.

As Tompong passes kids going home during the lunch hour, she reminds them about the feeding program.

Arriving at Parola United Methodist Church, Tompong finds volunteers already prepping the afternoon meal – sopas – a common soup in the Philippines made of macaroni noodles, chicken stock and vegetables. She unwraps the donated vitamins the children will take.

The children and their guardians gather around the tables in the classroom. As the children sit down, Tompong checks her attendance book, noting some who are perpetually absent. The mother she encountered earlier is there with her children.

After a prayer, Tompong begins ladling the sopas into bowls, directing the older children to help the younger ones, as the soup is hot.

The mothers take turns making the meals. Children who participate in the feeding program show noticeable weight gains, moving closer to the recommended weight for their age. The meals supplement whatever little they have to eat at home.

One mother, Net Net, talks about how her son has already gained two kilos [about 4.5 pounds] since he began participating in the program.

A mission nurse

"The program has been here for a few years, and Marisel is hardworking and comes every day to make her rounds and check on everyone," said Mageline, another of the mothers. "She is our community nurse from Mary Johnston."

As a few kids line up for seconds, Tompong walks around the classroom giving spoonfuls of lemon-flavored vitamins to the kids.

Asked why she does this, Tompong responded, "When I was a college student, I was exposed to community immersions. I would see kids without slippers or clothes, malnourished. I would dream one day that when I was a nurse, I would have the type of work where I could serve these kids; that I would be some type of mission nurse.

"The feeling of being able to help someone else brings me joy."

Tompong begins to cry as she continues, "Even in the washing of hands and the praying before meals, we are helping the children build character. When I walk around and greet the children, they call me ‘ma'am' and are excited to be there. And soon, they will be graduating from the program."

The after-school feeding program is part of the Training and Assistance Program for Self-Reliance that Mary Johnston College began in the 1980s.

Addressing health, education

"We do not believe in dole outs, wherein you just give everything," Imperial said. "You have to teach them how to fish. It's not just one-time giving; it has to be sustained.

"As a college of nursing, our goals are two-pronged: health and education," Imperial continued. "The entry point for this community is health, and then education." The Christian nursing school embodies the Gospel in all it does, addressing the spiritual nourishment of the people it serves.

"When you open a community outreach program, you diagnose the problems and prioritize the programs," Imperial explained. "Usually, the number one issue is poor health stemming from the malnutrition problem in the community. Many families do not have a way of earning a livelihood for themselves. We help them learn how to earn a living. At the end of your program, families should be able to have their own earnings."

"Ultimately," Imperial said, "what we want is to change one family at a time. One family with a well-nourished child, one family with a student who has finished high school, one family who has met Christ. If that would be possible, then I think we have done our share of the mission."

"I see God most in the ways the mothers are impacted," Tompong said. "The kids have started to go to church. We live in a dangerous community, and even with news of shootings and stabbings and killings, I see God moving."

Sophia Agtarap, freelance writer and social media maven living in Nashville, Tennessee, developed this story from video footage and interviews conducted by the Rev. David Valera, director of connectional ministries in the Pacific Northwest Conference.