Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On to the next adventure

Walking home the other day, it struck me: I won't be in this neighbourhood much longer.

I start bringing things over to the new place this week, although the official moving day is April 1st.

And I just realized that I won't be around to see the azaleas and dogwood bloom outside my window...won't see the sun set behind the big tree across the street...won't be walking round the pond on Sunday mornings, watching the ducks and surprising the occasional rabbit.

I remind myself that the new place is just down the street from Central Park, for heaven's sakes, in a leafy neighbourhood, so I will likely have all the flowers and trees and small wildlife I could possibly want.

Still, it won't be quite the same.

Most of all, I will miss my roomie, her calm presence, her quiet humour....and her magic hotpot. I keep telling people, "It will be nice to live with family again" (my new roomie is my brother) but over the years, my roomie has become family, too.

If home is where the heart is, then I'll be leaving a piece of my heart here.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Helping the Philippines one mission at a time

Santiago is a municipality in the province of Agusan del Norte, on the northern end of Mindanao, the major island in southern Philippines. Davao City lies approximately 225 kilometers directly south. On a 2006 business trip to one of his company's holdings in Mindanao, Marshall Farris found himself in Santiago, moved with compassion by the poverty he encountered there, especially the lack of medical care and its profound effect on families and children.

When he got back home to Vancouver, he told his wife, Angelica, a Filipino-Canadian registered nurse, “We have to do something.”

The Farrises believe that health is wealth: that in order for a community to thrive, it needs healthy individuals who are able to work well and support their families. So to them, a medical mission seemed like the most logical way to help alleviate the poverty Marshall witnessed on his Philippine trip.

In July 2007, after a year and a half of organizing fundraisers, talking to potential donors, collecting goods like used eyeglasses, and recruiting volunteers, the first medical mission organized by the Farrises and their friends arrived in Mindanao to care for the community that had captured Marshall's heart back in 2006.

"It was a life-changing experience for everyone involved," says Angelica. She recalls arriving in Santiago and feeling the need of the people there hit her with all the overwhelming impact of the heat that strikes you as soon as you step off the airplane in the Philippines.

The mission lasted for five days and treated more than 1,700 individuals, ranging in age from one to 85 years. More than 480 people received eye exams and approximately 64 people received basic surgery. Common illnesses treated were tuberculosis, colds, coughs, skin diseases, mumps, toothache and dental decay, and malnourishment - just to name a few.

“Once the news of a medical mission breaks out, more communities join in,” says Angelica. “Even the ones who were not originally targeted show up.”

In Santiago, the three communities (barangays) originally targeted for the mission turned into nine served: four in the Municipality of Santiago, and the others in neighbouring Tubay and Jabonga.

The North American volunteers on this first mission stayed in the Cabadbaran barangay, while the mission was held in E. Morgado, the most central of all the barangays. According to Angelica, there are health clinics in E.Morgado and La Paz barangays, but the clinics are about thirty meters square, with no medical equipment. Usually, the medical missions are conducted at the Barangay Hall.

"At first I thought, how are we going to be able to help all these people? Somehow, we did it. And yet there are so many more people still in need," says Angelica. "We knew we had to come back."

To ensure that the missions would continue so that more communities could be reached, the Farrises formed the Ascenta Foundation in 2008, together with a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to help. They have been hard at work ever since.

In 2008, Ascenta sent a second mission to the Philippines, this time to Tacloban City on the island of Leyte.

“This was another locale that Marshall visited for work reasons,” Angelica explains. Since they are just starting out, the Farrises are first trying to help those communities where they already have some kind of tie – for example, Marshall’s work.

“We select rural places, far from urban centres, where the people are in poverty and in dire need of medical care. Wherever possible, we use local resources. For example, we recruit nursing students from nearby colleges, and we ask the local and national police and the army for security and medical staff as well,” says Angelica.

“In Mindanao, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) committed to provide two dentists and three to four nurses. Volunteers also came from the Deptartment of Health (DOH), the Municipality Health Office, and the Provincial Health Office. Three midwives and one nurse came from the Municipality of Santiago.”

In Tacloban, 110 volunteers treated over 3,500 men, women and children from the communities of Suhi and Palanog. For some of the patients, this would be their first time to receive professional medical care.

Marshall beams over a photo of a woman being fitted with a pair of eyeglasses.

"She's able to see clearly for the first time in her life. Now she can work and take care of herself without worrying about being a burden to her family."

“We heard later that this woman was able to go to Manila by herself and visit her relatives for the first time ever,” Angelica adds. “To us, it might be just a pair of old eyeglasses. To her, it means freedom.”

In October 2009, a powerful typhoon devastated the northern part of the Philippines. Ascenta funds that year went towards providing relief goods for the communities there.

Marshall's company staff in that part of the country rented a truck and drove it themselves to the communities which had been cut off from the rest of the world by damage and flooding.

Back home in Vancouver, the Ascenta team is getting organized for their next mission, with a fundraising target of eighty thousand dollars. The mission will serve the communities in northern Philippines that were hardest hit by the 2009 typhoon.

