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The Yeni Project

“Place - a particular portion of space, whether of definite or indefinite extent.”

I always answer with hesitation whenever I’m asked about my trips to the Philippines. I feel in about a 10 word response, I better articulate how amazing the country and people are, how poverty and questionable politics are still an issue, and how grateful I am for my parents for immigrating to the states. After forgetting all that, I fall back on my response, “It always puts me in a place.” A place of gratitude, pride, and inherent guilt. I can thank my parents for some of that guilt. You can only hear the phrase, “Your cousins in the Philippines wouldn’t complain”, so much before a complex builds. 

On my last trip to the Philippines, I made the effort to not approach the country with this preconceived idea that it would be just like any of my other stressful trips back home. I wanted to be more than the daughter of my mom that’s here to visit, “Galing siya sa America.” I wanted to do more than absorb the culture that I was familiar with through an American lens, I wanted to give back. Since my roots and connections on the islands are limited to the addresses on the balikbayan boxes we send home, and the random Facebook adds from what I’m assuming is some cousin I’m related to, I looked within the Filipino community here. In comes my close friend, Love and her nephew Jerich. Love - a creative being called to share her learnings and experiences in this world, and Jerich - a nurse and curious spirit full of empathy and authenticity to care for others. A couple years ago Love and Jerich started The Yeni Project. 

Yeni Alyanna Espiritu was a 9 yr. old patient of Jerich’s who went through the trials of having stage IV Neuroblastoma during her last months on this earth. Because of Yeni, Jerich witnessed all the ups and heavy downs that come with living with that bitch called cancer - from learning how to care for a client with a terminal case like hers, to knowing how to cherish the last days on this earth. Jerich shared some of those experiences with me and the moment he knew he had to honor her story, “I remember on her deathbed, whispering to her as I held her hand, that I promised that I would never stop taking care of kids, especially those who tread the same path.” Fast forward to today, Love and Jerich created the The Yeni Project with a mission to bring glimpses of joy to kids in hospitals through art. 

This year the project starts again in the states where Love rallied a handful of artists to create illustrations for 75 coloring books. We packaged these illustrations to create a coloring kit that would hopefully give the kids just a moment to forget about their sickness. With a full suitcase, we headed to Pasig City Children’s Hospital where nurses welcomed us with appreciation and disbelief, “Wait, why are you doing this?” A blend of smarts and traces of hope in humanity apparently.

We started our first rounds on the 2nd floor, reading each child’s chart before entering the room. Each room greeted us with hyper awareness. In comes a face masked nurse, a put together young man, and a woman with a camera and a horrible Filipino accent, all while dealing with a sickness - who wouldn’t give a side eye? The children were expressionless, distracted by a phone, TV, or the muted green walls. Each visit lasted about a minute, with the same intro, “Hello, we have coloring books for you. Just a little something to past the time.” We made it to our final child and wondered if they cared, if the coloring books would end up tossed in the trash. We decided to do a second round of visits, and to our surprise, every single kid we checked on was coloring, some with parents working on the next page. The air this time felt different, as if the families were able to break away from discomfort for just a moment. We never heard a peep out of any of the kids - still expressionless, but now focused on giving color to the drawings.

On this trip, I was reminded of the power of caring for others and what traveling can teach us. In those moments outside of our world, outside of our 3-block radius at times we’re not actually that different. We all have struggles, we’re all just trying to live, we all sometimes just need a moment. 

This time around the Philippines did put me in a place. A place still rooted in gratitude, but watered with compassion for others and appreciation for the moments in between.