Books and boats in the Philippines

LAURENS – Since 2011, Flor Johnsen of Laurens has made trips back to her home country of the Philippines taking needed supplies like flip-flops, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Now she has plans to help educate the children on Atulayan Island.

The children need books, Johnsen said, and they need a bigger boat so they can get to the high school on the mainland. She also wants to begin offering scholarships to help more kids attend high school, and even college.

“If we give them food, it lasts for a day,” she said. “Better give them the tool that will last for a lifetime. And that’s education.”

“They only had two dictionaries, and they were sharing (among 70 students),” she said. “That really hit me. I said, how are they going to improve their reading?”

English is the language of instruction there, she said, so the kids need books to help them learn English.

Johnsen sent notebooks and dictionaries to the island for Christmas in 2012. Now, she’s holding a book drive to try to fill a library.

A boat is needed because right now, not enough kids can get to the mainland for high school.

“Many students are late for school or even miss classes for lack of a larger craft,” she said.

But not enough students can afford to go to school in the first place. Too many children have to go to work after sixth grade, or marry young, she said.

Johnsen will sponsor 10 scholarships in 2013 for kids who want to go to high school.

“High school is $30 per student for the whole year. That pays for everything,” she said.

She will also offer one college scholarship. A student who aspires to higher education will be funded for all four years of college, provided they agree to come back and teach on the island after they graduate.

“For one semester, (college) is $100. That’s cheap, isn’t it?” she said.

She also is looking into funding kids who want to go to a two-year trade school.

Johnsen is looking for new or used books to send there, especially children books with pictures/illustrations, as well as funding for the boat and other projects. Donations can be sent to her at 518 Bissell St. For more information, call (712) 841-4911 or email

Johnsen came to Atulayan Island the first time in 2011 and saw that the children there needed shoes.

“It’s very expensive. Instead of buying their sandals, they have to buy their rice,” she said.

She brought flip-flops to the island as well as medicine, used clothing and school supplies.

Since then, other villages heard of what she was doing, and went to her family in the Philippines seeing if she could help. Last year when she attended her high school homecoming, a woman came to her with another village that needed sandals.

In 2012 she expanded from the island to a couple of new villages. She cleaned out a store, buying $300 in toothbrushes and toothpaste to give away.

She went back to the area she was born, and found herself in a hut where eight children lived with only one bedroom. Some of them had skin disease, she said, so she gave them some antibiotic cream.

“When you see a scene like that, you have to be resourceful,” she said.

She found guava twigs and showed them how to make homemade toothbrushes, polishing their teeth with ashes like Johnsen did when she was young.

“It’s not only material things that I give,” she said. “Motivating, evangelizing, that’s one of my projects. Helping women to care for themselves, to take care of the children.”

Johnsen majored in psychology at Buena Vista University and graduated in 2008. She’s lived in the U.S. since 1984. Since then she has taught music lessons and entered the home rental business, she said. She also does counseling online and helps abused women.

In the Philippines she had a secretarial and management degree.

“I was a stenographer, I was a radio personality, I was a singer, I was a drama person. A reporter,” she said.

Whenever she goes to the Philippines, she travels through small villages and asks people what they need. People mistake her for a rich philanthropist and think she can help the whole village. Instead she tries to bring help to those who need it most.

“The good news is we’re helping more, but the bad news is more people are appealing,” she said. “I’m alone, I’m not affiliated with any church, any organization or politics.

“I feel like I don’t have the funds, and I cannot say no. I just wonder why am I acting like I have a million dollars, that I don’t have? But I give them hope that it can be done.”