Crushed graham crackers, powdered milk, and condensed milk.
These simple ingredients make up 21-year-old Rejean Ligue’s means of getting by. Rolling the mixture into balls the size of marbles, she then coats the so-called “munchkins” in powdered milk. The result is a chewy treat that balances the sweetness of the condensed milk and the texture of the crushed graham. Everyone in the transient house where she’s staying while in Manila gets one for free.
Back in her hometown of Loon, Bohol, she would make at least 150 pieces and freeze them overnight. Before attending class, she would sell the treats for Php1.00 a piece. Minus Php80 for the ingredients, she would take home Php70 a day.
But away from home, even the simple act of mixing the ingredients strains her frail body. On her back, the massive bulge of a spinal column in disarray looms like a hunchback. Instead of straight down, the column twists across her back in the shape of an S, a deformity several years in the making.
“I can’t lift heavy things. My time doing the laundry is also limited. I can’t even climb to higher places. One time, I was walking uphill in our place when I grew tired after just a few yards,” narrates Rejean.
Through Tzu Chi volunteers in Bohol, Rejean and her older sister Russel Jane will be Taiwan-bound on August 20. Making her posture right again now falls at the hands of the doctors and volunteers of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital.
Happiness and anxiety swirl within the sisters as they await the surgery.
“I feel really happy. I know this is just the beginning, but from what I’ve heard, there’s a chance that my situation will return to normal. I’m really grateful,” Rejean says, sobbing.
“I was excited but nervous because of the operation. I was told that the surgery would have one of two outcomes: either it succeeds and she lives or it fails. I pray to the Lord for a favorable outcome. I have complete trust [in the doctors] that she can be saved,” Russel Jane adds.
Aside from their older brother, the sisters only have each other to lean on. Their parents went their separate ways when Rejean was still six months old. Distant relatives were forced to take the siblings in, with Rejean living with her mother’s parents in Bohol while Russel Jane with her father’s parents in Lanao Del Norte.
For years, the sisters grew up separately. Rejean earned her keep in her grandparents’ care by selling her sweet treats while attending school.
One ordinary day in Grade 1, she hit the wall hard during playtime and sprained her arm. It was only a small bump at the time, nothing a bit of hilot can’t remedy, although fevers and shortness of breath grew more frequent. Three years later, the small bulge began to stick out like a sore thumb.
It continued to grow into her high school years, even as her family moved to Compostela Valley. She was reunited with the rest of her fragmented family, each leading a new life of their own, who learned about her condition.
Along came the magnitude-7.2 earthquake of 2013, which killed over 200 people and destroyed historical sites. Having just returned to Bohol, Rejean’s family pieces together their lives ruined by the disaster. In its aftermath, Tzu Chi Foundation arrived in Bohol and conducted large-scale relief operations.
It wasn’t until early 2017 that—at the advice of her neighbor and long-term beneficiary Jenny Zapata—Rejean decided to seek Tzu Chi’s help. Alone, she made the hour-long trip from Loon to the Tzu Chi Bohol Operations Office in Tagbilaran City.
“I’m indebted to Tzu Chi Foundation for being instrumental in my recovery. I know this is just the beginning, as I still have to undergo surgery in Taiwan. But I’m thankful that they’re there to help me,” Rejean says.
Meanwhile, Russel Jane was asked to accompany her little sister to Taiwan. No one else could be spared for the extraordinary mission. She and her brother have plenty in store for Rejean as soon as it’s all over.
“We want her to continue her studies [into college]. Sometimes, she would get jealous of me because I get to wear pretty clothes. When she gets better, I’ll consider lending her some to wear,” Russel Jane says.
It’s safe to say that such an ordeal has brought two loving siblings—victims of circumstance—back together. Years of separation by distance felt like an eternity to them. As they count down to the final minute of their journey to a normal life, they look to a future where they don’t have to be apart again.
From Bohol, sisters Russel Jane (left) and Rejean (right) will travel to Manila by ship. They will spend the remaining days at a transiet house in Quezon City until the day of their departure for Taiwan. 【Photo by Kristelle Ferrir】
The sisters receive their brand-new passports for their trip. The Tzu Chi Bohol Operations Office inTagbilaran City arranged the necessary paperwork. 【Photo by Kristelle Ferrir】
Tzu Chi volunteer Joven Uy orients the sisters about Tzu Chi and its missions in the Philippines. Although Rejean didn’t seek help until early 2017, she has known the Buddhist organization for their relief efforts following the 2013 earthquake that struck Bohol. 【Photo by Juvy Ann Radaza】
A side view of Rejean’s scoliosis shows the massive bulge that covers most of her upper back. She narrates that it only began as a small bump that she thought can be cured with alternative healing methods. 【Photo by Kristelle Ferrir】
A rear view of Rejean’s scoliosis shows the S-shape her spinal column has taken over the years, as opposed to the normal straight-down position. Doctors identified her condition as thoracolumbar scoliosis, meaning that the spine curves from mid-back (lower thoracic) down to her lower back (upper lumbar). 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
The sisters prepare the ingredients for their signature dessert treat. Rejean calls them “munchkins” after the iconic doughnut balls. The recipe calls for crushed graham crackers, condensed milk, and powdered milk. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Rejean adds the condensed milk to the crushed graham crackers. The condensed milk will help hold the balls like glue. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Rejean rolls the mixture into balls the size of marbles. Back in Bohol, she would produce 150 pieces the night before and sell them at her school for Php1.00 each the next day. Minus the Php80 for the ingredients, she takes home Php70 in the end. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
The finished product bathes in a bowl of powdered milk, adding flavor to the already-sweet treat. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Rejean shares her decadent creation with the other children, most of them fellow Tzu Chi beneficiaries. The transient house in Quezon City houses a substantial population of beneficiaries from Bohol awaiting treatment in the big city. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
A fellow tenant of the transient house takes a bite out of Rejean’s “munchkins.” 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】