"Since we're so new, nobody has heard of us - yet," says Marshall, who has taken on the role of primary fundraiser. He plans to target corporate donors among his many business contacts.

Little things help as well, such as collecting and cleaning used eyeglasses, and partnering up with local high schools whose students can organize "care packages" which the mission team members can take with them and distribute to their patients. Students interested in entering the medical field might also want to join a mission as volunteers.

"Once, during a presentation, we were asked what's so special about us," Angelica recalls. "Why do we need to be special? There’s a lot of need out there and we are trying to fill at least some of it."

Marshall agrees. "If we can change the lives of 2,000 people with every mission," he says, "I’ll die the richest man on earth."

The Ascenta Foundation is a registered charity. Donors receive tax receipts for contributions. For more information, please visit www.ascentafoundation.com or send an email to afarris@ascentafoundation.com.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

This weather is for the ducks

So after my morning walk, I'm back inside, warm and dry, making asaparagus soup.

This recipe is from my current favourite cookbook. It uses earthy, simple ingredients which, married together, transform themslves into a soup that's elegant, velvety and luscious. Definitely not for the dairy-shy, it calls for healthy amounts of butter and cream. And it can be served hot or cold, so enjoy it in the early spring as soon as asparagus comes into season, and through the summer months. Bon appetit.

Adapted from Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
Serves four.

1/2 cup butter
white parts of 4 small leeks, sliced
3 cups water
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 lb fresh asparagus
1 cup heavy cream

In a large pot, melt the butter. When it stops sizzling, add the leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft.

Add the water and potatoes and season again with salt and pepper. Keep the heat at medium-high and cook for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the asparagus. Snap off or peel the woody ends and roughly chop up the spears. When the potatoes are soft, add the asparagus, crank the heat up to high, and cook at a rolling boil for 5 minutes.

Use an immersion blender to blend thoroughly. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if desired. Stir in the cream, or serve it on the side.

Garnish with minced flat-leaf parsley (optional). 


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Roast Chicken and Other Stories

If a cookbook author could be a soulmate, then I think Simon Hopkinson is mine. His Roast Chicken and Other Stories practically floated off the library bookshelf into my hands - who could resist such a beguiling title?

As I started reading, I marvelled at how many things we have in common: his penchant for eggplants and for salty things (a whole chapter dedicated to anchovies!); his firm insistence that butter and olive oil are most certainly not interchangeable ("If a dish needs butter, it gets butter; if it needs olive oil, it gets olive oil"); his tendency to be mesmerized by the sight of a chicken slowly turning golden brown in the oven; his unshakeable devotion to cream.

"I do believe," he writes, "against all the odds, that cream will be with us for a long time yet, despite its well-known high-cholesterol content. After all, who in their heart of hearts would want to be without crème brûlée, the best vanilla ice cream, or clotted cream on a scone with strawberry jam?"

Sigh. Who, indeed?  Definitely not me.

Best of all is his light-hearted attitude towards food. He manages to walk the fine line between loving it and not taking it too seriously. "It is far better to cook food for your friends that you enjoy eating yourself....Carefully prepared and simple dishes are an asset to a good lunch or dinner party. The food should not dominate the proceedings. Rather, it should enchance and liven the occasion."

I'm so glad I found you, Simon. I'm looking forward to cooking with you.


Saturday, March 05, 2011

If these books could talk....

...they'd say, like Ruth in that immortal Old Testament passage, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay."

Photo by rizalvaro

Anyone who knew me in grade school would tell you that I was a bookworm then. Well, I'm a bookworm still, and I have no intention of reforming.

Many of these books that I'm packing up are old, some of them are new....all of them are my good friends.

Years ago I read an article on bibliotherapy - reading books to help heal emotional or behavioural problems. I can certainly understand how books can be effective therapy. Whenever I need to laugh I pick out any one of James Herriot's books on his life as a country vet, and I read a few pages. One Christmas when I was miserably sick in bed, I read the entire Chronicles of Narnia. And Rebecca got me through some dark days. You'd think that it might have driven me off the deep end, but surprisingly it had the opposite effect - maybe because my problems shrank in comparison to those of the second Mrs. De Winter's.

I had a relative who was an alcoholic agnostic. As he was dying of cancer at age forty five, he was given The Screwtape Letters to read. This genius of a book helped him recognize himself and die reconciled to the faith of his childhood.

Books can be a wonderful preventative medicine, too. Sitting quietly and reading is a great way to counteract the barrage of stimuli that we get exposed to these days.

Sometimes on my bus to work I see a young mom reading to her little girl. This mom knows that reading to kids or with kids is the best investment of time an adult can make.

But don't read just any old thing - read good books, great books that will introduce them - and you - to different worlds, fascinating characters, and stories of heroism, nobility and courage that can provide us all with a road map for our own lives.

A friend of mine once told me, "You just haven't found the right one," when I said I didn't like beer. He was right. So I have the same advice for people who say they don't like to read - you just haven't found that one book that's bound to capture your imagination and get you hooked.

Finding that one book can be an adventure in itself - I do hope you'll give it a try.

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