RICH CREEK, Va. — Mereb Witt and her son, R.G. Magnase, of Rich Creek, Va., have a special reason to be thankful during the holiday season this year.
They recently went to Norfolk, Va., to be interviewed and take the tests required to be Americans. Both passed and will soon be taking an oath to officially become citizens.
But the road to citizenship has not been an easy one.
A native of Malaybalay, Bukidon Province, Philippines, Witt said the reason she came to this country with her children initially in 2008 was because she was at that time married to an American.
When the marriage did not work out, rather than return to the Philippines, she decided to stay here, a decision that included a twist of fate that has had long-lasting and life-changing results.
She enrolled her three children in Monroe County schools: R.G. and daughter Precious in Peterstown Middle School and son J.B. at James Monroe High School, all eventually graduating from Narrows High School after a later move.
Two of her children have moved away from the area and she and her son now live in Rich Creek, Va., where she moved in 2010.
“We started from scratch,” she said, and did not initially think about becoming citizens, but as time went by “we learned to love it here.”
Her kids adapted quickly, she said, especially her daughter who now has all “American ways.”
R.G. said he had no difficulty adapting and the other students were “very accepting,” and he made friends straightaway.
Although Witt learned English in school in the Philippines, which is routine in public schools there, learning to communicate with it here was not easy.
“Even though we learned the grammar, we didn’t practice communicating,” she said, so that presented challenges which she eventually overcame.
She also handled the responsibility of raising her kids in another country with limited resources.
It was a real struggle at first, she said, as she cleaned houses to support her family, but when she enrolled her children in school, she met the school counselor at Peterstown Middle School, Tami Brown.
That meeting proved to be a turning point.
“We started talking and we became friends,” Brown said. “Now, they are family.”
“And they are our American family,” Witt said of Brown and members of the congregation at Peterstown United Methodist Church, where Brown and her family attend.
“This church and the people here really helped us,” Witt said, pointing out the friendships with Brown and her husband Jeremy as well as Melvyn and Kelly Young and Kelly and Stacey Jewell. “They helped us with everything we needed.”
Those friendships helped spark Witt’s desire to stay.
“Why are we going back?” she said she asked herself. “Even though we didn’t know each other, they (Brown and the church) made us feel like we are family.”
The opportunities the country offers were also on her mind.
“I wanted the kids to have the opportunities here,” she said. “I wanted them to finish their school here. We worked hard, we all worked hard to survive.”
They did survive, with Witt eventually getting training to be a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) and R.G. graduating from Radford University with a degree in graphic design.
Her daughter married Monroe County native Zach Crozier. He is in the Air Force and they live in England. Her other son, J.B., lives and works in the New York City area.
Not only have they all done well, she has worked with Brown and other church members to help with a program started in the Philippines by her father, a Baptist church deacon who has established outreach programs, and built churches, in the more remote and very poor areas of the province.
They feed children and give them Christmas gifts.
In fact, Brown and her family, including her son, Carter, and daughters Alex and Emma, as well as the Jewells and their eldest daughter Hannah, went to the Philippines in 2016 with Witt to visit the children and help with them.
“We started helping 50 kids,” Witt said of the program. “We now help almost 1,000.”
Both Brown and Witt said many Americans do not realize how poor people really are in other parts of the world, in far more serious dire straights than any of the poor children in this country, which has many social and community programs to help those in need.
Witt said children in these remote areas have little access to health care and diets that are so lacking in nutrition many are malnourished.
“They don’t have the ordinary basic food we have … no churches, no stores,” Brown said, adding that her journey there was “eye-opening.”
“It was the most humbling experience to go there,” she said. “The people there are so thankful.”
Brown described an experience she had on the trip when they were delivering food to a poor community around noon.
“The kids waited all morning,” she said. “When we arrived they were just sitting and not complaining, and they were very hungry. They were singing just like little angels when we walked in.”
That brought tears, she said, and helped her understand just what a “blessing” it is to live in this country.
“Even the poorest here are wealthy there,” Witt said.
Brown said the people there, even in their poverty, are “joyful” and full of appreciation for anything that is done for them. “It’s easy to help grateful people”
“We hear about how bad it is here,” Brown said. “But everyone needs to experience seeing the hardships in other countries. They would stop complaining.”
Although Witt said she loves America and is thankful to be here, the hunger she has seen in the Philippines has created in her such an appreciation of food she hates to see any wasted, and was shocked the first time she witnessed that waste on an institutional scale.
One of her first jobs here was working in a nursing home kitchen, but she did not realize regulations are in place related to the disposal of uneaten food.
“I cried,” she said, when she saw the food being thrown away, knowing how valuable it would be to so many children in areas of the Philippines, and many other places around the world. “It is so wasteful.”
Brown agrees and laments the way food is wasted and how much it is needed in other places.
She also points out how compassionate Witt is.
“She is easy to love and her kids are awesome,” Brown said. “They are very hard workers and very humble.”
During the years she has been here, Witt has worked to make sure her kids were educated and she has taken advantage of opportunities for her own training, including the CNA she obtained through her job at the nursing home.
“That (her job) is one of the important parts of my life,” she said. “I am thankful for my work family. I feel like I belong.”
The Jewells, who own IGA grocery stores in the area, also gave her two sons jobs.
She has since bought a house in Rich Creek and is building one in the Philippines for her parents, who are aging and need a one-story house.
The house, she said, will also be used for visiting missionaries and her family and friends from this area who visit for missionary work and continue feeding the children.
“They are tax-paying citizens just like we are,” Brown said of Witt and her family. “They have done everything the right way, the legal way.”
Brown said she hopes she and her family and others from the church can return to the Philippines with the church’s God’s Hands Ministries, which works with needy children.
It’s not a matter of where people go to help others, she said, “it’s a matter of doing what God calls you to do.”
“Everyone has different ministries,” Brown said. “If everyone followed their passion, we could cover everything. We are all God’s children.”
Although Witt’s journey here was at first difficult, she harbors no ill feelings about what happened to her marriage.
“I am still thankful for my ex-husband,” she said. “He brought us here. I will always be thankful for that.”
Witt said harboring any negativity is destructive and she knows things happen for a reason.
She also understands how important it is to move forward and be grateful.
Witt said it’s all about appreciating what you are given, and when she takes the oath to officially be a citizen of this country she will do so with gratitude and humility.
“You are so blessed here,” she said.
Anyone who wants to donate to the church’s God’s Hands Ministries can send a check made out to the Peterstown United Methodist Church, designating it’s for God’s Hands Ministries, 47 Race St., Peterstown WV 24963.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com