By Arwyn Rice
Pilot staff writer
When Jessica and David Kovarik, of Brookings, befriended their next-door neighbors Willy and Rosaria Villafranca, they never expected that the friendship would lead Jessica halfway around the world.
The Kovariks, a couple in their 20s, adopted the Villafrancas, an elderly Filipino couple, as surrogate grandparents. They cooked dinner for them when the older couple felt under the weather, drove them to medical appointments and generally bonded as a second family.
In return the Villafrancas adopted the Kovariks as surrogate grandchildren, mentoring and encouraging them.
Excerpts from a letter written by Jessica are shared (in italics) throughout this story.
[i]Last year they took a trip to see their children, Rosaria got very sick and had to stay while Willy came back to Brookings.
Willy thought she would return and waited for his wife's arrival, but she passed away before she could return.[/i]
The Kovariks mourned the loss of Rosaria and continued their friendship with Willy. They continued taking him to his medical appointments and to Portland for immigration appointments.
In September Willy's health took a turn for the worse.
[i]Willy lived alone in Brookings for several months, but then became ill himself with a life-threatening illness. His one wish was to be home with his children in the Philippines.[/i]
However, due to his illness and the oxygen tank he had to carry, the Philippine airline would not allow him to fly by himself. Airline rules required someone to assist Willy with with oxygen and insulin shots during the long flight.
Between his medical expenses and his earlier trip to the Philippines, Willy's' finances were exhausted and he needed two tickets, not just one.
Thanks to several generous donors from Brookings and Crescent City, who raised money to pay for airfare for an escort, Willy was now able to pay for an escort, unfortunately no one from the Filipino community could go on the trip at the time, so they looked for another solution.
The Filipino community knew of the relationship the Villafrancas and the Kovariks had developed over the years, so some of the Filipinos in Brookings contacted the Kovariks to see if they would be willing to fly immediately.
Jessica, who at 26 had rarely traveled very far from Brookings, agreed to accompany Willy but didn't really believe the trip would happen.
To the ends of the Earth
Once the money was available for a second airfare to the Philippines the plan moved forward rapidly, leaving Jessica reeling. David couldn't leave his gardening business to make the trip but drove Jessica and Willy to San Francisco for their flight.
[i]Little did I know that within a few days I was on an airplane flying Willy home to a country I knew little about and adventure of a lifetime,
Our flight was from San Francisco to Manila, then from Manila to Bacolod City, which is on another island. Then from Bacolod City I had to drive another two hours to reach my final destination, which was the village of Himamaylan. The trip was very exhausting.[/i]
Negros Occidental is an island in the southern end of the Philippines' island chain and is split into two separate island-states. Like the rest of the Philippines, there is a sharp contrast between the westernized large trade cities and small villages just a few hours' drive away.
Willy's son and other family members picked the pair up at the airport. Jessica was already feeling out of her element.
[i]Willy's family offered for me to stay with one of their relatives who owns part of the sugar cane fields, She had more of an Americanized house with running water and air conditioning, or I could stay at Willy's house, which is unfinished and in a remote area, with several of his kids and grandchildren. [/i]
Willy's house was one of a very few andquot;westernandquot; style homes in the village, but the family never had quite enough money to complete it.
The bathroom was built but the plumbing wasn't completely hooked up, so showers were taken with a bucket in the shower stall. The top floor wasn't finished and the floors were bare cement.
It was one of the nicest homes in the village.
[i]The family felt it might be uncomfortable for me since the house is unfinished, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn first hand about a new culture. It has always been my dream to go to Africa and learn about their culture, I knew this would be a chance of a lifetime.[/i]
Having spent all of her life in and around Brookings, Jessica was ill-prepared for and fascinated with the very exotic place that in which found herself.
[i]From the time I got to the Manila Airport to the time I arrived in Himamaylan everything was absolutely different, It was extremely hot and humid the whole trip. There was a way different style of transportation that consisted of motorcycles with sidecars used for transporting bamboo or big groups of people. There were many different small trucks and cars we don't have here.
There were coconut trees, bananas, and different varieties of palm trees, very tropical.
Also there were andquot;Geico lizardsandquot; that roamed the inside walls of Willy's house and the hotel rooms, They are harmless, they stay on the walls and eat the mosquitoes, very interesting.[/i]
The surroundings may have been different, but the people she met were so outgoing and friendly she couldn't help but to fall in love with her village hosts.
[i]The most amazing thing that stood out from everything was the experience I had with the people in the villages. They would come out of their huts of bamboo and look at me with amazement, I believe some of them had never seen a white person before. They wanted to touch my skin, shake my hand or just greet me with a hug,
The Filipino people are very nice, and many of them have a dream to come to America, Every place I went the people treated me like a celebrity because I was from America. Everyone greeted me with such love and happiness.[/i]
The people of Himamaylan are surrounded by food, the bounty of the land and the sea, but they are very poor.
Using hand-built bamboo fish traps the villagers harvest the tides, even keeping and raising fish too small to market. They harvest the jungle surrounding the village, which is full of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Surrounded by bananas, coconuts and fish, the people are thin and hungry. The food they harvest is sold to pay for their homes, for clothes and for school supplies.
[i]One thing that grabbed my attention and made me very sad is the poverty I saw,. The poverty rate is very high. Most Filipino people make about $2 a day for a full day's work. Many of them are very less fortunate than we are. A lot of them live in huts with no running water,
They suffer from the lack of food and shelter and a contaminated and inconsistent supply of drinking water.
Also the children suffer from poor conditions of their school facilities. A lot of places children go to school in open schools, schools are outside or little building in poor condition with leaky roofs. [/i]
Not far from Himamaylan is a resort none of Jessica's new friends had ever experienced. When Jessica learned that for $200 she could take most of Willy's extended family for their first ever vacation, she jumped at the chance.
At the resort they didn't have to boil their water, or wait for the pump to work.
The difference between the harsh day-to-day life of the villages and the luxury of the resort was jarring.
When Jessica finally returned to Brookings she had a new perspective on what she has and what real needs are.
[i]For me this was a trip of a lifetime, a trip I wish everyone had the opportunity to take, It was a great experience to see a different culture, When you come back to America you really appreciate everything you have and realize not everyone has it so easy. [/i]
After seeing how little much she could do with a very little money, Jessica and David have decided that helping this town is something they can do.
In the Philippines a little money goes a long way. Materials to finish the school are inexpensive, a whole roof, such as that for the school, can be replaced for less than a family in Brookings can go out for dinner.
The couple's next vacation will be to Himamaylan, where David will work on replacing the school roof and Jessica will do whatever she can do.
[i]Since I was little it has been my dream to go to Africa and set up some type of fund raiser to help the people, As I returned from the Philippines I realized not just Africa needs help. There are many people all over the world who could use our help.
I grew very fond of the Filipino people I met. They may be less fortunate than we are but their hearts are made of gold, I would like to set up a fund raiser to help the people of the Himamaylan Village.
People don't realize how much they can really help. If everyone was to donate as little as a dollar it would really change the lives of so many people, providing clean drinking water, better conditions in schools and shelter.[/i]
The Kovariks wish to thank Pastor Adrian van Aswagen of Calvary Assembly of God on Fir Street, Ken and Cecilia Meier, Steve and Oralia Nakumara and the Filipino communities of Crescent City and Brookings for making it possible for Willy to return home and for Jessica to learn about another part of the world.