At the Grassroots with Dr. Margie Holmes

Dr. Margarita Holmes (fourth from right) with Typhoon Haiyan survivors during a recent two day psychosocial activity (Photo courtesy of WeDpro)

Dr. Margarita Holmes (fourth from right) with Typhoon Haiyan survivors during a recent two day psychosocial activity (Photo courtesy of WeDpro)

Margie was my blockmate in the University of the Philippines. My blockmates and I would know if she was already in the building because of her laughter, which reverberated in the corridor of the then Palma Hall. That’s why the name “Margarita Go Singco” has stuck in my memory. She laughs so loudly.

Then I lost track of her. I became an activist and went underground during the martial law years. After I was released from prison in 1977 and started to breathe some normalcy into my life, I attended a big event where Margie, now “Dr. Holmes” was one of the speakers. The invitation came from the Psychological Association in the Philippines. Imprisonment and all that comes with it, plus raising a family had wrought havoc on my mental well-being. I approached Dr. Holmes and introduced myself, admittedly with trepidation because it had been such a long time. I was not even sure she’d recognize me. She hugged me, and in a few minutes, an instant reconnection.

I needed a therapist badly, I told her, but someone I could trust. See me, she said, and she gave me her contact information. I don’t have money to pay you, I said. I am in-between jobs, I explained. Her response I remember with fondness: “No. don’t pay me, this is my contribution to the women’s movement and the anti-Marcos movement.”

When I announced to my organization’s staff and beneficiary-participants that I was planning to invite Dr. Margarita Holmes as our resource person for the psychosocial sessions as part of a project I was coordinating, one staff member had a big smile on her face. Oh, she said, Dr. Holmes! I used to watch her in Teysi ng Tahanan! How exciting!

Dr. Holmes created the first-ever Philippine-based show to deal with psychological issues, entitled “No Nonsense with Dr. Holmes.” She also hosted a segment, “Magtanong Kay Dra. Holmes (Ask Dr. Holmes)” in the now defunct daytime talk-show “Teysi ng Tahanan,” hosted by veteran comedienne and impersonator Tessie Tomas.

Dr. Holmes, or Dra. Marge, to many of our survivors post-Haiyan in Palo, Leyte, was anxious and a bit nervous when we decided to push through with the two-day activity. This came as a surprise to me because of the hundreds and maybe thousands of talks, lectures and workshops she had been in. She was not used to this kind of audience, I remember her telling me. It’s really grassroots! The initial anxiety disappeared, and the session proceeded Dr. Holmes-style – effervescent, infectious.

Poster designed by Rolando F. Santos announcing the event.

Poster designed by Rolando F. Santos announcing the event.

Day 1 rained, and the participants came in trickles. Rain, I told her, still traumatized people here. Yolanda was still high on their minds. Sex and sexuality was an opening discussion, informal in style and engaging. Whenever any word related to sex and sexuality was mentioned, the participants, mostly women within the age range of late 20s to 60s, would giggle, nervously laugh, cover their reddening faces or turn to their seatmates. Palo is a highly religious and conservative place, steeped in traditional notions about gender relations and marriage as a sacred vow. A previous research by my organization showed the high level of various forms of violence against women or VAW, something I briefed Marge about. There was a smattering of males, mostly young and gay, who were part of the discussions. They would smile, laugh and be nervous – just like the women.

I remember Marge asking the participants if her talk was okay by them, because she said, she could tone it down. There was an instantaneous response from the group, “No, it’s okay because we rarely have opportunities like this!” Indeed, it was a rare occasion when women and men could openly discuss these things, with the full animated lead by Marge. Even our landlord -- we rent an office space within a relatively big compound -- quietly sneaked in and sat in the last row of chairs, despite the announcement that the activity was only for the participants of the Food*Art*Healing of the project. I didn’t have the heart to send her out – she, too, just like everyone, was a survivor and a widow to boot. The local media were barred.

The participants opened up about their feelings on their losses, as widows and single mothers, the trauma to their daily lives, the lack of sustained support from government, the various forms of violence against them as women, marital woes including abandonment by their spouses. Many held back tears and, in typical Pinoy fashion, shared their stories of personal pain and the hurt in their hearts while alternating between sobs and laughter.

