A Hero in Our Midst: GoAbroad Profile with Elsa Thomasma

Volunteering, giving of our time freely, can easily sit on the back burner – the best of intentions getting left behind. They are brought to the forefront again when either inspiration or devastation reminds us.

This powerful post by GoAbroad Founder Troy Peden has combined the strength of both to show us why we should volunteer and just how much of a difference it can make. Elsa Thomasma has been volunteering in the Philippines off and on for years and her story is enough to take the idea of volunteering abroad from a distant dream to an upcoming plan.



Elsa Thomasma in Tacloban City
Elsa Thomasma in Tacloban City, Philippines


Our culture is constantly looking for heroes. Real life heroes give us hope in humanity and someone to root for when the news is full of all the bad guys and their exploits.

Perhaps we can picture ourselves as the hero or imagine that we might have a higher calling. The heroes are often so far removed from our reality that they seem inherently special and ordained by a higher being. Our historic heroes seem to spew quotes destined for history books and deliver acts bordering on the impossible.

Last November in the Philippines the universe conspired to place our office in the middle of the worlds’ worst storm. I found a small blessing in that storm. I found something to watch, an idea to cling to and someone to renew my hope for the human race. In the middle of the tragic typhoon and its aftermath of unending sorrow and death I found a small light, a hero.


Cangumbang Village in the Phillipines
Cangumbang Village in the Phillipines. Photo courtesy of Annie Bierbower

The Girl Next Door

Unlike the heroes of yore this hero is just a regular girl. She is barely out of college, she spent her youth in a small town in Michigan and lived an ordinary life. Her university studies in Psychology at Grand Valley State University didn’t lead any faculty to declare a future nobel laureate was in their ranks. She is young, she is not always gentle or charismatic, she is a midwesterner. She is not trained in all the trendy terminology of international volunteering like cultural sustainability or models for carbon offsetting. She is the girl who sat next to you in high school, sometimes clever, sometimes fun, she drinks but isn’t a drinker, she exercises but isn’t a yogi. She eats gluten free but isn’t a vegan. She is beautiful but not the cheerleader, and smart but not on the Math team.

I first met Elsa before the storm. Someone asked me if I had heard about this volunteer from Michigan. International volunteers were in Tacloban City doing amazing things all the time, in fact there were hundreds every year, year after year. Occasionally I would meet some out at a bar-b-q stand or working at a local project.

Our sister organization Volunteer for the Visayans has been placing well intentioned volunteers primarily in social welfare and development projects here in Leyte for a decade plus. So the fact that someone was bringing Elsa’s exploits to my attention meant she was doing something extraordinary.

“She volunteers for a few months until she is out of money, goes back to Michigan works, fundraises and comes back, again and again.” “What is she fundraising for?” I asked. “She is building a typhoon shelter at Cangumbang!” Cangumbang is a sleepy rice village at sea level a few kilometers from the sea. It sits in a broad valley and is subject to regular devastating floods. The 80 or so families live primarily in native material nipa huts. Each year there are floods and each year there are fatalities. For whatever casual and fateful reason Elsa had connected with this village. She loved them and they loved her. One woman had named her twins after Elsa and her sister Sarah in homage of the support they had provided. I was partly inspired and partly curious.


A Mission of Love and Compassion

As a supporter of international volunteering and founder of VolunteerAbroad.com and as a lifelong student of Psychology I wanted to know what she was doing and what was driving her. She came to meet me at the Asia office of GoAbroad. She was a very tall and confident American which immediately made me imagine what an imposing figure she must be in the village. She was charming and polite and explained her goals in the simplest of terms.

She did not have some grand mission to change the world, she did not even have an elaborate strategy to create sustainable changes in the village. She had something so much more simple and so much more powerful: she was driven by simple love and compassion.Volunteer in a Community Center in the Philippines

Over the years I have met many volunteers who share with me their incredible plans for changing these remote corners of the world and ending all the injustices. Most eventually return home and their attention returns to other priorities. The best you can hope for with a volunteer is that their presence has a positive impact and that they return home an advocate for the project and the community. Elsa is special but not because she has an incredible plan she is special because she has an incredible drive.


Cangumbang Community Center & Typhoon Shelter

She made a decision to build a typhoon shelter in Cangumbang. She understood why it was needed and she loved these people. There were other people that also needed help but these people had become her family. I visited her project and embarrassingly I admit my first thought was that it was over the top, too big, too tall, too much. I suppose I think that way because I don’t have the same drive she has, maybe that is the key difference between us.

She showed me the structure in its final stages of construction not proudly displaying her crowning achievement but rather in her midwestern cynicism she told me how she made them dig the support pillars deeper and demand that the shelter was higher than any recorded flood. She explained how she fought with politicians to secure cement mixers and how many days were spent battling bureaucracy to secure land titles and building permits.

That was in October. I hired her to work at our GoAbroad office, I wanted to give her some work locally so she could stay and finish her project rather than have to go back to Michigan again. She exceeded all expectations and works as hard as she volunteers. November 8th came and the worst storm to make landfall in known human history came crashing down on us. During the storm Elsa brought fleeing neighbors into her own cement block apartment and began feeding them and clothing them, handing over all her remaining worldly possessions.


Aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan


The Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

In the days following the storm, we became housemates, we did what we could providing food and medicine for locals, locating missing sponsored children and staff members and helping refugees flee the area. Through it all she would not leave. One by one our colleagues headed to neighboring islands where there was food, shelter, water, and laws. Elsa and I stayed with a handful of others. I would occasionally suggest that she needed to go away for a bit. Without internet, radio, and television our world was guided by daily rumors of disease outbreak and lawless gangs. She refused to leave. Sometimes she would get tearful and say she could not leave her people in the village. Her mother and sister both reached out to me and I assured her mother that I would try and persuade her to go. I did. ‘Try’ that is. But when Elsa told me that she could not go and she explained why, I was convinced I understood what she was doing and why and there was no way I would oblige her to go even at the risk of her mother’s wrath.

Maybe Elsa might have built her stilted ark and no flood had come and I would have never understood how close I was to someone so special. Fate had a different story and the Super Typhoon Yolanda arrived as the shelter was completed. In fact, the storm arrived three days before Elsa had scheduled a typhoon training day. The timing was beyond providence; every single member of that community survived and they all did it clinging to one another in Elsa’s Ark.

Elsa is a hero because she acted on the most basic feelings we all have: she loves to hold the babies, and teach preschool skills to the toddlers, she feeds the hungry, and provides health care for the expectant mothers. That is why she goes there. I knew that village could use a typhoon shelter. I knew it ten years ago. Elsa’s obsession to do what she knew needed to be done is what makes her special. She did what we talked about doing for years, with a singular focus that no one else had. Her simple devotion to her mission has inspired me. Her stubbornness and dedication saved lives. Her love saved a village.



Continued support for the area effected by Typhoon Haiyan is of utmost importance to GoAbroad.com and the GoAbroad Foundation, as we have handfuls of friends, colleagues, and communities close to our hearts who were affected by this tragic event. Please visit the GoAbroad Foundation website if you would like to donate to Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) Recovery Efforts.

Interested in volunteering in the Philippines for yourself? Be sure to explore all the ways you can make a difference abroad.

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