On Monday evening, a special reunion happened at O'Hare for a Lakeview couple who survived super-typhoon Haiyan and became a beacon of hope for thousands on their island in the Central Philippines.
Ray and Leila Villar's children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were among the crowds waiting for arriving travelers in the lower level of Terminal Five. As the sliding doors from the secure area of the terminal would open, they readied their handmade signs welcoming them home. Minutes after all the passengers aboard American Airlines flight 154 from Tokyo that the two were supposed to be on had filed past the waiting family members, they wondered what was delaying them in customs. It turned out the retired couple in their early 70s, unaware that their loved ones were waiting for them, went out a different gate on the far side of the terminal. But after the Villars found their loved ones, the emotional reunion was on with hugs, kisses, laughter and watery eyes.
"It may be cold here in Chicago, but we feel so warm inside with the love of our family," said Ray Villar, smiling broadly.
"It's beautiful to be back home to see our children, grandchildren and now our great granddaughters," said Leila Villar as she held back the tears holding one of her great grandchildren. "They're so beautiful."
It was the first time the couple met the new additions to their family, 10-month-old Scarlet, and 2-month-old Leilabella, named after her great grandmother. The babies were born while the two were away.
"I'm just so incredibly happy to have them back," said Danielle Villar, the couple's oldest grandchild. "They can now meet their great granddaughters."
"I know they were doing great things there and couldn't come home right away," said Renee Villar, their second oldest grandchild. "I'm so overjoyed, I'm happy, I'm relieved that they're finally back."
The Villars had originally planned to return home to Chicago in August, for the baptism of baby Scarlet, but they postponed that departure date to October. They needed more time to work on their sustainable farming and fishing projects that feed and support dozens of families in their community, as well as their ongoing Catholic social justice work. They had planned to be back in Chicago for the birth of Lielabella. When October rolled around, they delayed their return home even longer to finish construction of their new home on a hilltop.
The work on their home, made mostly of wood and bamboo, would prove to be important for their survival and dozens of others in their village on November 8, when Typhoon Haiyan struck. For nearly four hours, 130 mile an hour winds and driving rain lashed their home on the hill. The home would bend and sway from the force of the wind, but it did not fall.
"It was really scary for the more than three hours with the wind. I just held on to the post in the house," said Leila. "It felt like we were in a washing machine as the wind and rain came from several directions, north, south, east and west. The house leaned and tilted and swayed with the wind. It was too much. All we could do was pray to God to stop the wind."
During the start of the storm, several other families from their village, who had lost their own homes, rushed to the Villars' house on the hill for shelter.
"We just tried to comfort the people. They were all crying," said Ray. "Some of them passed out from the non-stop wind and rain."
Once the winds calmed and the rain stopped, the green and lush tropical countryside was turned to ruin.
"Nothing was left standing," said Leila. "There were no leaves on the trees. Everything was gone."
"All the homes and buildings in our village were flattened," said Ray. "The roof of the school was torn away. The church lost its roof. The only house left standing was our house. I believe it was a miracle."
Just before the typhoon hit, James Villar, their third son, had actually spoken to his father. The elder Villar told his son that it was too late for them to evacuate to Manila or someplace away from the path of the storm. He said that they would have to ride it out in their home. During the conversation, the phone line abruptly went dead, apparently as the winds began to intensify.
"I didn't know what to think," said James Villar. "The Philippines gets hit by dozens of typhoons every year, but I knew they were in for something big, something that they had never seen before. From the satellite images and news reports, the typhoon was passing right over their home."
"I was devastated. I couldn't stop crying," said Danielle. "I couldn't stop thinking of the worst case scenarios. I just prayed they were alright."
For nine long days, the family heard nothing from their parents. The storm had knocked out the couple's connection to the outside world. All the power and phone lines to their village were down. Cell towers were crumpled. Some roads were washed away, and other roads were blocked by hundreds of fallen trees and debris.
"We had relatives try to reach their village by foot, but they told us they had to turn back because the roads were impassable," said James. "After seeing the images on TV, we weren't sure what happened to them. We were preparing for the worst."