Day 2 was much more relaxed, and if the number of participants was to be a gauge, this was turning out to be a smashing success. One young mother, whose husband had been in prison for a few years now, asked permission to leave for a while, brought her two young children to school, came back to listen to Dr. Marge, went back to school to fetch her children, and came back again. She didn’t want to miss the activity.

There were emotional discussions on the concept of resilience where the participants related the ways in which they coped with the tragedy. Resilience, for the participants, meant “being strong” and able to stand up and begin again. One woman said that she realized that she needed to look after herself as well to be strong in life (“Alagaan natin ang ating sarili para maging matatag tayo sa ating buhay“). Processing their feelings with Dr. Holmes was something that everyone appreciated. One said, “Ang tinukoy ni Dra.Holmes ay feel na feel ko” (I truly feel what Dr. Holmes referred to), which was the ability to be able to feel pain and at the same time to be strong.

I remember Marge asking the participants if her talk was okay by them, because she said, she could tone it down.

Marge’s last session was focused on one-on-one counselling. Everyone wanted a private moment with her, but time was a challenge, so I asked for an agreement that the neediest would have the counselling. It was a good show of solidarity.

All of them had not been properly counselled after Yolanda struck down their homes, hurt them and their often-extended households. or even worst, took the lives of spouses, mothers, fathers, children, loved ones, friends, neighbors. One of our staff members lost her baby as she tried to swim in the rampaging waters. She did not talk much about it. “Tapos na yun…” (That’s over…). She sat in the sessions quietly, feverishly taking down notes.

Only four selected participants had their private moments with Dr. Holmes. One was a male staffer from our Palo office. He was on the verge of a big breakdown. A statement from one of the participants summed up the entire experience: “Sa totoo lang para sa akin, sana magkaroon uli ng psychological session, [gusto ko] na mawala na talaga ang takot na baka mangyari ulit ang pangamba na dala ng bagyong Yolanda” (Honestly, another psychological session is needed because I want to dispel the fear that could be brought on again by another Yolanda.)

Sana ay magkaroon ng mahabang panahon para sa psychological healing session at sana ay magkaroon ako ng pagkakataon na [masabi ] ko iyong masamang karanasan ko na hindi pa nawala sa puso at isipan (I hope there would be longer time for the Psychological Healing Session and I have the opportunity to tell [her] my bad experience that would not go away in my heart and mind), said another participant.

That the survivors of Haiyan need more support is an understatement. Beyond addressing their material poverty, their psychological and emotional ability to fully stand up for themselves their families is also important. Understanding the nuances and facets of resilience as a tool for healing and self-empowerment is the very first small but necessary step.

The survivors are now looking forward to the livelihood support they will further receive from WeDpro and the Food Festival where they think that they can fully show the world they are strong women and men who can put food on the table, whole again, with dignity.

WeDpro is a registered non-governmental non-profit organization ( in the Philippines that works in the area of human rights by defending the rights of women, children, youth and their communities through gender responsive development programs. Founded in 1989, WeDpro build partnerships with government institutions, civil society organizations and the private sector. It is involved in Haiyan areas after it devastated the country in November 2013. It works with the most vulnerable populations of women, youth, seniors and persons with disabilities in Tacloban City, the municipalities of Palo in the Province of Leyte and Culasi, Province of Antique.

The project Dr. Margarita Holmes has been involved with “Psychological Support for the Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Palo, Leyte,” which has been implemented since January 2015 and supported by the New York-based American Jewish World Service (AJWS). The project helps in the long-term rehabilitation and recovery of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, especially women and children, in Palo, Leyte, through psychological support and therapy using cultural activities. The project builds on programs that had been implemented in the Haiyan areas. WeDpro chose to implement the project using what was billed as “Food*Art*Healing workshops to replace lost sources of income through the production and sale of traditional local delicacies.

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Aida F. Santos

Aida F. Santos

Aida F. Santos writes poems and essays when not busy with her work with communities devastated by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan.

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