Norgevlyn Bulodan, a six-year old Muslim girl, walks with the help of bamboo railings erected by her father outside their home in Mindanao. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The life of a Muslim girl in the southern Philippines has changed for the better after receiving a special gift from a group of strangers on Christmas Day a year ago.
Six-year-old Norgevlyn Bulodan has cerebral palsy, and suffered greatly because poverty prevented the family getting her condition diagnosed and her getting the proper medical attention she needed.
Mohammad, her 33-year old father, works as a driver but could not save enough money to take his daughter to a doctor.
"Village health workers said she was only malnourished," says the girl's mother, Mary Grace.
Every day, the girl sat at the window to watch other children play or go to school, she says.
Then in December last year, a group of city people came to the village to hold a Christmas "feeding program" for malnourished children.
David Wasson, a 64-year old retired American chef, spearheaded the project.
He started the project in 2009 after seeing many cases of malnutrition and hunger in the southern region of Mindanao.
"The time I first saw those kids, I knew there were serious problems," says David. "They were so skinny, thin, and undernourished."
He used his pension money to start a 13-week feeding program for 30 children in villages he visited.
For 13 Saturdays, David's group would feed children, and leave rice, eggs, and milk for the rest of the week.
Malnutrition in the Philippines
A third of Filipino children suffer from malnutrition, according to the non-government group Save the Children.
In its 2016 annual report, the organization said that beyond the health implications for each child, "malnutrition hinders a child's capability to achieve his or her full potential."
The report noted that the Philippine economy is losing "at least US$6.5 billion a year due to the impact of childhood stunting on workforce productivity and education."
Armado Parawan, nutrition adviser for Save the Children, said children born to the poorest mothers are "thrice as likely to suffer from stunting."
He said the Philippines needs to double its efforts to ensure that nutrition-related policies and programs reach the most vulnerable.
The Philippine government's investment in nutrition programs — 0.52 percent of general government expenditure compared to the global average allocation of 2.1 percent — is very low.
Father Emerson Luego, director for social action of Tagum Diocese, said the problem of malnutrition and hunger needs an urgent response from all sectors.
"We need more people like David and his volunteers," said the priest. "The church will always support initiatives that will benefit the poor," he added.
More than malnutrition
It was during one of those visits by David's group that Norgevlyn's condition was discovered.
David brought the girl to the city where she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a permanent condition affecting movement and coordination.
It is caused by abnormal development or damage to parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture.
Norgevlyn has a problem speaking and she could not move her lower body. "But she understands and responds to conversation," says Mary Grace.
There is no cure, although medication and surgery may alleviate the condition.
A year after that Christmas when David and his group helped Norgevlyn, the girl — who is receiving the necessary medication and physical therapy — can now stand and walk with the aid of bamboo railings built by her father outside their house.
"[David and his group] are God's gift to my daughter," says Mary Grace. "They helped us without asking for something in return."
David, however, says Norgevlyn is "a gift from Christ" and "a manifestation that our humanity has never failed us."