In every card, a story of hope: The Paper Project Inc.

We run a social business called The Paper Project Inc

We employ women survivors of abuse, victims of oppression or women escaping flesh trades like prostitution or trafficking. These women are our precious card makers. We make handmade greeting cards.

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Our cards have more soul and story than that musical e-card you sent out for the holidays. They are likely more special than the last card you saw your neighborhood bookstore. Our cards make it to thousands of stores across the United States through our partners at Good Paper. Recently our work has also made it to Australia and Germany too. But that isn’t the special part.

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People have often commented that my job must be sad or depressing – because of the history of abuse or oppression in my worker’s lives. If you think my job is gloomy too, you are focusing on the wrong side of the story. In fact, my job is the exact opposite of sad and depressing. 

At The Paper Project Inc., we focus on the hope of a life renewed. And we start with a simple craft. This craft provides a stable livelihood and a community in which to grow. 

A full life can still be led by those who have been broken.

I love to share the story of our card maker Esther*:

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Esther used to wander the streets of Metro Manila. She had been abused in the past, had no contact with her parents, and for a long time didn’t even have a copy of her birth certificate. With scarce opportunities for livelihood, having barely started high school, Esther now turned to vices for survival. One of our partner organizations referred Esther to us after seeing her waste her days away, hanging out at street known for gamblers, pick-pockets, pimps and prostitute pick-ups.

We welcomed Esther into our workshop where she learned how to cut and assemble cards out of handmade abaca paper. The training process is actually not as easy as it sounds. The individual parts of the card design can be very small or intricate. A card maker must learn the precise art of cutting all sorts of shapes that were sometimes easily the size of your tiniest toenail. Edges have to be smooth. Assembly has to be accurate. We pride ourselves in high quality craftsmanship. You’ll see it across all the products we create.

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You never know how each new trainee will take to the work. Not long after her start with us, Esther was overheard on the street by her social worker, speaking confidently and excitedly about her new job. She boasted to friends, but in the most earnest way possible, about her work in a nearby city’s business district. She was hopeful and full of excitement.

She was talking to her friends on the same street where other women continue to trade their bodies for their next meal.

In her new community at The Paper Project, Esther bloomed. In less than eight weeks, she was given the privilege to train other women in cardmaking. She was even earned the responsibility to manage the quality control of our completed cards. Today she continues to thrive in our card making workshop.

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Just having a basic uniform transformed the way Esther carried herself. Having a place she needed to be at, where attendance was taken and where she had assignments to complete – this transformed her sense of daily purpose. A pay check at the end of two weeks and women to fellowship with – these transformed her lifestyle and self-worth.

In every card, a story of hope. And hope grows.

Maybe one day you will also hold in your hand a card lovingly made by one of our beautiful women. 

Like The Paper Project on Facebook or follow us on Instagram

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*Pseudonym.

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Haiyan/Yolanda 003: Hope From the Storm-Tackled Kalachuchi Tree

Today, the trees are forever blowing in one direction near the shore of Capiz. Ever since the super typhoon hit in November, all their branches sling away from the sea. Like a cartoon character’s long hair when someone yells in their face, or when it’s been electrocuted. But the trees aren’t cartoons, and Yolanda wasn’t playing around when she howled at the Philippines.

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Sustained winds were reported at at 195 mph, with gusts reaching even 235. Internationally called Haiyan, the storm was locally known as Yolanda. In Roxas City, Capiz – glass shattered, signage torn off buildings, roofs whipped clear off their structures. Yolanda left a mess.

In June last year I climbed a kalachuchi tree in our friend’s front yard in Roxas City. The kids, Carrie and Iggy, showed me the tree, and did tricks as I watched from a branch. It was a beautiful and strong tree.20140128-133054.jpg

After Yolanda, this same kalachuchi tree now tilts, bowing away from shore, toward the mountain. It’s roots held on in the howling wind that brought down shanties, nipa huts, electric posts and uprooted many other old trees. Instead of helping the kalachuchi tree upright as they thought they might, our friends decided to let it grow as it was, now leaning at an angle.

Two days later, in the storm’s wake, new green sprouted on the kalachuchi tree! The comfort of new life to come. This tree became the inspiration for the art we made with the children of  Capiz.

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The secondary inspiration was the Buhay Makulay Children’s Fair we held in November 2013, at a girls’ shelter in Marillac Hills. One of the highlights was a mural collage of butterflies made out of recycled magazine paper. I prepared a painting of tree – just trunk and branches. The rest was up to our special guests of the day, the girls of the shelter. We taught them how to make these butterflies, and in the process, to consider the things they are thankful for. Each completed butterfly would represent something for which they give thanks – family, safety, a roof over their heads. As the morning went on, each girl went up to the tree and added their butterfly.

The result was beyond what I had imagined. A breathtaking tree of thanksgiving, from girls recovering from abuse, abandonment or homelessness.

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So last week, as we quickly planned the Children’s Fair for Capiz, we thought it would be great to bring a similar activity to the kids who experienced the storm. At that time, we hadn’t yet heard about kalachuchi tree story, and had no idea how it would later shape our afternoon with the children.

On Friday morning, the day of our fair, I laid out the brown paper on the floor and began to paint a tree. I held down the paper in the strong wind, with jars, magazines and chairs. In my line of sight, the storm-pitched kalachuchi tree.

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When we put it up on location, it was much larger than I had realized! We were on the third floor and because windows had not yet been replaced from the storm, steady strong winds blew through the space. We were worried the brown paper would tear.

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Then came 130 children! All from poor communities surrounding the school we were in. As we started the fair – an afternoon of singing, games and fun crafts, I had a chance to talk to the children. I told them about all the fun we were about to have, but more importantly of the tree that on the far end of the room.

