Local Filipino care package companies tackle typhoon relief

November 12, 2013

(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Local shipping companies for Filipinos regularly pick up hefty care packages, or 'balikbayan boxes,' to deliver to family members abroad. Several Chicago-area companies are now using the system for typhoon relief efforts.

As we continue to learn the full extent of the devastation from Typhoon Haiyan, local Filipinos are relying on a longtime tradition of sending “balikbayan boxes” — hefty care packages — to assist in disaster relief. That tradition has become so entrenched in Filipino diaspora culture during the last thirty years that it has spawned an industry in door-to-door delivery, including many balikbayan shipping companies in the Chicago area.

“The phenomenon actually boomed when there were a lot of Filipinos who started working in the Middle East,” said Alpha Nicolasin, customer service supervisor for Cirera Express Corporation, a balikbayan shipping company based in Niles, IL. “Overseas Filipino workers who worked in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates started sending care boxes. And so the tradition was replicated in other parts of the world, wherever Filipinos are.”

On a normal pick-up stop on Monday, Nicolasin accompanied a driver on a stop to the home of Romy Arietta in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood. “It’s a mess,” Arietta laughed apologetically as he let them into his apartment.

Near the door, he had stacked three large cardboard boxes, each about five cubic feet and 100 pounds. Slapped onto them were address labels. They were bound for his sister in Quezon City, in the Philippines.

“Mostly groceries, clothings, cooking pans and things like that, because they always use it,” said Arietta, “And some miscellaneous collectibles.”

Arietta said he had been gathering the goods to pack in the box for several weeks, and that he sends a box every two months, or so.

Cirera ships about 1000 boxes each month to the Philippines, always taking a photo of the box with its recipient when it gets there, and e-mailing that photo to the sender in the U.S. as confirmation that it arrived. Though Nicolasin now works on the delivery end of the transactions, she remembers what it was like to receive them. Her aunt once sent balikbayan boxes to her family when Nicolasin was a child in the Philippines.

“In Filipino we say it’s amoy America, meaning to say it smells like America because it smells like chocolates, it smells like soap, goodies that come from the States,” she recalled.

Cirera Express and other balikbayan box shipping companies load the boxes that they collect onto trains, which take them from Chicago to California. There they are transferred onto ships that take them to the Philippines by way of Taiwan. Nicolasin said it typically takes 4-6 weeks for them to arrive at the door of their recipients, but shipping by sea makes the service much cheaper than sending the boxes by air via FedEx, or other shipping methods. The typical balikbayan box weighs up to 100 pounds, but only costs $60-$75 to ship.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, local balikbayan companies are putting their energies into relief efforts.

“We are right now putting together one dedicated container to help the affected areas,” said Eladio “Toto” Baronia, owner of T-Bar International Cargo, a balikbayan company whose warehouse is stationed in Joliet, IL. Baronia said he hopes to fill roughly 500 boxes with donated relief supplies, such as non-perishable food, clothes, and toiletries, to fill a 45-foot long shipping container. On Monday, he was exploring how he could do this at no cost to donors.

“With this magnitude and everybody is wanting to help, and with the help of the Philippine government, we should be able to offer them free if we can be tax exempt,” said Baronia. He said even if he doesn’t get a tax exemption on shipping the goods, he will try to send boxes at a discounted rate to donors. Cirera Express intends to package and send donated items free of charge.

Many organizations are focused on providing immediate relief efforts to the Philippines, largely through fundraisers intended to assist the Red Cross. But Nicolasin said the balikbayan effort can help further down the road.

“I don’t really think of it as a good way to address immediate needs, because they need food, they need clothes right now,” said Nicolasin. “But after the efforts of those who are based in the Philippines have been exhausted, the resources have been exhausted there, at least this is something that would continue to sustain them.

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Donations to Cirera Express should be delivered to their office at 5657 W Howard St, Niles, IL 60714. The office is open Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm, and 9am-4pm on Saturdays. (Nicolasin says its next shipment, scheduled for Wed., November 20 will include donated supplies)

Donations to T-Bar International Cargo may be dropped off at its warehouse at 506 Ruby Street, Joliet, IL 60435.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and at @WBEZoutloud.