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Typhoon-Ravaged Philippines Fishermen Get Cash to Build Boats

Image: Fisherman Charito Badong shapes the hard wood of a tree blown down by Typhoon Haiyan into a hull for his new fishing boat in Botlog Daku

Fisherman Charito Badong shapes the hard wood of a tree blown down by Typhoon Haiyan into a hull for his new fishing boat in Botlog Daku, Philippines, Dec. 16, 2013. Sunshine Lichauco de Leon / for NBC News

The sea has always been Charito Badong's lifeline.

Fishing allowed the father of seven to feed his family and earn enough money to send his children to school.But when devastating Typhoon Haiyan slammed ashore and destroyed his three fishing boats, the 57-year-old lost the bridge to his past, present and future.

Standing in front of his half-destroyed home on the tiny island of Botlog Daku, a small community of just 500 residents a half-hour boat ride from the port city of Concepcion on Panay Island, Badong had tears in his eyes.

“I was hopeless. I felt as if I had nothing and nothing left to live for,” said Badong, surrounded by horizontal coconut trees that had been felled by the storm.

“The only thing we rely on is our boat – it’s our main support and help,” said Gelito Parelio, a 59-year-old fisherman and father of nine. “Losing my boat is like losing a part of my body.”

But thanks to an innovative program which matches donors to needy fisherman, both men are now spending their days rebuilding their fishing boats so they can get back out on the water.

‘Give us a boat’

"Adopt a Fisherman" was created after Teresa Chan, a businesswoman in Manila, received a phone call from the governor of her home province. Chan was traveling abroad at the time Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 and displacing nearly 4 million people. But when the governor called she returned home immediately.

Upon seeing the devastation firsthand, Chan knew she had to help.

“I asked the fisherman what they really needed. They said, ‘We don't need shelter. Just give us a boat and we can take care of ourselves.’”

Badong explained why having a boat is more important than fixing his home. “We know we can always go to the sea for food or to earn money. We are so grateful that someone will help us stand up again.”

Chan wrote an email to her network of friends, family, business contacts, and school alumni asking them to send donations to help repair the boats.  Within a day the first donations came in and the first fisherman was “adopted.” 

“We were overwhelmed by the quick and generous response of our friends,” said Chan. “Before we knew it, friends of our friends – many of whom we don't know personally – also donated. We were so touched to see the spirit of teamwork truly alive.”

Tremendous response

The response to the program is beyond anything Chan imagined. Since launching the program a month ago, "Adopt a Fisherman" has received almost $500,000 – enough money to provide boats for 1,500 registered fisherman in this coastal community. They plan to keep fundraising until the remaining 3,000 fishermen who need boats in the area are “adopted.”

A donation of $330 ensures that a fisherman will receive the supplies needed to build a motorized 25-foot fishing boat: marine plywood, epoxy, copper nails, motor, propeller, rudder, stainless steel shafting. 

All of the money received is spent on boat-building materials, which are sourced at a discounted price and delivered to a warehouse in the nearby port city of Concepcion.  Suppliers are giving discounts to the project as their way of supporting the effort.

Donations have been sent from people as close as Manila and as far as Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.

“When we started out I thought we would only get enough for 100 boats! But our targets and program grew because of the volume of support we received,” Chan said.

Before receiving the boat materials each fisherman, with the supervision of a local carpenter or boat builder, must first build their boat’s hull – either by using the hard wood from fallen trees or using the program’s funds to buy the materials from wood suppliers. 

“The fishermen give their labor,” Chan explained.  “This gives them a sense of ownership and means there are no labor costs.” 

Once the hull is complete, the fishermen can pick up the building supplies, and continue to work with a local carpenter to create the finished product. A signed contract stipulates that the job must be done within one month.  

In an effort to promote environmentally responsible fishing, the contract also prohibits the use of dynamite fishing or catching fish under a certain size.

A book has been created showing photos and details on each boat recipient. Sponsors also have naming rights for the boats built with their funds.

“I will name my boat after whoever gave it to me,” said Parelio. “So I will never forget there was a person who helped me.”

Dr. Joy Banias, one of the 19 volunteers running the program, says the greatest challenge now is finding enough hard wood to help 3,000 more fishermen build boat hulls, and enough carpenters to ensure the boats are made within the deadline.

“The fishermen know how to work, but building a boat is a precise process,” Banias explained.  “We need experienced boat makers to supervise. In some cases there are 30 boats to be built and only two carpenters on the island – which slows things down.”

Badong, and others who have received their boat supplies, are eager to have their boats finished as soon as possible. But he said progress has been held up by a lack of building supplies.

“We are limited to what we can do with a machete. We have 55 boats to be built and only three chainsaws,” he said. “If we had more, we could build ours quickly and help others to build theirs.”

'I have hope again'

Parelio, who has been a fisherman since the age of 12, said the new boats will help restore pride and independence in a community that is used to taking care of its own needs.

“We want to build our boats as soon as we can so we can support ourselves. We are embarrassed and ashamed to be always asking for aid. It will help us regain our pride and independence,” he said.

“Now I know that I will have a boat, I have hope again.”

Learn more about the "Adopt a Fisherman" program on its Facebook page.