PALO, Philippines--After literally spending time in the dark, Renaldo Dionaldo, a blind 65-year-old survivor of Super Typhoon Haiyan that hit the central Philippines in 2013, finally found a home.
Shunned by family and neglected by the community, Dionaldo and 22 other poor, sick, and elderly people are being looked after at the Pope Francis Center for the Poor in Palo Archdiocese.
Aside from providing shelter, the center has also helped Dionaldo — who had cataracts — get back his sight.
"They also give me a new family, a bigger one," said the man who used to live in a makeshift shelter. "I feel blessed," he said, adding that the center has changed his life.
Alicia Advincula, a consultant at the center, said the institution aims to inspire sick and elderly typhoon survivors to feel "loved after emerging from a distasteful, inhuman condition."
Advincula, a 68-year-old former government social worker, said the center allows her to share her expertise after retiring from government service.
The youngest resident is a 24-year-old abandoned orphan while the oldest is a 94-year-old man.
Father Philip Park, a South Korean priest who serves as the center's director, said they continue to look for other abandoned and elderly survivors of the 2013 devastation.
"We want to serve more people," said the 33-year-old priest of the Congregation of the Kkottongnae Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.
Giving back to people
The center's 12 staff said working for the center is "giving back" the blessings they received from God.
"Working for the elderly and the sick here is a fulfillment for myself," said Yeahan May Onida, a 21-year-old social worker.
She said the center's staff "practice loving in action," adding that she sees the residents as her own family. "When I see them in pain, I am also in pain," said the young woman who also lost her home to Typhoon Haiyan.
"The very important thing is to love them because they are abandoned and they have experienced so much pain," said Onida.
Jerene Basas, a 19-year-old visiting student, said she decided to work in the center to return blessings she received after the typhoon.
"I come here to experience how it is to be with a grandmother because I haven't experienced this in my life," she said.
Most of the center's residents have no family. "They need to feel the love of children," said Rowena Calceta, the center's "home-life service worker."
"They need someone to talk to," she said. "I crack jokes with them when they feel alone," said Calceta, adding that she is devoting her life to the center as an "expression of thanksgiving to God."
Calceta herself experienced the 2013 devastation brought by Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 7,500 people in the province.
"My life was devastated, but I continue to have faith, and I got to work here," she said.
Father Park, whose congregation, Kkottongnae means "flower village" in English, said his group of priests and nuns will continue building a "community of love and salvation" in the devastated province of Leyte.
Founded by Father John Oh Woong-Jin in Korea in 1976, the congregation's presence in the Philippines started in 2014 after the pope's visit to Korea.
"A year before the pope visited the Philippines, he visited our mother house in Korea," said Father Park. "We were surprised he visited us. But now we know, because we catered to the poor," said the priest.
Father Park came to Palo Archdiocese in May 2014 to help Haiyan survivors and later build the center.
"When I came here, people were starting to distrust each other. The center helped them restore their faith," said the priest.
More centers of "mercy and compassion" are in the pipeline for other places in the country.
An orphanage called "House of Hope" and a center for the elderly dubbed "House of Love" have already opened in Manila.
Father Park said his congregation would build more centers as they continue to work for "a world where no one is forsaken and a world where everyone loves his neighbor as he loves himself."
By Ronald O. Reyes