By Jenny Neyman
Santa flew via jet engines, rather than reindeer. He was from Soldotna, not the North Pole. The foamy white beard of his bargain St. Nick trimmings looked about as natural as square eggs. He didn’t speak the language of those coming to see him at a bazaar in Quezon City, Philippines, so he couldn’t take gift requests, much less inquire as to naughty or nice.
To Lassie and Jerald Nelson, of Soldotna, who were visiting their son, Les Nelson, and his education outreach campaign in the Philippines last month, their Santa experience wasn’t quite up to the sack-full-of-magic standard that kids in the U.S. would expect. Then again, not much that they saw in the Philippines conformed to Western world standards.
But as with a communication-challenged Santa — or a plain pair of shoes, a simple shirt, a quick meal, an alphabet drawn in shaving cream or a lesson in basic arithmetic — there can be magic in appreciating what is there, who can be helped and what can be done, rather than focusing solely on what’s still needed, lacking and insufficient.
To a kid in the Philippines, after all, Soldotna is close enough to the North Pole as to render inconsequential the difference in zip codes. Flying across the Pacific is pretty darn special, whether it’s through technology or levitating livestock. With enough smiles and laughter, “Ho ho ho” can bridge a language gap.
“It was a pretty exciting couple of hours. A lot of kids — and a lot of young adults, and even old adults — came up and got pictures with Santa,” said Jerald Nelson, who agreed to his son’s request to play Santa at a Christmas bazaar organized by a friend, where part of the proceeds are donated to Les’ educational program, Ferdinand Center for the Creative.
Les, an artist, graphic designer and 2001 Nikiski High School graduate, got interested in the Philippines by seeing the photography of Ralph Matres on the photo-sharing website Flickr. Matres documents the difficulties of life in the country — children living on the street, youth trapped in the sex industry and impoverished farmers in rural areas.
After striking up a friendship online, Les went for a visit in October and November 2008 to help Matres film a documentary. He saw the beauty of the country and culture for himself, and also the debilitating poverty in which some people live. He was particularly struck by the kids, who were friendly and upbeat, even when living with an extended family of 13 in a hut about the dimensions of a king-sized bed. And others who weren’t lucky enough to even have that.
In the overcrowded Philippines, there is little chance of finding a job that pays a living wage without having a college degree. But for kids born in poverty, they may not get even an elementary education, much less the opportunity to attend college.
So Les founded the Ferdinand Center for the Creative, a multifaceted educational outreach program. For teens and younger kids, Les teaches basic education — reading, writing and math — and in English, to give them a leg up in the international job market. For older students, Les teaches further English literacy, art, graphic design and computer skills, to prepare them for work as graphic designers in a global, online marketplace.
December was the first time for the Nelsons to visit their son in the place he’s come to call home over the past four years. It was eye-opening in several regards. First, for a retirement-age couple who doesn’t travel all that much, and never before to a developing nation, the 25-hour trip and nearly three-week stay was full of new cultural and geographic sights, sounds and experiences.
“And the heat didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would — 80s and low 90s felt kind of nice,” Lassie Nelson said.
It also was a realization and recalibration of expectations. Les had certainly told them about the Philippines and tried to explain the gaping chasms of dichotomy found there — between rich and poor, fancy resorts and slums, vibrant creativity and roadblocks to education, a willingness to work hard and lack of living-wage jobs, strong family ties and castaways, even kids, snared in crime, drugs, the sex trade and homelessness. But hearing about and witnessing firsthand is a wide dichotomy itself.
“Les had told us, ‘You know, I understand we have poor people and we have homeless
people in the U.S., but here, if they really need something, there’s a Bean’s Café (homelessness program in Anchorage) or somewhere they can go to get help. They don’t have that in the Philippines,’ and I saw that,” Lassie said. “Kids are told, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t go to school anymore because you don’t have shoes or the proper clothes.’ And then you go to the slums and there’s just no describing them. You can’t even begin to comprehend what the reality really is. It is an incredible place.”
At the same time, there is a segment of wealth in the Philippines, typified by flashy excess and commercialism. For instance, the area is home to one of the largest shopping malls on the planet.
“I was coming down an escalator, I looked out and said, ‘Oh my gosh, there are more people out there than in the entire state of Alaska,’” Lassie said.
Les had planned on giving his parents the tourist treatment, showing them the resort beaches and other popular places among visitors. They didn’t end up doing any of that, as Lassie and Jerald quickly decided they’d rather spend their time and travel budget doing what Les does — helping people.
“We got there and we saw what things are like and decided we would rather spend the money on helping some of these kids get clothes so they could go to school, or one thing or another. None of the hotels or fancy beaches we heard about,” Lassie said. “It was so much more than what I had anticipated in so many ways. I mean, it was incredible but the need was incredible, as well. And we saw these kids that Les works with, and their families. They were just such beautiful people.”
Spirits were rich even when resources were not. One of Les’ students, Jerick Tortosa, a
15-year-old effectively in the fifth grade, lives with his large extended family in a tiny hut with no electricity. He spends nearly all his time on the streets, without enough money to adequately care for his basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, yet Jerick would do or give absolutely anything to help an animal, even though the culture of pet ownership doesn’t exist there the way it does in the U.S.
