Philippines is a rising star on many travelers’ radars. Known for incredible secluded beaches, delicious food, and beautiful nature, it provides plenty of reasons to discover its 7,107 islands. But if there is one thing Philippines is known for the most – it’s the kindness and friendliness of its people.
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When I traveled to Philippines in 2013, I wanted, more than anything, to get closer to the locals, to live and breathe their lives, and to learn more about their culture. So when I came across WLS International, a UK based non-for-profit organization, committed to helping communities in developing countries in Asia, I knew I had a solution! I couldn’t think of a better way to do it then by getting involved in one of the local communities!
WLS International has more than 80 worthwhile projects across Asia and I was thrilled to discover their program in Liloan, a small town 20 kms North of Cebu City. I was going to spend a week living with a local family and teaching English at a dump site community nearby.
After getting off the plane in Cebu, I was greeted by 2 local coordinators of WLS in Philippines, Joy and KoiKoi and later that evening introduced to the rest of my host family. We shared a lovely dinner in their simple home, chatting about their lives and involvement with the Dump Site Community Program.
I discovered that the program attracted anywhere between 20 and 50 kids on a daily basis. The kids ranged from 2 to 16 years old and they all had one thing in common: this dump site was their home and this community program – their only education. Their parents worked in the dump site sorting rubbish and selling it for pennies to the recycling companies in town. They earned no more than $1-2 a day and could barely afford to feed their kids, let alone send them to school. Despite the fact that public school system in Philippines is free, the additional costs associated with sending a kid to school, such as uniforms and school supplies, was too much cost to bare for many families in Liloan.
The next morning, as our motorbikes pulled into the dump site, I was overwhelmed by emotions. I was excited to meet the kids and to learn about their lives in the dump site. But I was also just terrified. I laid awake the night before, not knowing what to expect. After all, I had zero experience teaching! A part of me was hoping that KoiKoi and Joy would do all the teaching and I would assist where needed, but the reality was far from it.
Within minutes of our arrival, the kids assembled under a tree facing a make shift blackboard. Their eyes flickering with excitement and eagerness to learn.
Joy and KoiKoi showed me to the teaching materials (a few papers and pencils and some index cards) and hurried to commence lunch preparations. I later learned that for many the lunch meal was biggest incentive to come to class every day, and was sometimes the only meal the eat all day.
I was told to start the class with a roll call. The attendance list was a mess, dozens of kids names scribbled on a piece of paper, half misspelled, and the other half not legible at all. I decided that it may be best to just start over. Getting every kid in the class to come up to the board and write out their names was an exercise that probably benefited me more than them. I used it not only to learn their names, but also to judge their spelling, reading, and writing skills.
The roll call took a solid hour, but it did make me feel a bit more comfortable in front of the class. Remembering back to my own school days, I asked the kids what they learned last week, expecting to be able to pick up where they left off. But in response I got nothing but empty stares. I then asked them what they wanted to learn…but got more empty stares.
“Oh my!”– I thought, as the alarm bells started going off in my head, “Now what?” I panicked and completely blanked, then swiftly excused myself, running back to where Joy and KoiKoi were working on lunch to ask for help.
“I have never taught anyone anything before so maybe you need to lead the class today and I’ll just watch?” – I asked, patting myself on the back for this brilliant solution.
“Ummm we don’t really teach the kids, we are not the teacher, you are!”
“Ummm WHAT? I’m not a teacher!”, I screamed inside my head. But instead I simply asked: “Well, where did the last teacher leave off? What do I teach them?”
“We don’t know, we weren’t there to see it, but there are some word cards in the supplies bag you can use, just show them and they say the words. Or maybe number cards. That’s what everyone does” – said KoiKoi.
Ok. Ok. That’s easy. Surely I can do that. As I started flashing the word and number cards to the kids, I was amazed to see how many words they knew. All the fruits and vegetables and numbers… and about half an hour into it, I finally realized…. The words on those 50 cards were the ONLY words they had ever learned! Teaching them those words was probably what every volunteer before me had done and probably what future volunteers after me will do. No wonder they could all sing the card names in perfect unison.
Something inside me cringed. This isn’t good, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! These kids aren’t actually learning anything new. I had to make it better, I wanted to really make a difference!
That evening, back at the host family house, I spent hours researching school curriculum for grades 2-5. I borrowed books from the kids in my host family who were attending public school. I browsed their workbooks, home work assignments, and listened to their stories about school, built lesson plans, and prepared assignments for the rest of the week.
I asked Joy to take me to a local market to buy new pens and notebooks (enough for every child in the class), to buy index cards, that I turned into new flash cards, and to stock up on other teaching materials: books, posters etc. It never occurred to me how much we take these things for granted in our world and how big of a difference they can make here at the dump site.
Tuesday was a new day and I was excited to get started! As we pulled into the dump site, I saw dozens of kids gathered in a shed anxiously waiting for my arrival.
“Hi, m’am! Remember me?” They screamed while running towards my bike.
Within a few minutes I got a few of the older girls to assemble other kids and set up the benches and tables in something that resembled an orderly fashion.
“We are going to do things different today…”, I said as the majority of them took seats at their desks.
I could see their little eyes light up as I distributed their workbooks and explained that they will get to take them home and have to bring them to class every day.
Some kids squealed with excitement when I put the lesson plan on the board: Math and English in the morning, then Reading and Health in the afternoon. I varied the lesson plan every day, trying to cover off a variety of topics. They were so eager to learn!
In math class, they learned addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, along with shapes and sizes. We even covered off some basic problem solving.
During health class, I taught them a bit about hygiene and how to stay healthy. I explained why it was important to vary their meals and eat vegetables and meat. They learned to compose stories about their families and to stand up in front of other kids and share them out loud.
They helped each other and made sure that no one was left behind…
The brighter kids were helping out those who struggled to finish their assignments
They learned to respect our classroom (aka the shed) and to pick up garbage at the end of the day, even though it seemed rather ironic to do so in the middle of a dump site.
It was incredible to see the progress we had all made in those short 5 days.
And on my last day at the school it really sunk in. They wrote me good bye letters, each one more precious than the other, thanking me for teaching them how to divide, how to spell, and how to say words in English among other things.
I knew for a fact, that every one of these Thank You’s was genuine and real. I could see it in their tears as we said our good byes. I could hear it in their little voices as they walked me out the gates. It was there and then that I knew I had really made a difference!
I am still in touch with my host family and with the organization that runs the program in Liloan and I love hearing about the improvements they have made in the last 1-2 years. Since my visit in 2013, they have build a new school for the children at the dump site. The school now contains 4 individual classrooms, so volunteers can have their own space with their students, and the children feel like this is their school now. A much needed upgrade!
This volunteering program in Liloan cost me $500/week. The price covered the costs of my stay with the local family, my meals, and daily transportation to the dump site. I could have just as easily spent that much money on accommodation and meals in Boracay, but I choose not to. I knew that these kids, their parents, and my host family would give me so much more than Boracay ever could… and they did!
It was an experience of a lifetime, one that taught me lessons, that made me face challenges and at the end of the day, it was an experience that made me realize how little it actually takes to truly make a difference!
Volunteering may not always be the first thing you think of when planning a trip to Philippines. It may not rival the party in Boracay, the beaches in Palawan, the shopping in Manila, or the once-in-a-lifetime experience of diving with whale sharks in Donsol. But it will undoubtedly be a life changing experience, one that I hope more travelers will consider including in their Philippines itinerary!
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Have you ever considered adding a volunteering experience to your travel itinerary?