Thursday, Apr 15

Former conjoined twins join Tzu Chi Youth

June 18, 2019 | Jonas Trinidad

As part of the activity, Lea teaches her group of children a bit of math. As most of the kids from Happyland are out-of-school youth, the monthly humanity class held by the Tzu Ching help them with their academics. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

Story Highlights

  • Lea and Rachel Awel take the first step as recently-certified Tzu Ching (Tzu Chi Youth). The former conjoined twins affinity with Tzu Chi started when Tzu Chi discovered their situation 16 years ago. Now, donning their purple uniforms, they want to do more in giving back.


For their first major activity as Tzu Ching (Tzu Chi Youth), former conjoined twins Lea and Rachel Awel were tasked with being big sisters for a group of children from Happyland,Tondo on June 23 when all of them went to the Tzu Chi Great Love Campus for their monthly humanity class. Rachel handled the group of kids ages four to eight, while Lea handled the kids ages nine and above.

Getting hyperactive children interested, let alone stay still, is a challenge for everyone. The younger group Rachel handled was a handful, but she handled the kids with a smile.

“First time I saw [the kids], they didn’t show interest. But as time went by, I felt happy because their smiles also made me smile,” said Rachel.

Lea, on the other hand, has experience in dealing with children. So, half a day of babysitting them hardly felt like stressful work for her.

“I realized that I’m helping these children as well as experiencing the feeling of having many siblings,” said Lea.

And thus, the former conjoined twins have reached another milestone in their lives. The twins from Kalinga were born joined at the stomach and chest, and their parents who depended on farming didn’t have the means to pay for separation surgery.

“Every night, I think of what if we never met Master [Cheng Yen]. What if we were still conjoined? My mother asked us that one day. I imagined we would be sharing a single bed every bedtime,” recalled Rachel.

In 2002, Tzu Chi discovered the twins’ predicament and, in 2003, arranged for their surgery at the Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan. The success of the operation made headlines back home, paving the way for two more pairs of conjoined twins to undergo surgery courtesy of the Buddhist organization.

In 2010, seven years after their life-changing surgery, the twins were accepted into Tzu Chi’s scholarship program. Currently, they’re Grade 10 students at Quezon City Christian Academy.

Sometime during their childhood days, Lea recalled seeing young people in sky-blue uniforms, the telltale hue of Tzu Ching.

“They told us we could join once we’re 16 years old, but we didn’t know that there was an admission fee. Luckily, the volunteers helped us out and we were exempted from paying,” recalled Lea.

Last June 7, at 17 years old, they joined the 19th Tzu Chi Still Thoughts Youth Camp held at the Tzu Chi Great Love Campus for three days. Surrounded by youths similarly motivated to make a difference, they spent their time amidst the sharing of volunteers. One sharing by TIMA surgeon Dr. Robert Sy moved Lea, who dreams of becoming a doctor.

“I was inspired by [TIMA surgeon Dr. Robert Sy’s] words: ‘once you become a doctor, you’ll realize why you wanted to become that.’ I know studying medicine takes many years, but I realized that I would be able to help more people that way,” shared Lea.

Meanwhile, Rachel dreams of becoming a nurse.

Their mother, Tzu Chi volunteer Marietta Awel, couldn’t be any prouder. But she knows that her daughters becoming bona fide Tzu Ching is only the first step.

“I told them that now that they’re Tzu Ching they must know what Tzu Chi does and encouraged them to join [Tzu Chi’s activities] as much as possible,” she said.

  • After three days in Tzu Chi Youth Camp, the twins reunite with their mother-Tzu Chi volunteer Marietta Awel (middle). The family's affinity with Tzu Chi began 16 years ago when the foundation helped in separating the the twins. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • A week after the camp, the twins volunteered for kitchen duty during the volunteers’ monthly seminar. They were tasked with helping distribute snacks to the attendees. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Lea teaches the children the proper sign language of giving respect. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Rachel was in charge of taking care of Happyland children ages four to eight. Despite the difficulty, she persevered with a smile. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Rachel accompanies her group of children with their snack. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】