FOREIGNERS AS VOLUNTEERS IN PHIL PRISON SERVICE
In my lengthy 38 years in the prison service, (having been assigned to administer almost all major penal establishments in the country) I have been acquainted with a number of foreigners spending time, resources, talents and efforts in contributing inputs to the institutional program for rehabilitation of prisoners. At times they were even pushed to be discouraged and to a large extent dismayed but their persistence is too great and their perspicacity almost boundless to ignore. They not only deserve commendation, which at times is found wanting but, if I have my way, I would build them a monument right in the middle of the prison reservation!
It is a monument not of pride or conceit but a testament on how trust is extremely applied.
Their sacrifices meant so much for correctional officers. They are in the middle of negotiation when trouble erupts. They provide counsel and assistance to the prison community inspiring everyone they intend to influence. They sustain their programs on the basis of personal resources. They are in the midst of hazards and dangers, contagion and infection, calamities and what have you. And seldom you would hear any complaints.
They represent what patience is. They project generosity of time and effort. They are gods and goddesses in the real world. And their attendance speaks highly on the lesson of bringing hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. There is nothing personal in their task, only spiritual; nothing material but filial.
Their mere presence is enough definition of what faith and charity in humankind mean. They expect nothing in return except perhaps for feeling good after a day’s generous offering. They are completely a hero or a group of superheroes in the full sense of understanding. As a matter of fact, they were even times when they become victims of prison violence and would incur losses through deception but it never would deter them from their mission.
I have known up close most of those who stayed for years. And here are the most prominent : American Missionary Sister Olga Robertson, Korean Christian missionary James Lee, German-American couple Will and Joanie Feuerstein, Australian artist Christopher Woolcock, and American academician David Burt, to name a few. I know them not only officially but personally.
Sister Olga Robertson, a Caucasian Protestant Minister, was almost a permanent fixture in the New Bilibid Prison in 70s, 80s and 90s. She would invite fellow volunteers from different countries and would conduct various humanitarian services from pastoral counseling to medical treatment. Her ministry would suffer when she and her group were held hostage and nearly annihilated when prison violence erupted. Having survived the deadly ordeal, she continued with her ministry as if a stale air just passed through. There were some amusing incidents during her term. She would regale prison officers with her wit and her thoughtfulness by handing over sample vial of perfume donated to her by friends. As a result, all prison gates and custodial check points would smell fashionable after she would pass through!
And then there was a mobster looking but kindly gentleman from Korea who chose the Philippines as his ministry area after receiving his doctorate degree in USA. He even adopted an American name, James Lee in lieu of his difficult to pronounce Korean name. He did not even consider working in prison preferring the poorest municipality in the country. But his services were always interrupted by people with problems regarding family members serving time in the penitentiary. He decided to volunteer in the prison service if only to check and assist his religious constituency until he was challenged to serve and organize a ministry in the prison community. And he succeeded and gained adherents where most of his foreign contemporaries failed.
And there was this foreign crusading couple, German Will and American Joanie Feuerstein of Action International Ministry. They were regular volunteers in the maximum wing of the National Penitentiary but I got acquainted with them when they pioneered a community outreach in the newly organized correctional facility for women in Mindanao. Despite advisory for foreigners to skip Mindanao as security measure, the couple headed straight to Davao Penal Colony to offer their services. (I was then the head of the facility and was impressed with their persistence and tenacious crusade to help prisoners). Dapecol became one of their surrogate stations and the prisoners in the area could not help bet be awed at their brisk, wholesome and youthful activity notwithstanding the fact that the couple are already senior citizens.
Out from the artist world came a successful and talented wood sculptor, Christopher Woolcock, an Australian entrepreneur, who organized a wood working center right in the middle of a gang-infested penitentiary, and succeeded in inspiring inmates to learn art the professional and creative way. Inmates without skills suddenly found themselves after a brief period of handcraft tutorial, sculpting, doing paint jobs and transforming into an instant craftsman.
David Burt, a New Zealander and an academician schooled in Jeruel Institute of Theology , was a standout. He offered regular toastmaster courses for inmates in the national penitentiary. And his teaching exposure afforded inmates with social confidence and positive hope for reintegration in the mainstream of society once released. And he is doing this not as a favor and neither as a pledge. Accordingly, it is his way of sharing the blessings he has received to benefit the least of his brethren.
Knowing them and a number of their compatriots, faceless and nameless as they were, serving the prison community is a clear case that Mankind’s salvation can only be done by Man himself. For me, these volunteers are the true angels of Humanity.