Last July, Toby Owens, Roberta Smith, Joe Smith and their pastor, Philip Wilson, traveled halfway around the world to an island in the Philippines. During their two-week stay, they helped build a church and saw two people baptized at its dedication ceremony. They visited small churches in the mountains, met with mission ministers and their families, visited children in an orphan home and delivered 40 boxes of textbooks to the high school.
Returning to Eureka Springs, they couldn't forget the people they met. Now, they are leading efforts at their church, First Christian, to continue their connection to the island and its residents.
"When we came back, we felt a great need to support these people," Owens said.
One way is to hold sewing bees to make dresses for children in the mountains who are in need of clothing. The dresses are simple cotton shifts with shoulder ties, called a pillowcase dress because you can make one from a pillowcase. The church women use material because it's cheaper, but haven't had to buy any yet -- they donate material as well as their time to make dresses, sizes 2 to 17, at sewing bees in the church fellowship hall.
"This is the third time we've met, but we've already sent off 63 dresses to the Philippines," Roberta Smith said as a dozen women worked at tables in the fellowship hall in December."We got another 25 ready to go, plus women have dresses they are making at home."
Joe Smith sits at a table and tunes up sewing machines. The women make their own bias strips for dress straps, and cut pattern pieces and package it with bias strips and elastic for women who want make the dresses at home. At La Castellana, the city where they built the church, Joe, who does welding, took two leftover pieces of metal and made a cross for the cinderblock church, Owens said.
Another project is selling bracelets made by four mission ministers' wives whose work supports their families. The bracelets are made from layers of folded scrap cardboard. Owens and the Smiths brought boxes of the bracelets back, bagged them up, and with the help of church members, offered three bracelets for a $6 donation. Interest was particularly good during the Ozark Festival craft fair at Pine Mountain Village, Owens said, where they received more than $500 in a day.
"We've sent them more than $4,000 since the end of July," Owens said. "Because we've been so successful, the wives got a 20 percent raise. One mother was pregnant and has diabetes, and could not afford her diabetes medicine until she got her raise."
The group is also collecting books for the mission families and textbooks for local schools. A fourth project is helping a 6-year-old girl, Shanny Rose, who is deaf. The church women arranged to have her hearing tested, and is going to have a surgeon look at her to see if surgery is a possibility, Owens said.
"We have already raised money for her to attend signing classes," Owens said. "When she starts school next June, we will provide for transportation for her and her mother to go to signing school."
The effort has spread beyond First Christian Church. Four women from Holiday Island Community Church are helping make dresses, Owens said, and are gathering books and helping sell bracelets. A Green Forest woman came and took a basket of bracelets to a meeting and sold $114 worth to the 11 attendees.
"What we've discovered is that there is a great desire for people to get involved in helping others," Owens said.
Owens said that rarely a day goes by that she doesn't get an email from somebody they met in or in La Castellana. The city, at the base of Kanloan volcano, has 60,000 residents. The trip there involved an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea, then a flight to Manila, where the four travelers spent the night. The next day, they took a small plane to Bacolod City on the island of Negros, where Philip Wilson's brother Paul and spouse Mary Wilson live.
The Wilsons drove them to La Castellana, where they stayed in a hostel that had electricity, air conditioning and rooms with private bathrooms, but no hot water, Owens said. Their meals were cooked on a two-burner hot plate or an open outdoor fire pit. The economy is agricultural. Rice, fish and fresh fruit -- coconuts, mangos and bananas -- make up the local diet, Owens said.
"They cooked a big pot of rice every morning," Owens said. "We had rice three times a day."
In the two weeks, Owens said she saw a toy only three times: a small bicycle, a ball, and a toy truck with no wheels. Walking to the church building site, they saw two girls bathing in a water spigot in front of a house. The next day, the girls were brushing their teeth in the spigot, getting ready to go to school.
"For me, it was a life-changing experience," Owens said. "I had never done mission work out of the country. They have so little, but are so filled with the spirit. We had devotions every morning, with music and singing."
The travelers each took an extra suitcase for gifts, including books and t-shirts -- Caruso's T-shirt factory in Berryville donated 60 new ones, Owens said. The church women are now collecting NIV Bibles, concordances, bible dictionaries, bible atlases and Haley's handbooks for the mission ministers. The Philippine church families also like "Chicken Soup" books, books by Billy Graham, Rick Warren and Gay Smalley, and childrens' music and CDs. The church-building project was through World Mission Builders under the direction of Paul and Mary Wilson, who work for Visions for Mission program. The Wilsons will be in the States on furlough next October and plan to take a crate of books back with them, Owens said. She has no doubt that enough books will be donated to fill it.
With every outreach effort, the bond between people in Eureka Springs and people in the Philippines grows stronger.
"We've been so very blessed," Owens said. "We say the Prayer of Jabez: 'Bless me, O Lord, and expand my territory.'"
In addition to books, the church woman accept donations of fabric and narrow elastic for dresses. They are planning to start making shirts for boys. For more information, call First Christian Church, Eureka Springs, 479-253-8015.