It all started the summer of 2009 with a trip to the Philippines.
A mother and daughter were merely hoping to reconnect with their Filipino heritage, but they returned from the islands with much more than they had anticipated.
Zita Demaree, a budget and finance assistant at UC Davis, along with her daughter, Alicia, a 17-year-old swimming instructor, traveled to Zita’s home town of Cebu City, on the island of Cebu in the central area of the Philippines. During their trip, they were forced to seek shelter when one of the car tires burst on a mountain road.
After witnessing the poor condition of the rural community, Alicia came up with the idea of starting a service project to aid the people of Cebu by sending them balikbayan — or “return to the motherland” boxes — care packages filled with non-perishable food, toiletries, toys, clothing and other items.
“It was a very eye-opening experience for me,” said Alicia, reflecting on her initial experience of the Filipino city.
She has been active ever since that first trip, starting the project AJD Angels of Hope — “AJD” are Alicia’s initials. She incorporated the nonprofit organization a year ago and has sent 14 boxes to Cebu since January.
The Demarees also have a branch “office” in Cebu, mostly composed of Zita’s family. They provide people with canned food and some medical and/or dental care approximately every two months. Zita usually communicates every day with her family, “coordinating outreach programs and box shipments.” Facebook also provides a way for both groups to view each other’s progress from different sides of the globe.
Zita, who grew up on the island of Bohol — just across from Cebu — was shocked by the poor living conditions she found upon her return.
Cebu features many nipa huts, or bahay kubo, which are often constructed with bamboo and tied together with nipa leaves. The huts were indigenous to the Philippines even before the Spaniards arrived. In modern Cebu, some areas have huts cramped so closely together that everyday life is claustrophobic.
In recent years, the situation has gotten worse. Cebu’s population continues to grow exponentially, especially in its poorest areas where unemployment rates also are on the rise. Many families are left unable to feed themselves.
These inhospitable conditions were most apparent in Cebuan children, Zita recalled.
“Some of the local children I met told me that they had to walk up to six miles everyday to get to school. Sometimes, they even ate food from the dumpsters to stay alive,” she said.
The idea of stepping in to help is nothing new to the Demarees. Before their trip to the Philippines, Zita and Alicia did service projects together through their Girl Scout group for about 10 years. As the group’s leader, Zita was enthusiastic about the cause.
“It’s teaching girls the need to help others,” she said.
Before coming to the United States, Zita was instilled with the idea of service. She learned about it from the Catholic church and put it into practice by helping many of her family members who suffered from cancer. Those experiences led to her firm commitment to helping others.
“Service was always very important in my family,” she said.
While there is much enthusiasm in the islands, the mother-daughter duo are disappointed with the lack of response from other service organizations in Davis. Even local churches have failed to fully support AJD Angels of Hope, yet, they said.
Therefore, they turned their focus elsewhere to promote their group.
“The Farmers Market has given us the opportunity to promote for AJD — but it’s not enough,” Zita said.
The cargo company LBC donated boxes to AJD Angels of Hope last year. However, this year, the group was left on its own.
Garage sales have proved an effective way to find cheap goods to send to Cebu. But without a shipping company’s support, it has become more difficult for the group to afford sending boxes as frequently.
Zita has been using money out of her own pocket to keep the operation going.
Space also has become an issue. The Demarees have been forced to store all of the boxes in their home until they can afford to send them.
In recent months, the group has sought help from the students at UC Davis.
“I’ve been trying to collaborate with some Filipino groups on campus, but nothing has quite happened yet,” Zita said.
Zita’s job at UCD is full-time, and Alicia’s schedule has become busier as she prepares to hopefully study video game design at Loyola Marymount University.
With more to do and little time to do it, the Demarees’ need for an intern also has become more essential. The job would be unpaid and would include responsibilities such as “managing the website, representing the group at Farmers Markets, and promoting,” Zita said.
In spite of all the struggles however, Zita remains optimistic.
“I feel rewarded by my work, especially when thank-you notes come in from Cebu,” she said.
In the future, depending on finances, AJD Angels of Hope may even extend its aid beyond Cebu, into other parts of the Philippines.
“It’s just a matter of time and money,” she added.
Unfortunately at the moment, the group can barely afford to send the boxes it has. AJD Angels of Hope is looking for sponsors to help send packages.
“Sixty-five dollars per box would be a great help to us,” Zita said.
For more information, visit ajdangelsofhope.org.
PayPal donations can be made by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.