Every time Careen Malahay sits down to write, the words flow from a deep awareness that she is living her dream — and amazement that she is alive.
Having survived a difficult birth that nearly took her life, Careen entered the world 23 years ago with scars on her face that make it difficult for her to smile, missing fingers on both hands, and a defect that rendered her right eye all but useless. And then came day 3 of her life, when she stopped breathing and was declared dead after doctors gave up trying to resuscitate her.
Her mother, Carmen, did not quit so easily. She attempted to breast-feed her limp daughter. After a few moments, the girl began to twitch, gasped for air, and — to everyone’s amazement — opened her eyes. “My mother,” Careen says, “defied what my doctors said and saved my life that day.”
There has been no looking back. At age 7, Careen entered Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program at the Toledo Student Center in the Philippines’ Cebu province. She vividly remembers her teacher telling her that she is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” quoting Psalm 139:14. This assurance gave Careen the confidence to face life head-on and not dwell on her physical challenges.
“Being at [the center] changed my life completely,” Careen says. “I met my two best friends, one of whom was Robelyn, a fellow sponsored child who protected me from the people who laughed at me and mocked me for my looks.”
The other friend was Sara Benson, the American who started sponsoring Careen. She and Careen were close in age and shared a love of writing, which inspired regular letter exchanges.
At the Toledo Student Center, Careen sang and danced with the other children, wrote scripts and narratives for church and center activities, and led the worship team. Despite having difficulty holding a pen and reading the blackboard, Careen thrived in her schoolwork.
Compassion staffers noticed. The leadership and academic achievements she demonstrated made her an excellent candidate for the Leadership Development Program, which enables qualifying graduates of the Child Sponsorship Program to get a university education, intensive Christian leadership training and discipleship opportunities.
Sara, Careen’s sponsor, was determined to continue supporting Careen after she completed the Child Sponsorship Program. But as a full-time college student herself, Sara couldn’t afford to sponsor Careen in the Leadership Development Program. So Sara called on her family to help. Together, the Bensons and Compassion’s Leadership Development Program made it possible for Careen to attend the University of San Jose-Recoletos, a leading university in Cebu City.
Education was hard-won for Careen, whose college years included major eye surgery and academic struggles, mostly in math. But she pushed herself, trusted in God, and found encouragement in her friendship with Sara.
“Careen and I exchanged about 10 to 20 letters a year,” says Sara, who currently sponsors 11 children and corresponds with 24 others. “We talked about college adventures, hard times, deadlines and classes. We both love to write.”
Since Careen had always dreamed of being a writer, the two found letter writing — and friendship — easy.
“She is my prayer partner, my older sister and a great friend,” Careen says. “She inspires me because she and her family helped me a lot. I feel like I’m part of their family.”
Last year, Careen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. She is still pinching herself.
“I can’t believe that I have graduated,” Careen says. “It was just like yesterday when I was first interviewed for the Leadership Development Program.”
At her graduation from the program in April 2012, Careen was joined not only by 28 fellow graduates, but also by Sara. “She always prays for me, comforts me and sends me letters,” Careen says. “We are still best friends today.”
Careen became a correspondent for the Cebu Daily News, the leading newspaper in Cebu City. She had several articles published, including a critical piece about public officers’ handling of funds.
It was a tough job with little pay, Careen says, and her uncompromising journalism provoked threats to her safety. Fearing for her life and determined to earn enough money to send her sister to college, Careen resigned and found a new job.
Careen now produces four to 10 articles each day for a company called Smart Traffic.
She tailors the articles to direct Web users to clients’ websites through search engine optimization. She says the pay is significantly better than at the newspaper, allowing her to provide home improvements such as kitchen appliances for her family. She’s also helping pay for her sister, Jamila, to attend university. Jamila is editor of her university’s newspaper and is working to become a writer like her older sister.