Her Second Chance

Above: Nerissa Cumpio sits in the recovery room of her newly built birth center, which was partially supported by UCLA student donations, 10 months after Typhoon Yolanda.
Tanauan, Philippines
Correction: The original article stated that Nerissa Cumpio did volunteer work for Mercy in Action. Rather, Cumpio was paid for her work with Mercy in Action through a cash-for-work program.

TANAUAN, Philippines — Only the floor of the clinic was left, surrounded by wet piles of rubble left after several 16-foot waves devastated the coastal town.

Nerissa Cumpio said she survived by evacuating to her grandmother’s home 4 kilometers inland, but her home and her midwife clinic in Tanauan were completely leveled by the storm surges that accompanied Typhoon Yolanda last November.

“It was like it was bombed,” she said. “It was like we were on another planet. Is this Earth?”

It would be four days before any relief arrived in Tanauan, including efforts from aid agencies supported in part by UCLA student donations.

The storm stripped the trees of their leaves and turned the ground a muddy brown. Cumpio returned to her home and clinic two days after the storm to see just the floor remaining.

Nerissa Cumpio and her husband lived in a tent after their home was destroyed in Typhoon Yolanda. The tent still stands on their property, serving as a storage unit as they rebuild their lives, home and clinic.

To get to her former home, she climbed a mountain of debris and saw dead people in the streets, she said.

“It was impossible to start again,” Cumpio said. “It was hard, even just to clean the rubble.”

It was like it was bombed. It was like we were on another planet. Is this Earth?” —Nerissa Cumpio

Her two daughters couldn’t understand the situation. Amid the total destruction, the girls, 4 and 8, asked for milk.

But there was no milk. There wasn’t even clean water.

People looted the PepsiCo factory next door in search of soft drinks and water, Cumpio said. There was only a limited amount for the company to distribute before everything was gone.

“The first week was very hard,” Cumpio said. “Yes, you survived the storm surge – but what now?”

While waiting in a long line for water and rice rations, people chatted and made jokes.

“Filipinos, we’re easy to laugh, even after a disaster,” Cumpio said. “Men were saying, ‘The girls are not beautiful now. Where are all the beautiful girls?’”

It was a small joke because the women’s makeup had been washed away.

When her family cooked its rice, it didn’t taste right, Cumpio said. The water was salty and made the rice taste strange. The ocean had contaminated the supplies of fresh water, and the problem persisted for days after the storm.

The first week was very hard. Yes, you survived the storm surge – but what now?” —Nerissa Cumpio

Just over a week after the typhoon, Cumpio’s 8-year-old daughter told her parents that her chest hurt. Worried that something had hit her during the storm, Cumpio examined her daughter for bruises or cuts, but there were no injuries.

Cumpio said she realized her daughter meant that her heart was aching because of the trauma of the typhoon, and she decided they had to leave.

Nine days after the typhoon, Cumpio’s brother took her family to Manila.

Even as they were leaving, the conditions were still horrible in their hometown of Tanauan. After more than a week, bodies were being discovered on a daily basis and placed in shallow pits with hundreds of others.

“The smell of dead, you can still smell in the plaza, in the mass grave,” she said.

Her family wasn’t in Manila long before Cumpio and her husband decided to go back. They felt like Tanauan was their place, and they needed to try and recover their home, she said.

While waiting in line for a tent from the United Nations refugee agency weeks after the storm, they learned that there were 287 people without homes, but only 80 tents. There were rumors of a raffle, but eventually a decision was made to hand out tents only to those who lived very near the coast and had no shelter at all.

The Cumpios, with just their floor, qualified for a tent.

But there was very little Cumpio and her husband could do to recoup their home without work or resources. She was contemplating going back to Manila.

I just accept what is there. You don’t have a choice. The situation decides for you.” —Nerissa Cumpio

“It’s impossible to start here. No job, no relief,” she said. “We have to go back, because we will die here.”

They bought a ticket to return to Manila. Just as giving up hope seemed to be their only option, Cumpio received a text asking if she would like a job as a midwife in the disaster zone.

Without thinking, she accepted.

“I just accept what is there,” she said. ”You don’t have a choice. The situation decides for you.”

Cumpio went to work with Mercy in Action a few hours north of her home. As it turns out, the decision proved to be one of the most fateful moments of her life.

When she showed up for work, she met Vicki Penwell for the first time. Penwell founded the organization, which helps women deliver babies in underserved areas of the Philippines.

Months after the typhoon, things were still looking bleak for Cumpio. She had a temporary job, but her own clinic was still just a pile of debris.

She couldn’t make a livelihood out of temporary work.

In March, Penwell sent Cumpio another text that would change her life.

“The day GlobalGiving told me they were giving us money, I was so excited to tell her,” Penwell said. With the flurry of donations in the months following Yolanda, including the small sums that individual UCLA students dropped into jars on Bruin Walk in December and January, GlobalGiving wrote a $15,000 check for Penwell’s birth center.

The new birth clinic was sponsored by several aid agencies, including GlobalGiving, which received money from the UCLA community in the months following the storm.

Mercy in Action donated the grant to Cumpio’s clinic so that she could rebuild her business and continue giving midwifery services to the women who lived through the typhoon.

Last month, the new clinic opened its doors for the first time.

Nerissa Cumpio points out her newly built facility to guests at the clinic’s grand opening on Sept. 16. The birth clinic provides midwifery services and preventative care for free.

Each room was painted a pastel yellow, green or purple. A tall wooden cabinet in the recovery room holds colorful baby blankets and a set of baby caps that will be given to each new mother before she leaves the center.

“During the disaster, you can see the goodness of other people, even if they have different cultures and different beliefs,” Cumpio said.

The new clinic serves any woman who comes to deliver her baby. In the spirit of paying it forward, all of Cumpio’s services are free. ■