The couple's family fought off helplessness from being thousands of miles away by turning to their network of friends for help in finding them. Their daughter, Jessica Villar Rosati, who lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with her three children and husband, and their oldest son Reynaldo Villar Jr., who lives near Racine, Wisconsin, with his wife and young daughter, both took to the Internet and social media for any leads.
"I posted on Facebook to see if anyone may be in the area and may know something," said Jessica Villar Rosati, " I posted their pictures online, hoping someone may have seen them. I reported the missing on the Philippine Red Cross website."
"I found a photographer, Gerald Inocencio, who was posting pictures of the devastation around their island," said Reynaldo Villar Jr. "I reached out to him and asked him to try to find our parents. He told us he would ride out to where they were at to find them."
A day after making contact with Inocencio, the Villars' children and grandchildren received the word they had been waiting for, the two survived the storm unharmed. Inocencio posted photos of the two inside the home they rode out the storm in. He also posted a video message from the couple. They told their children and grandchildren that they were safe and now helping the people around them.
Within days after the typhoon hit, military transport planes were brought in to evacuate U.S. citizens like the Villars and other foreign nationals to safety. Instead of leaving for Chicago, the Villars chose to stay. They organized the able-bodied men in their village to begin clearing the roads of trees and debris. The tools and materials they had, they lent out to people to help them rebuild their own homes.
"They're an inspiration," said Bonnie Villar, the Villar's daughter-in-law. "When most retirees would spend their time enjoying their golden years, relaxing somewhere and living comfortably, they chose to help others and endure some harsh conditions because of who they are."
"My grandparents are resilient people," said Renee. "This is the kind of people they are… they want to help those in need."
"I'm really proud to call them my grandparents," said Danielle. "You really don't find any genuinely good people like them in the world who really make sacrifices of themselves."
The Villar children quickly wired funds to relatives in Cebu City, the Philippines second-largest city and a one-day boat ride away, to buy hundreds of pounds of food, emergency supplies, tools and a generator. The private supplies arrived at their village weeks before any other aid would reach the area. With the help of friends and relatives in Chicago and around the country, the Villar children were able to sustain the emergency aid. And the couples' home on the hill became a makeshift relief center and a beacon of hope.
"I said, God, how can I help these people because they are coming to us? Can I borrow a hammer, can I have some little nails? So I said, this is the job we have to do," said Leila.
"Everyday someone comes to our house, asking for help and for food," said Ray. "We try to help where we can."
Earlier this month, with the help of donations from their family and friends in Chicago, the couple welcomed a medical mission to their village. More than a thousand people came out for a health checkup, medicine and food.
"Because many families still do not have a roof over their heads following the typhoon, many of the youngsters are suffering from sniffles and colds," said Leila.
The Villar children and grandchildren have also been active in the relief drive at the Rizal Center in Lakeview, Chicago's Filipino American Community Center. They were among the hundreds of volunteers who packed boxes of food, clothing and emergency supplies during the week immediately after the typhoon hit. Their daughter-in-law, Rose Tibayan, has been spearheading the effort to make sure the 13 40-foot shipping containers of relief goods that were collected get to the victims of the typhoon.
"Five of the containers are now in the Philippines," said Tibayan. "Four of those have been delivered to the Philippine Red Cross. One has been given to Caritas, Catholic Charities. A sixth container is due to arrive next week for the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, a nonprofit charity that's already active in the area. The remaining seven are now in transit to the region and will be distributed to other accredited NGOs."
While Ray and Leila relax and enjoy lost time with their family, their hearts are still with the victims of the typhoon who continue to struggle. The couple say it was emotional leaving the village, especially with so much work still left behind. While they've already helped many families rebuild, many others are still in need.
The Villars hope to return to the Philippines in a month or two to continue the work that they started. Their goal is to help rebuild homes in the region, resume their sustainable farming and fishing and direct some of the relief supplies due to arrive from Chicago.
"Many of them were afraid we will not come back," said Ray. "We promised them that we shall return. It was also the monsoon season when we left, so they've been dealing with rain almost every day."
"There's still so much suffering and struggling people there," said Leila. "The storm took everything away from them."
The Villars will be celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary this Sunday with their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews, loved ones and friends. Ironically, they had left Chicago for the Philippines one year ago, shortly after their family celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary.
The Villars are the parents of Don Villar, a producer at Eyewitness News.