by Dinah Ballast, co-founder of Shepherd’s Home for Servant Leadership, Philippines
When I was younger, no one really took the time to help me understand my own dreams or gifts. This, along with childhood poverty, brought together a real passion in me to create a special place where the poor and marginalized could be valued and listened to, and where their gifts could be evoked. I always connected such a place with a warm and welcoming “coffee shop” atmosphere.
I thank God that I came to live at the Shepherd’s Home of Servant Leadership which is in a rural neighborhood outside of Batangas City, Philippines. This community helped me to think more about my own purpose and dreams, and it also gave me a place to live them out.
About two years ago, I was able to voice my call to start something I wanted to name the “Island of Sanity” as a place of loving connection for our neighborhood. Others joined me from our community and we started dreaming about how to create such a place. We soon decided to fix up an old farm structure as a small gathering place to offer drinks and baked goods. Women from our neighborhood started joining us for various discussions, cooking classes and Zumba sessions. As we met more and more of our neighbors, the simple need for jobs became clear, and the idea of starting a small bakery emerged. One of our residents at Shepherd’s Home, a former inmate, used to be a baker and was ready to help us. Soon we were selling breakfast rolls called Pan de Sal in the morning and doughnuts for afternoon snacks. We involved our neighbors as sellers in the neighborhood, creating many part-time jobs. This also provided the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with those sellers, as we listened to their stories and connected with their families.
One of the sellers is a 51-year-old woman named Xenia. Xenia lived her life stuck at home very lonely and without friends. She was so happy when we invited her to sell rolls. She transformed from being very shy and afraid to a woman who can initiate conversations and greet people passing by.
As we met more of our neighbors, we saw even more need for a safe place where people could share and think about their lives. So, we started dreaming about a second building to nurture loving connection. Thanks to a matching grant from Vista Hermosa Foundation and support from many others, we built the “Island of Sanity Community Center,” employing our neighbors as the construction workers. Even as it was being constructed, the center fulfilled its mission to evoke the gifts and creativity of our neighbors. Two of the men gained enough confidence that they are now leading other construction projects.
On February 20, 2021 we held the “grand opening” of the Island of Sanity Community Center for our neighborhood. Over 100 neighbors came for the event. We shared about our mission – to be a place of loving connection that helps to evoke people’s gifts and creativity. After the meal, neighbors shared their own stories with one another, which was a new experiences for many of them.
The center is now open daily for people to come, relax, share stories and order drinks. We provide Internet to school children for free if they need it to do their assignments. We continue to hold Zumba for women, and the center has become a place for women to share their struggles, knowing that we are ready to listen. We are starting to see new relationships and connections being developed. It’s such a joy to see families and friends spending time together. It is our hope that unused gifts and talents will continue to emerge, and that jobs will be created as we embrace the resources in this neighborhood.