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    Livelihood Project: Bars to Bears

    WHAT has Natalia Soriano Cruz been up to in Manila? I know it’s been quite vague for most of you. I only had 3 weeks off this summer. I moved around a couple engagement sessions (with clients who were happy to change dates) to get these weeks cleared so I can be in the Philippines working on a couple livelihood projects.

    Let me share one of them with you. I have been aching to share this with friends and family for the longest time, and in the most serendipitous way, God is continuing to open up doors and in the span of MONTHS He has shed a new light on a part of me I didn’t even know existed; Natalia Cruz; Humanitarian.

    I know what most of you are thinking: How much more can this woman add to her plate?

    Friends, it is through HIS grace that I am even able to do this and still standing.

    It all started with wanting to do something good. Not for yourself, but for others. My dear friend and cousin Rocio was at a point in her life where she was at a crossroads and wanted to start helping people. She arranged to meet with Counselor Imperial in an area called Legaspi to speak and inspire people in need. In this case, the people in need were prisoners. She was brought to a correctional facility last year and when I was visiting her in February this year she filled me in on how this experience changed her.

    You have to always keep in mind that when it comes to the Philippines, this is a third world country. The poverty here makes the poverty in America look like a luxury hotel. I know I cannot speak for how prisoners in America are treated, but I can tell you that they do have basic humans rights while in prison – like, a bed, toilet paper, relatives can come and visit, and, you know, showers. You have to imagine a place where that is just unheard of, if you’re in prison in a third world country, you’re on your own. What they have in common is they can work. They are given jobs while behind bars and the pay can go either to their families or towards their commissary. The people there are yearning for a second chance. Some sort of redemption that likely won’t come their way. The chances of someone, well, taking a chance on them, is next to impossible. We serve a forgiving God. God is not only a God of second chances, he is a God of another chance. Life without Him is like it’s own prison to some, and when they accept Him in to their lives they are given freedom, they are given a chance, and a sprinkle of hope. Their bars have been lifted, their debts have been paid. I could go on and on about the corruption in this country, but you don’t have all day for me to get to the point about these bears, so I will share another time. You know that movie Slumdog Millionaire? Yeah, that’s got nothing on the provinces in Manila. You could drive around for 30 minutes and find five causes. Which might be why Rocio and I have two livelihood projects going, and I’ll fill you in on the other one another time. 🙂

    Just as God is patient and forgiving, He wants His children to be patient with and forgiving of others. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience: (Colossians 3:12) He gives us second chances, and we must give the same to others. To those who ask, “why prisoners?” Our response is such: Who are we to determine who gets another chance in this life? Who are we to judge?

    Sitting in her living room back in February and hearing stories about these visits she was having there really moved me. She spent an entire day with them and asked if they could have one thing what would it be, and their response was: soap. Soap. A basic human right. Such a simple request that means the world to them and costs us practically nothing to give. Can you imagine? When you ask someone if they could have anything, you almost cringe before they answer because you know you are most likely not able to provide. However, when the response is so little… wow. Eye opening.

    We wanted to help, so we got to thinking. When we were children, we had dolls. Some of us had a favorite doll. I know in my childhood I had a pound puppy dog who wore a diaper and I named him Puffy. I know I loved my doll Tanya from An American Tail. I had a comfort doll in my teens, he was a hedgehog named Herzog. But Puffy was my comfort. Puffy was who I held when I was scared at night, he’s who I clung to if my parents were fighting, he’s who I squeezed when something exciting was happening in our lives, he was a true joy to me. He had an ear that was almost falling off. His left leg had stitching that was set on twice, and his nose was scuffed up. But to me, he was perfect. In Rocio’s life, her comfort was a doll named Muffalda. Muffalda was a mouse, and she used to bring her to the states when she would visit us during the summer.

    So we asked for materials. Donations. A lot of designers here have showrooms and all along the floors of their showrooms are what we call retazos. It means remnants, remaining pieces of fabric that they usually toss out. On board were some of this countries best and up-and-coming designers. From Rajo Laurel to Boom Sason, we received boxes and boxes of donated material. These boxes were sent to the prison in Legaspi, and since they don’t use sewing machines there we gave them needles, thread, and buttons. They got to work on some prototypes for bears and sent us photos weeks later. I was already back in the states, but I saw these bears and my heart was exploding. Rocio and I couldn’t believe what they were able to put together. These women in this correctional facility had apparently created an assembly line as well, and the freedom we gave them to do what they wanted in the design proved to bring such a joyful moral, atmosphere, and purpose to their lives. They also find that sewing these bears is very therapeutic, which gives us nothing but the FEELS. <3

    Once the bears are made they are sent back to Rocio’s house in huge rice sacks. We decided to send the first 20 bears to the National Children’s Hospital and donate them to the children there. When Rocio went the first time, she was told by a nurse not to go to a certain area of the hospital, because the children there were all terminal. I love that Rocio’s heart brought her there anyways, it’s exactly where I would have gone. I guess the nurses figured that it would be such a waste to give these dolls to children who only had weeks to months left to live, but knowing that there was no hope for life and only hope for comfort, we knew it was exactly where these bears needed to end up.

