The centerpiece of Felomina “Fely” Salanga’s Island Center living room is an arrangement of figures as bright and cheerful as the smiling Salanga herself.
Two carved water buffalo prance before a low table covered with flowers that surround the tiny, painted figures of the Virgin and Christ child like a forest. The flowers make a multi-colored carpet for the large statue wearing red satin and a straw hat – Santo Nino, the childrens’ saint.
Between the saint’s feet is a tiny bottle of coconut oil that Salanga says has been blessed.
“It’s like holy water in the Philippines,” Salanga said. “It’s like medicine.”
Salanga knows about medicine.
For half a year – since being diagnosed with leukemia just five months after her husband, Mar Salanga, died – the long-term resident of Bainbridge has received infusions of chemotherapy.
In September, Salanga went to the doctor for what appeared to be a stubborn rash on her arms and legs.
“I thought it was an allergy from working in the garden,” Salanga said. “When they told me I had a leukemia, I said, ‘You’re kidding.’”
Her sons, Alex Madayag, 23, and Mark, 14 – and other family and friends – rallied and Salanga began immediate treatment at Virginia Mason Medical Center.
Expenses, not completely covered by her late husband’s health insurance, mounted rapidly.
“I had a headache to see all those billings,” Salanga said. “They are confusing. My son says ‘I can’t even read these.’
“I just started this past week to pay $100.”
Friends in the close-knit Bainbridge Filipino community wanted to help. They deluged Filipino community leader Rudy Rimando with phone calls.
“People kept asking, ‘What can we do?’” Rimando said, “Fely’s been a member of the Filipino American Community of Bainbridge Island and vicinity for as long as I can remember. She is an important person to this community; she is one of the most loyal, dedicated people I know.”
Salanga, who came to Bainbridge in 1973 when she was 25, sewed ski jackets and sleeping bags to bring her parents and siblings to America. She has also sewn for her community, making projects that range from bridesmaid’s dresses to Filipino costume for entire dance troupes.
An avid gardener, she has done yard work for the Filipino American Hall and made decorations for events there.
Whenever she was asked to pitch in and help, Salanga did.
The community determined it would support her.
According to Rimando and Salanga’s neighbor, Jerry Elfendahl, the decision to mount a benefit for Salanga was a collective one.
The result will be a March 10 benefit to raise money for Salanga’s medical bills.
Pat Wright’s Total Gospel Experience agreed to perform, and Lita Myers’ hula dance troupe will dance. Claudette Boudreaux and Tami Allen of Les Femmes D’enfer and other island musicians are on board, and former White House chef Rhey Orante and Rimando has planned a world-class feast.
The evening is slated to be as much a celebration – in the style of upbeat Salanga – as a benefit.
While Salanga will have to forgo the festivities on doctors’ orders – exposure to the crowd might result in infection – she continues to be active in her own recovery, making her illness a vehicle to reach out to others.
“Some people, they keep their illness a secret,” Salanga said. “Not me. I tell people and right away they say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ That means a lot to me.
“It’s like they are helping as soon as they say that.”