The second typhoon of 2009 brought more rain to the Philippine capitol than the city had seen in nearly 40 years.

by Joe Evancho
MANILA, Philippines—In late September 2009, the Heart of Mary Villa (HMV) orphanage was preparing for the arrival of unwelcomed tropical depression Kensata when the storm grew, turned nasty and became Typhoon Ondoy, the deadliest typhoons to ever hit Manila.

      The orphanage, located in a flood prone slum near Manila Bay on the island of Luzon, saw flooding on a regular basis but rarely of the severity produced by Ondoy. At one point during the deluge, more than 80 percent of Luzon was under water.

      The storm caused more than a $1 billion in damage and nearly 750 fatalities with devastation starting east of the Philippines near the tiny island nation of Palau and then reaching west into the South China Sea and beyond, eventually ravaging Vietnam and Laos.

      Back at the orphanage, the staff scrambled to evacuate 15 infants and young children by boat to a nearby community center during the heaviest rainfall the area had seen in more than 40 years.

      Kion (kee–un) Holley was seven months old when the nuns and staff at the orphanage wrapped him and the other children in blankets and plastic sheets to board makeshift boats and escape the rising water. They made their way to a nearby shelter through the swollen streets of Manila as the typhoon raged. The refuge was one of the few places on the island that offered safety from the storm.

          After the storm passed, the sisters and staff returned to the orphanage to survey the damage. There was devastation and destruction everywhere. Undeterred, the sisters began the herculean task of cleanup and rebuilding the storm-struck compound.

         Eventually Kion and the rest of the children returned to HMV.

Two months after the storm, in November of 2009, that Mark and Christine Holley returned home from work one afternoon to their home in Bradenton, Fla. and there was a message on their phone from their adoption agency in Sarasota, Fla. It seems there was a little boy, half way around the world in Manila at the Heart of Mary Villa orphanage that was waiting to be adopted by them.

It’s a process

       Adopting a child means taking a leap into the unknown. The only thing Mark and Christine knew for sure was that there was a little person, that they knew nothing about, who would soon be a part of their lives, forever.

      “When we started down this road, and met with the adoption agency, they told us that the Philippines have a great reputation for managing orphanages and caring for the children,” Mark said.

Christine was born in the Philippines and still had some extended family in Manila so they thought it made sense to adopt a Filipino baby.

          “The Heart of Mary Villa orphanages is known for their compassion for both mother and child,” Mark said. “The downside is that it is a four to five year wait before most adoptions are approved. When we started the paperwork we looked at our other options and thought the Philippines would still be our best choice.”

            When you begin the adoption process in the Philippines you are not adopting a specific child. And there is a lot to do from the time you start the process until you get the call.

There are background checks and a psychological analysis. There are forms from both the U.S. and Philippine state departments as well as immigration services and it is just one department’s paperwork after another.
      Mark said once your paperwork is received in the Philippines, your files are put on a stack, and you wait. It’s not like some countries where it is first come first served. Rather, they have an  inter-country adoption board that oversees all the orphanages and they match the child with the couple they think will be the best fit.

      “So when the call came in November of 2009, we made our flight plans to get our boy. Six months later, and after twenty-two and a half hours in the air, we arrived in Manila at one o’clock in the morning,” Mark said. “We had to wait until four in the afternoon to pick him up. And we’re picking up a child that we had never seen before. We were definitely nervous and excited at the same time.”

A better opportunity

      The children placed in the Heart of Mary Villa are there for a variety of reasons. Kion was there because his mother already had a child, a five-year-old son, and she was poor and didn’t think she could care for Kion properly. She didn’t want him to grow up on the mean streets of Manila. She knew the odds of Kion having a normal life in the Philippines were slim to none. She wanted him to be adopted and taken care of by a good family.

      “We had no contact with the mother,” Mark said, “but we were given a folder by the orphanage with a picture and information about her. They took pictures of her giving Kion to the orphanage. It was pretty powerful stuff. She also wrote Kion a letter that when he is old enough he will be able to read and maybe understand why she made the choice to give him up.”

      Kion knows that he is adopted. They read from his HMV book and show him pictures of his mother and the orphanage. “He is only five years old and I don’t know if he understands what has happened to him but kids are pretty smart” Mark said. “They understand a lot of stuff you wouldn’t think they would. We talk about the adoption and he knows he can always ask questions.”

The task at hand

      When they arrived at the orphanage they were both a little fearful about how to care for a child; how to feed, clothe and make him happy.

      “When we met Kion at HMV, he took one look at us and started crying and ran the other way. But I was kind of expecting that,” Mark said.

But Kion came around and Mark and Christine stayed at their hotel in Manila 3 or 4 days to allow Kion to get used to them, and they to him. Then they stayed with Christine’s family for a week and Kion got to meet them as well.”

      Mark said it was a nice surprise how quickly Kion bonded with the couple. It took about a day or so but he came around. He was sad for a while. He was quiet. It was a pretty quick process and he was soon acting like any other little boy.

       “Actually, my biggest fear going over there was if I was going to be able to change a diaper,” Mark said. “I never had to change one before, but once you change a couple, it’s not a big deal.”

A longshot on several levels

       Mark said Kion, now five and a half years old, likes baseball and that he is really a pretty good player. “He wants to be a catcher because he likes all the equipment a catcher gets to wear. He watches the baseball games with me and he thinks the catchers are the coolest.”

      It was a long process but definitely worth it and they would do it all over again. “It took four years but time just flew by and Kion has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to us. He is just a regular American kid,” Mark said.

      “It’s a cool and moving lifelong experience when you can affect the life of a child,” Mark said. You just don’t realize how incredibly precious they are until you have one,” Mark said. “You don’t ever want to see one hurt or grow up with what he would have had to face. We would never ever want that for him, or any other child for that matter.”

     In Kion’s short lifetime he has traveled from the storm ravaged slums near Manila Bay to shores of the Gulf Coast in Central Florida. Perhaps someday we will see Kion squatting behind home plate at an All-Star or World Series game, throwing runners out at second base or getting a game-winning hit.

    Why not?  It’s a longshot, but he has beaten the odds at least once already.

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