BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 20 November) — Following the latest natural disaster that hit the Philippines, overseas Filipinos face the same questions as our kababayans at home: What can I do to help? Where do I send help?

These questions are asked frequently, as the Philippines lies along the typhoon belt and the quake-prone Pacific Rim of Fire. Global warming and degradation of the environment is also blamed for the increase in frequency and magnitude and strength of the natural disasters that hit the archipelago.

Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK) volunteers load the day’s meal – ginagmay which is similar to menudo – in Magpet, North Cotabato on Friday, 15 November 2019, bound for Barangay Tagbac evacuation camps. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Helping the family is a normal reaction, for indeed it is foolish to help others when the family hearth has been upended. When the magnitude 6.7 quake shook Surigao in February 2017, my wife and I calmed our fears and resisted the urge to fly home to be with the family. For indeed we would just be adding to the thousands of residents rocked by frequent aftershocks and needing water, power and supply services.

It was more practical to send money for the family to use in purchasing supplies and for emergency repairs of house parts damaged in the quake. Thankfully the damages were minor and our families survived the big quake.

The recent north Cotabato quakes are a different matter: four major earthquakes in a month is simply too many. Devastation is widespread and many mountain villages remain cut off from the emergency relief services. It was heart breaking to know that evacuees already living in tent shelters in Makilala were hit again by a hailstorm, compounding their difficulties.

Both government, church and private sector disaster relief campaigns are in full swing. For example, the 1-Life Province Cotabato asks for medicines, drinking water, clothing, food, and temporary shelter materials in its donation campaign. There is an ICON-SP (Inter-Cultural Organization’s Network for Solidarity and Peace) which has held medical and relief missions in Makilala. Government agencies are attending to evacuees while army engineers build temporary shelters in the evacuation centers.

But sadly, many overseas Filipinos remain wary of official disaster relief operations. They fear that their money donations will end up in corrupt politician pockets or the goods they send will end up rotting and unused in government warehouses and stockpiles. They also fear that bureaucracy in government and the church social services programs will only delay their donations.

Photojournalist Alex Baluyut, founder of Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, in Magpet, North Cotabato on Friday, 15 November 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

We chose to help this time the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen or ARMK. Created in November 2013 after the devastating Typhoon Yolanda in Leyte, ARMK is a non-profit volunteers organization whose creed is “to feed the hungry through community kitchens.” It creates local chapters which can quickly react to disasters nearby.

“We can and will cook food for the hungry,” it declares in its Facebook page.

ARMK holds feeding missions in underserviced disaster areas, creating hot and fresh meals from raw materials that are source locally. Volunteer cooks and kitchen assistants prepare the meals in makeshift community kitchens.

We chose ARMK because they offer a practical service—which is hot and fresh meals – to disaster victims. Eating fresh meals is vital to survivors and are more nutritious than the usual relief packs containing sardines, rice and instant noodles. We believe community kitchens also involve the community and boost the dignity of these self-sufficient indigenous peoples and farming communities in Magpet, north Cotabato, which were able to feed themselves before the quake devastated their farms.

Evacuees from Barangay Tagbac in Magpet, North Cotabato receive free hot meal from Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK), a volunteer community kitchen that is cooking up hot meals for North Cotabato earthquake victims, on Friday, 15 November 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

I also have a personal bias for cooking—my eldest child Pia is a chef by profession and I know the skill, care and discipline that goes into cooking and the satisfaction that comes from serving a good meal. So whether cooking for a few restaurant tables or feeding hundreds in makeshift evacuation centers makes no difference – making good meals and feeding the hungry is the Christian thing to do.

Lastly, we felt that because ARMK is small and not bureaucratic, it can identify and quickly reach those hard-to-reach areas that are often ignored or bypassed by big official relief operations.

Aside from Leyte, ARMK also previously served 4 evacuation centers in Iligan city during the Marawi siege crisis; in Surigao del sur and in many more disaster areas throughout the country.

ARMK recruits volunteers from the affected communities or the local schools and locally sources its cooking ingredients and supplies (like rice, cooking oil, sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, flour; and vegetables and dried noodles). Its hot meals include rice; pancit dishes like canton; meat dishes like pork humba and menudo; and veggie meals like munggo, pinakbet and chopsuey; and even champorado and arroz caldo, all comfort food for Filipinos.

Its Facebook page documents its latest missions, and has even documented the “miracles” that come to its feeding program. Like this post on November 11: “We needed another 20 kilos of sitaw for our pakbet for tomorrow’s menu but the price is too high at the regular market, but lo and behold a farmer on a motorcycle arrives with a fresh harvest of sitaw.. And casually announces if we need sitaw? … Being with ARMK is like living inside a miracle….. Amazing! Angels all around.”

So while government, the church and private groups bring in the big-impact relief services much needed by our affected kababayans, we hope that small-budget, community-based initiatives will also proliferate. In every disaster relief and aid drive, every helping hand is welcome. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)