“Over there, animals are pretty disposable. People are a little disposable, too, so you can imagine what animals are. But if he saw an animal he was going to do anything he could do to love it,” Lassie said.
Another of Les’s students, Johnrei Canonio, is a talented artist and made it to college to study architecture — a rare feat for a kid from poverty providing an even-more-rare opportunity to improve his situation. But he willingly dropped out to help take care of his grandparents, and doesn’t balk at caring for anyone else who needs it. A typhoon last year caused extensive flooding in Canonio’s neighborhood. Canonio got his grandparents to the roof of their home, then jumped into the floodwaters to save others who couldn’t swim.
“At one point I got a text message from him saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight, but I wanted to thank you for everything.’ I couldn’t get a hold of him and his family and friends didn’t know where he was. I was scared to death,” Les said. Canonio ended up OK, though his phone died from getting wet.
The Nelsons saw it again while Jerald was playing Santa. He didn’t think he would do the role justice, not being able to speak to the kids who might come to see him. As it turns out, no rain was going to dampen the parade of kids and adults wanting pictures with the exotic Santa all the way from Alaska. They laughed, danced — with Santa briefly joining in — and grinned for the camera.
“It was an experience, I enjoyed it. Of course, I’m kind of a nut, I guess, but the kids seemed to really enjoy it. It went over quite well,” Jerald said.
Leaving was the most heartwarming, and wrenching, of all. All Les’ students wanted to see the Nelsons off, so they caravanned to the airport in multiple taxis crammed with kids.
“And they all came up to give us hugs and some of them were crying and they all called us Mom and Dad. That will probably will stick with me forever,” Lassie said.
Though the Nelsons already were supportive of Les’ work, they are now even more so.
“That is a different world. There are needs there that we can’t even comprehend without seeing it, and Les just wants to do everything he can to help the ones that he comes in touch with,” Lassie said.
“This has reaffirmed that we really don’t need anything here, so if it comes to the point where someone tells us, ‘Boy, you really ought to get a big flat-screen TV,’ or whatever, we will tell them, ‘No, that is not a priority.’ We will settle for what we’ve got, and we’ve got so much. Anything we have extra will go over to (the Philippines) to help someone who has nothing,” Lassie said.
Ferdinand Center for the Creative is a nonprofit organization registered in the U.S., with its board of directors based on the Kenai Peninsula. The primary goal of the local board is to raise money to help Ferdinand operate. With Les back in Soldotna for a few weeks to visit family, the board is putting together a fundraiser at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Nikiski Recreation Center. It’s a soup dinner, for $5 a bowl, with an opportunity to purchase ceramic bowls made by art students at Nikiski Middle-High School. There also will be an auction — donated auction items still are being sought — T-shirts made by Ferdinand students for sale, and a presentation by Les on the organization’s goals and operations. For donations, assistance or information for the fundraiser, contact Margie Warner at 252-0028.
Les’ experience with Ferdinand has been much the same as his parents’ visit — wanting to do so much more than his resources currently allow. He’d like to build or rent a building for the school, and expects that to cost around $200,000. He’d like to be able to house his students to get them off the streets. He’d like to take on considerably more street kids to shore up their basic education. For the adult art and graphic design program, he’d like to have space and computers to run two classes of 15 students each. Tuition to the adult program is helping with the youth education program. Ferdinand generates some money by selling T-shirts and other artwork the students design. Les also seek grants and donations, in the Philippines and back in the U.S. He’s also looking into launching an Internet-based graphic design firm to help generate a little more income.
As it is now, Les has one adult art student and a few more lined up to start when he gets back later in January. He’s currently tutoring four younger students, with another set to start upon his return. Ferdinand also runs a Weekender program, which gathers up groups of street kids for meals and activities, and helps provide them with shoes, clothes and other basic needs.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else. I like being with the students, I like seeing them get better and knowing that’s because of our work,” Les said.
He estimates that Ferdinand’s annual expenses come to about $25,000 a year, and that’s operating on a shoestring. He tutors out of his home. He uses whatever he can as teaching tools — a deck of Uno cards to practice counting, or shaving cream sprayed on a table so kids can trace letters and practice pronunciation.
The needs are so much greater, and there is so much more that he’d like Ferdinand to accomplish. His bag of tricks doesn’t currently hold enough resources to do everything he’d like. But just like with Santa, even modest effort can create magical results.
“You know the saying, ‘Real artists shift?’ Sometimes you have to do what you can with what you have. If you’re not ready to do everything you want to do now, then you do as much of it as you can and do more when it’s possible,” Les said.
For Les, that’s being in the Philippines. For the Nelsons and the local Ferdinand board of directors, that’s supporting Les in his efforts.
“He came back with us but he didn’t come home with us. Home is now over there in the Philippines,” Lassie said. “I started to say I wish it were different, but I don’t, really. I see where his heart is and why it is and I like that person. A part of me wishes he were a lot closer but he can’t be a lot closer and do what he’s doing, so he’s got to be there.”
For more information, visit www.ferdinandcc.org.