Sunday 21 December 2014

Ship to shore: Why I was driven to help the victims of killer cyclone

Mother of two Audrey Hallahan dreamed up an outrageous plan to send containers of life-saving supplies to the storm-ravaged Philippines. Last week her ambition became a reality when the boat finally came in. Susan Gately reports

Family values: Audrey Hallahan with Eimear and Oisín. Photo: John Power
The long voyage: Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goods
Help: Leyte in the Philippines after November’s cyclone
Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goodies
A man cuts the seal of a container after it arrives in the Philippines

The TV images were cataclysmic. What was believed to be the most powerful cyclone to ever make landfall, had hit the Philippines on Friday, November 8, and the devastation in Tacloban City in Eastern Samar was total. Aerial shots showed an apocalyptic landscape. Millions homeless, lives shattered, thousands dead.

At home in her bungalow, a stone's throw from Clonea beach on Ireland's south coast, Audrey Hallahan viewed the images with dismay. "I was horrified but I felt helpless."

Audrey likes to walk the beach with her children, Oisín (11) and Eimear (4). That weekend was a dreary mix of drizzle and weak sunshine. As Eimear searched for "treasure" washed up on the shore, Audrey could only imagine what it felt like to be terrorised by the elements. Commentators were saying millions had been affected by Haiyan, half of them children. Her eyes fell on Oisín and Eimear.

On Tuesday, she was back in work in the family pharmacy, Hallahans, in Dungarvan. The talk was all about the typhoon. "It'd be great to do a concert," suggested a customer. As she left, Audrey had an idea. "What about a container?" She Googled "Cost of container to the Philippines". The answer was €34,000. "Mother of God!"

But the idea had taken root. Christmas was just around the corner. Irish people were finding the going tough. Instead of asking them for money, why not ask for goods – things they had lying around that were no use to them, but could prove vital to the people of the Philippines.

Her mother, Clare, had links to a group called Focolare which helped the poor of the Philippines. A phone call later, Audrey had a contact in Cebu. First thing next day she wrote to Delia Dalisay, director of Bukas Palad Foundation. "What we have seen here in Ireland on TV on the typhoon has been so disturbing and heart-breaking that I am compelled into action and need your help," she wrote on November 14. "I, along with any other volunteers, want to organise to send a container of goods."

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A man cuts the seal of a container after it arrives in the Philippines

Delia's response was immediate. "Thank you. The support of the whole world is our strength and courage to stand up and rebuild from the rubble." The foundation would happily take delivery of the container she said, listing the top 10 items they needed: toiletries, non-perishable food, bed linen, summer clothes, toys, door locks and room handles.

Through pharmaceutical contacts, Audrey got in touch with a logistics company, Ceva Logistics, which, despite never having done anything like this, said it would ship the container for under €2,000.

Before the weekend, Audrey and her co-worker at the pharmacy, Helen O'Donovan, wrote letters to schools, local community associations, the County Council, local media. "We thought one or two schools might get back to us. Instead everyone took it up," Helen recalls.

Monday morning, November 18, Audrey took to the airwaves on morning radio WLRFM. (Waterford Local Radio). Her impassioned mail seeking help hit its mark and the Déise Philippine Appeal, complete with Facebook page, was born.

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Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goodies

By December 15 schools were involved. Every class volunteered to collect an item on the 'wanted list'. Ten community groups were collecting and a number of pharmaceutical supply companies were donating materials. "I was lucky I worked for my family because otherwise I would have been fired," says Audrey laughing.

By now the loaned storage facility was too small. The Christmas lights went up around Dungarvan and their storage facility was empty. With slight trepidation Town Clerk Joe O' Flaherty offered the place to Audrey "But you have to be out by January 6."

But early December a huge obstacle appeared when Audrey learned it was illegal to send used clothes to the Philippines. In emails to Filipino government departments, she begged for an exemption. "How can I turn around to the thousands of people here in Ireland who have emptied their hearts and homes and tell them that we were not allowed to send their perfectly good clothes to people who need them?"

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