Outside the Box: a weekly column in The Meadville Tribune

by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2013

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

Last month, I was sitting in the associate dean’s office when the college president walked in and handed him money. Terry Bensel explained that his wife Connie’s family was from the area hit hardest by Typhoon Yolanda, as it was called in the Philippines. People had begun asking about her family and offering support.

They received nearly $1,000 in donations and wired the funds to Connie’s sister, a doctor who lives and works in the Philippines. With the help of local family, she purchased supplies and made the long journey by car and ferry to Lantawan, where they offered food to 102 families, the first significant food delivery to the small town since the storm hit.

Years ago, I was in the Philippines. I had completed my scuba instructor training and I’d taken a day away from the ocean to join friends on a picnic in the jungle and a trip to a waterfall.

On the ride home, I turned the corner on a narrow dirt road and saw a pedestrian in the middle of it. I had a couple choices: hit the pedestrian; veer right and plunge into a steep ravine; or, veer left and hit a wall. I veered left.

The ATV went up the wall and flipped on top of me. My helmet flew off as the machine crashed on top of me. Pinned under the ATV, I looked at the sky. You’ve really done it this time, I thought.

The next day, I took a boat to the nearest island with a hospital and learned my wrist was shattered. I was lucky: no nerve or arterial damage in my wrist, no other serious harm. Since more than a day had passed since my injury, the doctors advised immediate surgery.

“Where’s your companion?” I was asked by nearly everyone at the hospital. I said I was alone. This was hard for people to understand; in the Philippines, no one would be in the hospital without friends and family to care for her.

The owner of the dive shop where I’d done my training sent a waitress from the resort to be my companion. Leah was waiting when I returned from surgery and I was glad for her company.

She stayed by my side in my hospital room. We shared our stories. She told me that she’d been a good student and dreamed of being a teacher. I told her my mom had been an elementary school teacher. When her father died, Leah left school and her home island to work to provide for her family.

Days later, I went to pay my hospital bill: approximately $2,500 for major surgery and four days in a private room. Leah wept when she heard the cost. How will you ever pay, she asked.

I learned later that $2,500 could pay for four years of college. I asked my Filipino friends if it would be appropriate for me to offer to pay for Leah’s education.

With their assurances, I offered and Leah accepted. In 2007, I returned to the Philippines to celebrate her graduation.

Many of my friends sent cards and gifts for Leah. They had followed her progress over the years. Some gave me money — and suggested it would be great to send another young woman to college.

In my years as an international correspondent, I saw firsthand that it is the women who hold their families and communities together when war and famine tear them apart. Women run the orphanages and volunteer in hospitals. And it’s also women who are denied access to education. I decided I wanted to plant something different in the scorched earth left in war’s wake.

Inspired by Leah’s story and success, I created Isis Initiative Inc., a nonprofit that offers scholarships to young women overseas who have the desire but not the resources to attend college.

I wanted a strong female to figure in the name of our organization, hence Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Isis collected the scattered pieces of the body of murdered Osiris and brought him back from the dead. As a former war photographer, I like the metaphor of healing what has been broken and bringing new life to what has been destroyed.

In the years since her graduation, Leah has become an elementary school teacher at a government school near her village. She is able to care for her elderly mother, who lives with her. She has made improvements to her home and paid for both her nephews to attend school. She adopted a baby boy who is now 9 months old.

It took me more than a month after the typhoon struck to reach Leah by phone. She said that her family was OK and she immediately expressed sadness and concern for the thousands who’d been killed in the storm and its aftermath.

Leah thanked God for all her blessings. She thanked me for sending her to college and told me that I had made it possible for her to achieve her dreams. I told Leah that she had done the work; she had made her dreams come true.

In our nonprofit’s name, initiative speaks to what it takes to make things happen. Leah showed initiative in returning to school at 31 to pursue an education and a better life for her family. Terry Bensel and his family showed initiative in accepting offered funds and acting quickly to launch their own relief efforts after the recent catastrophic typhoon.

In the new year, I encourage you to follow the examples of Terry and Leah.

Take action when you have an idea or an opportunity. A small action, a small donation, a simple gesture has the power and potential to make a significant difference in the life of another human being.

Take initiative. Don’t wait for everything to line up just right. Take the first step. In my experience, things will fall into place.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.