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Welcome Home, Auntie Maya!

I hadn’t been to the Philippines for 5 years. So when I brought up to my colleague an idea of visiting the country and heard a confident “Yes” in response, I knew it would be a whirlwind trip. And oh boy, it was.

I am not going to lie, I was scared. It had been a while since I was there, And I was bringing my daughter. Plus, my colleague had never been to the Philippines and never walked through the slum areas. I had warned her about the sights, the smells, and the sounds. I told her about the possibility of getting lice, strep, and pneumonia. But when we got there, it was not scary at all. There was a lot of excitement, happy faces, and heartwarming moments. Families we visited brought gifts – bananas, chicharron, cakes, pink salted eggs, fruits – something to share with a dear friend to welcome her home.

Home. We were greeted with a huge sign that had my face on it and the words “Welcome home”. I was born in the United States, and New York City has been my home since 2003. But the Philippines has always been the country where I felt like I was home. My team and I are in constant contact with our beneficiaries via chats and video calls. We see them grow. But being back there and seeing everyone get so big was surreal.

When I met many of them, they were little kids full of hopes and dreams. It was 2008. My first trip to the Philippines, a year after I suddenly lost my mom. When I came to the hospital to be by my mom’s bedside, she was already unconscious, attached to tubes, and not able to open her eyes or say a word. Three days after she was gone. I couldn’t say goodbye to her and this tore away my core. (In fact, I tear up as I type this.)

A year after I decided to visit an orphanage. I carried a lot of grief and heaviness. I was working two jobs and doing Muay Thai. I was busy, busy, busy, but I felt I had no meaning, no purpose. So in an attempt to process the loss of my mom, I visited her homeland. One of the villages I went to was in a mountainous area called Norzagaray. It was hot and humid, and I was walking through a jungle to visit kids who needed help. That’s how I met some of the kids who were now standing in front of me – grown up, educated, successful – reminding me of my mother.

It was these kids who inspired me. They inspired me to contact companies to send care packages back to the Philippines. They inspired me to find sponsors so that they could remain with their families and not be separated. They gave me the purpose and meaning that I had (at the time) lacked in my day-to-day life.

From the loss of my mom blossomed the flower that is Maya’s Hope. It’s how grief turned into an opportunity to help children who would otherwise not have hope for a better life.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve these children and thankful to my mom for teaching me love. She taught me how to love these children from afar, to love myself, to love others, and to be the mom I am today.

When we returned from the Philippines, I asked my daughter, “What is the best thing about the Philippines? “

She responded, “Your friends.”

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