When the Metro Home team arrives in Zambawood, twilight is just a few minutes away. As with most traditional provincial summers spent on the beach, the sounds of the waves will crash on the shore for a concerto that will lull us to sleep by bedtime.
Rachelle Harrison, our hostess for the evening and owner of the resort, greets us warmly. She takes us across her property, shaded from tropical storm surges by rows of local conifers, through the most charming of rustic man-made bridges, and finally to her makeshift cabana overlooking the beach and the scenic Capones and Camara Islands.
The vista calls to mind many local film and teleserye heroes and heroines who have basked in the same sunset. “There’s a reason why movies are made here,” the tagline of Zambawood goes, and indeed, as we watch the sunset, we understand fully the desire to spin stories in such a setting. For what brought us here is a true story as compelling as anyone with a heart will fathom.
“Growing up, San Narciso was a small, quaint town, where you know everyone. There were plenty of trees, and we had an orchard. We climbed the aratilis tree, picked the fruits and divided the harvest amongst ourselves,” Rachelle describes the little town in Zambales where she has built Zambawood, her version of Eden for her child, Julyan, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.
When he turned 18, Rachelle sought to build something for Julyan that will allow him to live freely and joyfully. This place of healing is her love letter to him.
Coming back to San Narciso after 30 years of living abroad was the farthest thing from Rachelle’s mind. An architect by education, she was a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific Airlines’ first class cabins. After her marriage to a supportive British banker, she lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Geneva.
Currently, she commutes from Singapore to Manila monthly, to see that the affairs in Zambawood are running smoothly, and to be with Julyan.
“I told my family, ‘I’m not coming back,’” she shares about the first time she left the Philippines.
“Yun pala Julyan’s purpose in my life… was to bring me back to San Narciso, and now, I’m doing all these things. I’d like to eventually create an artist community here, like Ubud, in Bali,” Rachelle says.
This mother shows her indomitable spirit as she talks about her journey with Julyan and Zambawood, one that is marked by a fiery passion to see her son flourish.
“My fear is that Julyan will not have anyone when I go. There comes a point in life where you really need to think of ways where [your children] become more independent,” Rachelle says. “At the end of the day, one just needs a job to sustain oneself. Julyan is physically able, but mentally, he is not there. So I thought, ‘Why not farming Why not art?” Rachelle explains.
“Do not underestimate children with special needs because if you push them, they will succeed,” she declares.
With this motivation, she proceeded to build Zambawood, a four-bedroom resort in San Narciso, Zambales. Right across from it is Julyan’s Farm, an organic plantation where she cultivates “all the vegetables in Bahay Kubo.” Along with these are healthy free range chickens on a diet of lemongrass and guyabano water, making them a hit with her friends from Manila. “I’ve had so many orders, people are on a waiting list,” she says.
The resort sustains the farm, and it is in the farm and the resort’s surroundings where Julyan is free to explore, learn, express and be guided by caregivers.
“When I came back, I found that the cultural belief is that the children with special needs will just stay home. The parents cannot let go. I respect that, but they need to realize that the kids will have more fun in an environment tailored for them. In a way, I am offering respite to the families of special needs children,” Rachelle points out.
In developing a community for special needs children in the future, Rachelle consults with Dr. Malanta, who is her “lead in finding out who else needs to be in this environment.” She hopes that in the future, she can bring this empowering model of caring for special needs children to other parts of the Philippines.
The resort is a symphony composed from all the travels and the places Rachelle has visited in her lifetime. It took her two years to build the property, where the infrastructure was first constructed, and then the home.
“Initially, the four rooms were going to be all different: Indian, Balinese, South African and Morrocan,” but eventually, they morphed into a style that is distinctly Rachelle’s own, marked by her personal flair for decorating.
Giving us a tour of the home, she explains that she used concrete for the floors, juxtaposed with tiles in the foyer. The walls share a similar concrete wash, but in a different color. She used salvaged wood.
Particularly striking is the kitchen island, a solid piece of hardwood that she reclaimed from her mother’s backyard during a strong typhoon.
For the bathrooms, the wood-and-concrete contrasts prevail, highlighted with tiles from India. Delicate bamboo lean-tos made in the premises serve as hangers for towels and toilet paper. “You don’t have to spend the earth to have style,” Rachelle says.
Life is in the details
Her flair for entertaining is palpable in the meals she serves in Zambawood.
“I love to entertain. I enjoy table settings that are not the usual. You don’t have to buy a whole bouquet. You can make one or make do with what you have. You just have to style the arrangement in a way that pleases you… Entertaining comes naturally so that this resort business is a breeze, but having said that, you can’t please everyone,” she says, while draping long, colorful table runners, with frangipanis dancing in a bowl of water as a centerpiece.
This zeal for detail extends from table setting to every detail in Zambawood. “I trained my staff to be service-oriented. They are all graduates of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial College, with degrees in Hospitality and Restaurant Management,” she says proudly.
“I’m 53. When you’re 50, you look back at what you were enjoying doing at the age of 7 or 8. I was always drawing clothes and houses,” Rachelle fondly recalls.
“I give it my all. I’m a Virgo. I kind of get obsessed. I have always been passionate. When I talk to people, I give them the moment. I love details. Life is in the details. That’s how I enjoy it. When you give love and passion, the details are what matters,” Rachelle tells us, speaking as a mother whose mission is to ensure her son’s well-being, a veritable beacon for others who are in a similar situation.
(In celebration of April as Autism Awareness Month, Enderun Colleges proudly supports Julyan's Farm Autism Foundation, Inc. with "An Evening of Gastronomy, Music and Giving," on April 27 at the Atrium of Enderun, McKinley Hill, Bonifacio Global City. Cocktails starts at 6 p.m. Limited seats available. Please book your tickets at 0917-6860895.)