Faces Not Forgotten

by Juan L. Mercado


Stories  on All-Souls Day trash and clean-up  clog  papers and newscasts today. Scandal follows.  Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos  Jr.  brazen out  the US Court of Appeals  $363.6 million judgment  for back-room- deals to recover Marcos  loot.

Today, Tom Palmeri  will  be buried in  breath-taking  backwater  Camiguin Island.  Tom — who?

For over  40 years, Palmeri  and his  wife Diane, a nurse,  fed  thousands of malnourished kids, treated wounds, got crutches for the lame, hospitalized the severely  ill. They enrolled hundreds in school.

On  volcano  Mount  Hibok Hibok’s slopes,  Palmeri  set up  a free grade school for children.  The school also serves  25 deaf children and is accredited by Education Department.  They remind many  of  Paraguay ’s  ‘reductions’, run by Jesuits, to educate the poorest..

A Jesuit scholastic in  1960,  Palmeri studied Berchman’s College (now  reverted to  UP Cebu), He  taught at  Ateneos in Naga and Manila . Those years  seared in him  images of  ill-fed children.

“When we  took out  our lunches (on Cebu’s  beaches)   we’d  be surrounded by  children, most in gray rags, They  never asked  for anything, but stared  with eyes that grew larger with every bite we ate.

‘The problem was not   that we had too much. The problem was  those  faces belonged to children who never had enough… Their faces never left me. They have been with me ever since.”

Before priestly  ordination back in the US ,  Palmeri  left  the Society of Jesus.  In Saigon, the Palemris  established a one hundred crib live-in nutrition center for severely malnourished children.

Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro invited  Palmeri  to teach philosophy  They brought their oldest boy, then three years old, plus  two adopted Vietnamese babies.  One had no arms due to warfare chemical thalidomide but is a computer expert today.

Instead, the plight of kids led them to establish, on Camiguin Island , the non-profit  “Family to Family” organization. Volunteer medical missions pitched in… they  scrounged for medical and educational assistance. Xavier University and  Ateneo de Davao  cited them for  self-effacing work, ending today for Tom in a Camiguin graveyard.

“There  is far less infant abandonment here”,  Palmeri wrote in “Faces Not Forgotten” (1982). However, malnutrition is  more severe.  The children on the beach who stare with hungry eyes are not the worst cases.  They’re still up and about.  

“The ones that are really sick are kept at home. And you never see them unless you search them out.”   Isn’t there a line somewhere about  leaving the 99 to seek out the one sheep who strayed?.

The same question  arose  after Palmeri wrote  about  Amlesia, 8.  She had been badly-burned by a kerosone lamp that  toppled  “We found her two months later, with   badly infected burn “We hospitalized her at first, then began changing  dressing each day”.  Isn’t  that a  replay about  the Samaritan, who treated  the man left for dead, by bandits, then arranged  with an innkeeper for his care?.

Palmeri does not say. Instead, he recalls that when they arrived in Cagayan, “we  told social workers  we’d  provide foster care for two Filipino babies, until they were adopted.

“We took in two: a boy who weighed nine pounds after four and a half months in a hospital nursery.  The second was a month old girl, with a bilateral hare lip and cleft palate, who weighed less than she had at birth.

We realized many others were bad off. So, we took in three more, treating them as our  own.   Together with our own six, that made for 11 children in the house. Any more than that would turn destroy the kind of care that we wanted  to provide.

Then, they helped Joseph,  7 . Thyroid deficiency had dwarfed him to the same size as his two year old sister. He  was also mentally retarded.  “If  treated within the first month of life, he could have been normal.  “We immediately began providing him with thyroid tablets daily”.

After  that  came Heidi 10, She  weighed only 35 pounds and had military TB.  “We put her on three drugs, including daily injections of streptomycin…“We’re never able to save one like that” the Head of Pediatrics  said.

“As the magnitude of what we stumbled upon dawned,  we realized that we would have to organize ourselves more effectively. “Family to Family” came into being.

Instead of random handouts, our feeding program that provided two nutritious meals – donated high protein corn soya milk, plus vegetables and fruit. We purged all children for parasites And for their mothers, there were lectures on nutrition and hygiene.

Thousands of kids helped later, Palmeri writes: “I wish I could say  we solved some fundamental problem, but I honestly cannot. At times,  we see a minor breakthrough in some limited area. Local  families seem more disposed to adopt abandoned babies.  If  our presence helped,   we are pleased.

“But the larger problem of malnutrition and neglect, due to  ignorance and poverty, seems to grow daily. Part  is due to the in-migration into of people who expect to find jobs here. And they don’t.

Much of it is also due to the growth of population in general and to a  (stressed)  economy  Whatever the reason, it seems as if we are engaged in a struggle in which there is little hope of ever seeing any “light at the end of the tunnel”.

(On my return) to the Philippines , I wondered if the hungry faces that had haunted me for so long from such a distance would still be there.  I found they were, more of them than I had ever dreamed.

“But somehow, with  loss of distance, they’ve lost  heir power to disturb.  They are no longer there, they are here. And so  am I.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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