    Since being back in Manila, I’ve gone on two distributions to the terminal ward. Our first visit we had 5 other volunteers to help us distribute 50 bears. Friends, I cannot begin to explain the emotions that take over you in a place like this. The hospital is government run, so it’s a free place, but it’s a death trap. You walk up to it and it looks more like a demolition site than a hospital. The place is filthy. The bedding is non-existent. The parents there are all afraid. The entire floor is filled with children in stage 4. Lukemia, cancer… no showers. Only rolls of toilet paper to clean themselves. You can walk in and think of at least 1,000 things this hospital needs. But you will leave feeling helpless regardless. At the end of the day, you have to come to terms with the fact that you cannot save their lives. And these children? They don’t care about new lighting fixtures. They don’t care about new bedding. They don’t care for a new machine brought in that can help scan this or that, and they don’t care about showers being built. The BEARS serve as a luxury to them. They have nothing. If their parents had any money they wouldn’t be spending it on toys. This project gives the children something they WANT. Comfort, something to hold on to, something to name and call their own.

    As a mother, I take these days with such a heavy heart. I sit with parents who are crying to me telling me they are afraid, I sit with children crying because the chemo hurts, or they’re in tears because of the bed sores they have. The youngest child I met there was a 9 month old girl named Hope, who died a week later. The oldest kid we met there was an 18 yr old boy named Rojean, who had dreams of being a basketball player and told Rocio and I how he has never had a girlfriend. He had stage 4 brain cancer, and he died days later. He was sent home because there was just nothing else they could do for him. They told him chemo wasn’t even worth trying. After the first visit I was pretty much a wreck the following day. Leaving the hospital and going home to a warm shower felt so good, but I was hit with an instant sadness when I thought about the parents and children I had just met who aren’t even able to take a shower or a bath. I just cried. I cried and cried. I wanted to hold my babies, who are an ocean away. These parents already have nothing, and now they are losing their child. A mother asked Rocio if she could hold on to the bear and keep it as a memory when her child passes. Another mom told me that her son loves all the different textures on the bears, he plays with each patch. So much positive feedback has been received from these bears, and now, we’ve had requests to visit not just terminally ill children, but children whose families have lost everything and are now in shelters, as well as children in orphanages. So the cause grows. Children in need.

    I’ve been so excited to share this with you all for quite some time now. Something that was a mere idea from a living room at Rocio’s house back in February this year, has blossomed in to quite the undertaking. We set out to create jobs for these prisoners as well as a sense of purpose, bring a little comfort to children, and fill some voids in our own lives because friends, I cannot tell you enough about the magic of giving. There is a true joy in giving and once you’ve experienced this overwhelming joy, all you want to do is continue to find ways to give.

    Here are some iPhone pics from the ANC Morning Show here in Manila. Rocio and I were on national live TV out this way to bring awareness to Bars To Bears, which was quite surreal doing this less than a week in this country. Thank you to Lana Johnson for helping coordinate this for us!

    Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin It

    For those interested in how to give to this project, please visit www.barstobears.com . Each bear costs 500 pesos to make, which is roughly $10.80 per bear (give or take a few cents when the peso fluctuates). Portions of the proceeds go to the prisoners for their work (around 150 pesos per bear) and the rest is put towards the shipping and back and forth transfer to getting the material from Manila to Legaspi, and the finished bears from Legaspi to Manila (a one way drive is 9-10 hours). To the designers who are local to Manila and want to donate material, please email us here: rocioolbes@gmail.com  – For those who want to donate their TIME to helping distribute the bears, please follow us on Instagram: @barstobears and like us on Facebook for updates on distributions and how many volunteers we will need.

    For direct donations through PayPal, click here.

    Thank you to everyone who has reached out to us to help, especially the prisoners. Although they are being compensated, you can see that they are creating these bears with love. To hand stitch these bears together with nothing but needles and thread and to come up with designs and patterns… to also stop production when there aren’t enough materials because they refuse to make smaller bears for these kids… shocking and wonderful all at the same time. They cried when they saw photos of the kids with the bears they created. They cannot wait to do more! We are so happy to finally announce this project to our friends and family! <3 Love you all!

    Pin It^An all-around family project! Rocio’s brother Raoul helped come up with the name, and my brother Jed designed the logo!Pin ItPin It

    Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin It^The emergency waiting “room”^Pin ItPin It^This is the first room on the 4th floor. It’s where they put the children who have hours to days left.Pin It^This is Paul and his two year old daughter Zhea. She is battling cancer like a champ, she couldn’t walk this visit, but continue scrolling down to visit part 2!Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin It

    A little overwhelming, right? Distribution part 2 took place on Sunday August 16th and we were joined by a cousin on my mom’s side named Bianca, and a cousin from my dad’s side, Paul. We were so blessed by their company!

    Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin It^She named her bear Beyonce.. it was the sweetest thing. Took her all of 2 seconds to tell me the name of her bear.Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin It^This is Gerald. His mom has him covered in the heat due to his exposed bed sores.Pin ItPin It^This smiling face is James. He was in such good spirits and looks to be healing. He was running around and giving us hugs. Oh James, I think I might have hugged you too tight! <3Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin ItPin It

    All content and images copyright TheSisterFiles©2015 and cannot be used without expressed permission.

    Photography by: Natalia Cruz

    Photos with Natalia Cruz taken by: Kristen Lafferty, Cristina Olbes, and Rocio Olbes

    Some more snaps from my iPhone (first distribution):

    Pin ItPin It(Second distribution)Pin ItPin ItPin ItPin It

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