What was missing? I asked them. “Leaves!!” they told me. “Fruit!!” they exclaimed.

We would have a chance to fill in the missing pieces! They’ll trace their own hands, decorate their handprint and cut it out. Their hands will be the leaves of the tree.

They’ll fold butterflies out of recycled magazine paper and tie them together with pipe cleaners. Their butterflies will be the fruit of the tree.

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I had the joy of manning the mural station, where kids came up with their finished leaf-hand or butterfly-fruit, ready to add to the tree. They all came shyly forward, craft in hand. Some were too shy to paint on the glue themselves and even more embarrassed to glue it on the collage on their own. After putting their work up, I would give them high fives which would stir up their smiles. Others had scuttled away before I could turn around to face them from the collage!

At the end of the day, we had a tree full of life and hope!

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Before dinner, we gathered them and told the story of the tree’s inspiration.

Much of their world is now changed because of the storm. These kids may not have lost family, but they have lost food supply, a parent’s livelihood, a room, a roof, their whole home, or electrical power. We drew their attention to our own tree in the room.

Nothing more was missing! Their own hands and fruit have filled in the space.

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Look at our tree! It may be leaning over, still bearing the weight of a historically catastrophic storm, but despite that, their is hope blooming.

Just like the kalachuchi tree who shared new green in just two days, new fruit can be born of life that has been tackled down.

Today, after the storm, perhaps we can see the tilt as beautiful and in time even find that the tree, and we, have grown stronger.

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Love and special thanks to the Conlu family, the Grand Gazebo in Baybay beach, Our Mother of Mercy Learning School Inc., and the Sister Servants of the Poor in Lawaan Capiz.

Santa, September and Two Whole Months of Manila

So apparently Santa Claus is coming to town. No, actually, Santa Claus IS HERE. Already. Like clockwork, on the first of this month, the many malls of my country began to play Christmas music, preaching to me of Santa Claus’ impending arrival.

I wonder how Santa’s sled works here. Where does he land and does he have less fun here because we don’t have any chimneys? Where does he park when he visits the slums? Does he even visit the slums? Does he lose weight in the sauna-like heat of our tropical weather? Does he shave his beard and change his suit to better survive the weather?

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Maybe he arrives in September because it takes him that long to maneuver through all the crazy Filipino traffic, cross all the many bodies of water that weave around our 7,107 islands, and deliver presents to all one hundred and three million, seven hundred and seventy five thousand and two of us (Philippine population as of July 2012, according to the CIA World Factbook: 103,775,002). Granted of course that all one hundred and three million, seven hundred and seventy five thousand and two of us evaded his naughty list for the year.

The Philippines’ Christmas season is just about in full swing, beginning September 1st. Never ever delayed! Once the “-ber” months hit (SeptemBER, OctoBER, NovemBER), every Filipino’s heart begins to whisper with Christmas carols, louder and louder until December finally comes around and the festivities land inescapable. Already, beautiful Christmas lanterns for sale, line many street corners. Hence, my crazy ramblings about Santa Claus.

Even our Philippine National Police eventually join the festivities very publicly!

I’ve definitely missed the early coming of Christmas, being away for school all these years. While the rest of the world is preoccupied with celebrating fall, the changing colors of the leaves, Halloween, Dia de los Santos, Thanksgiving and other holidays before Christmas day, the Philippines jumps ahead and declares Christmas for five months of the year, spreading into the beginning of the new year.

I’d always have to work so hard to pump up my Christmas cheer before heading home for the holidays. I’d blast Christmas music in my dorm room, watch movies with plots set around Christmas, and last year even insisted on decorating our suite with sparkly, shiny Christmas decorations from the dollar store. I bought a tiny wreath too, decorated it with funky, glittery pipe cleaners and the flowers that I put in my hair.

But here I am for the first time in six years, begin to warm up to Christmas in September. Today marks two months since I moved back to the Philippines. Friends have asked me how its been going, and I’m undoubtedly still in the process of completely moving my mind and my heart to where my body is. It’s odd to think it’s only been two months, for so much has happened. So many doors have already been opened without delay, right where I am.

Thankfully, just as I had hoped, there is not a lack for things to do. Rather, the challenge is to make time for everything I want to be involved in. (Story of my liiiiife…) And unlike my college routine, the dance studio is not a five-minute walk from my bedroom, and my personal painting/drawing studio space isn’t yet frequented by friends and fellow artists for friendly visits, critiques or snack time. Last week in particular, was a week I felt homesick for the company of the friends that I have recently become incredibly distanced from. I began to miss my Wheaties more than any other time yet!

However, just as there are moments of longing and reminiscing, so are there moments of encouragement and affirmation. Incidentally, this week of missing old friends, was one of writing to AND receiving letters from friends, reconnecting with friends from long before college and other little joys.

The bottom line is that I am right where I am supposed to be. This story of my homecoming is rich with opportunity, discovery, and new and renewed personal connections. I am also enjoying easy access to Filipino mangoes. I’m enjoying the full cream milk. I’m getting used to falling asleep to frogs grunting low and deep, after the heavy rains have fallen. I’m enjoying the bananas, yellow on the outside AND inside too, incredibly sweet like candy. I am enjoying the company of family, very very much. And I am enjoying being home. Come visit? 🙂

Some images in this post are not my own
(all the Santa related ones) and were taken from the following websites:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-blog/2010/11/28/
http://mediagallery.usatoday.com/Santa+Claus
http://zamoracartoons.blogspot.com/2010_12_01_archive.html
http://www.bestphotosite.net/santa-claus