Illinois recovery team shores up hope in the Philippines

Meredith Flynn —  February 25, 2014

Illinois volunteers took a 20-minute boat ride every morning to Gibitngil Island, where they helped repair a school damaged by Typhoon Haiyan.

Gibitngil Island, Philippines | Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham.

On a remote island in the Pacific, school children march in place to a familiar song. Grouped around a flagpole, they sing and spin along with their leader, a man wearing a bright yellow T-shirt.

It’s the morning exercise routine at Gibitngil Integrated School, and the final day in the Philippines for a group of Illinois volunteers. The team of six Disaster Relief leaders spent a week here to help repair the school, damaged during last fall’s typhoon.

With so much destruction in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, this tiny island likely isn’t high on the government’s lengthy to-do list. But Baptist Global Response saw a need they could meet here, and have mobilized a string of volunteer teams from the U.S. to fix roofs, construct a classroom building almost from scratch, and reinstate the school’s rainwater collection system.

“We were told that for this little island, it might take the government two to three years just to get there to start the work,” said Rex Alexander, IBSA’s Disaster Relief coordinator. “We were working in what would be considered a forgotten area.”

Now, the island and some of its 4,000 residents are well documented on Facebook. They smile brightly in photographs alongside the American volunteers. They sing in cell phone videos. Gibitngil Island isn’t forgotten anymore.

During their week in the Philippines, the Illinois volunteers stayed in Medellin on the much larger island of Cebu. They took a 20-minute boat ride to work every morning. “Just enough to be fun,” Alexander said.

Once they arrived at Gibitngil’s shore, they got off the boat and waded to the beach, carrying the supplies they would need for the day. Volunteer teams have been working at the school here since December under the direction of Baptist Global Response (BGR) and Southern Baptist missionaries in the area. BGR is a partner of the International Mission Board, offering immediate relief and long-term response after disasters.

The Illinois volunteers worked mostly with Filipino nationals under contract with BGR for the school project, Alexander said. And as they worked, they had the audience of several hundred kids, from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“I expected school to be in session and I expected us to be able to communicate with kids, but I had no idea how much of a highlight that would be,” Alexander said.

Don Kragness played a special role during the week. The 35-year veteran music teacher went around from classroom to classroom, working with several grade levels on songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” And “Father Abraham,” of course.

“When I came into their class, they all stood at attention and said, ‘Good morning, Sir Don. We’re glad that you’re here.’ In unison!” Kragness said, laughing at the memory.

Gibitngil Island is largely Catholic, but some of the kids are involved in a house church on the island. The freedom to talk about Jesus at school amazed the American volunteers. “…In our own country, here in Johnson City, Illinois, I could not speak Jesus in class,” Kragness said.

“Over there, I had free reign. The principal of the school is a believer, and there are religious quotations and scriptures posted on the walls and on the trees outside, and you can say anything you want to.”

Kids on the island may be familiar with Jesus, but many don’t know how to have a personal relationship with Him. George Meese was sorting lumber one day when he noticed a little boy watching him from the doorway. “…The Holy Spirit just talked to me and told me I needed to talk to him,” said the pastor of New Hope Baptist in Robinson, Ill.

Meese found out the boy’s name and age – 11. “I asked him if he knew Jesus, and he said yes, I believe in Jesus. And I said, well, have you accepted Jesus in your heart?
“And he said, well, no one’s asked.”

They got down on their knees and the boy prayed to receive Christ, then and there.

Worship by flashlight
Alexander estimates that the house was about twice the size of his office in Springfield. But around 30 people crowded in for the Thursday evening meeting of Gibitngil’s house church, run mostly by older students from the school.

Everything about the gathering would have been completely unacceptable to American Christians, Alexander said.

“First of all, there’s no electricity, so everything had to be done by flashlight. Instead of PowerPoint screens, the kids had handwritten songs and taped them on the walls.” They shone the flashlight on the walls to illuminate the songs and Scripture passages.

Light rain fell outside and in part of the house. The room was crowded. Students were in charge. But Alexander had told the group beforehand, “We need to do everything we can to get to that little meeting.”

The students aren’t alone on their island in adhering to Christian principles, Alexander said, but their belief in Jesus as Savior sets them apart.

“Part of what we do on a trip like this is to encourage Christians,”

Alexander said. “…When a group from the outside comes to their area and shows them God’s love personally, and sits down in their homes and worships with them, in the back of their minds, that helps a young person or adult say, ‘I’ve chosen correctly.’ It helps solidify decisions that they make.”

There will be opportunities for teams to serve in the Philippines for at least another year, Alexander said, and previous Disaster Relief training isn’t required. For more information, contact him at (217) 391-3134 or

By Meredith Flynn

Meredith Flynn


Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.