Lessons Across the Globe: A Trip to the Philippines

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Vaneshia Reed | 11/02/2022

I had the wonderful privilege of traveling to Manila, Philippines for two and a half weeks with the Harvard Philippine Forum to work with children from Childhope Asia and Stairway Foundation.

Childhope Asia and Stairway are non-profit organizations that work with Filipino “street children” and provide them with resources and services that aim to combat their some of their life challenges. The term “street children” is wide-ranging and encompasses children who live on the streets with or without their families. Many “street children”, especially those without their families, become victims of various forms of exploitation and are most likely to become victims of sexual abuse and trafficking. Organizations like Childhope Asia and Stairway Foundation seek to help these children, respectively, by providing scholarships for them to attend school and limit their time in the streets, and by removing them completely from their environments.

Childhope Asia assigns Filipino social workers to groups of around thirty children from ages five to seventeen; they are responsible for getting these children the resources and services they need. Childhope Asia has partnered with the Harvard Philippine Forum for the past five years to run life skills workshops with the children after they get out of school. Our goals with the children were to find fun and accessible ways to teach transferrable skills that they could utilize even after we left the Philippines. We led workshops on various topics, including first aid (CPR and limb binding with available resources); public speaking to help them learn how to speak publicly and advocate; sports day to get them active and practicing collaboration; amongst others.

In addition to planning workshops, we were responsible for providing dinner each night. To our surprise, twice the number of children we were expecting attended our workshops. While we were very excited to have such a high interest this year, we had to quickly figure out how to feed twice as many children with a strict budget. For many of the children, the dinner we provided was their only guaranteed meal for the day. We initially tried to include nutrition lessons in the meals by giving them balanced meals with meat, a grain, and vegetables. However, we learned very quickly that the vegetables were not filling and the children much more preferred filling foods like meat, rice, and pasta. For many of them, paying attention to our workshops was difficult, even impossible, to do when they were so hungry. It became evident that others were attending the workshops because they were guaranteed a meal.

It was unreasonable, and even insensitive to expect their undivided attention on comparatively insignificant topics when they were not even guaranteed a meal every day. In a way, we were sort of exchanging knowledge and a necessity (food) for their time and attention. Realizing this was deeply humbling for me, as it compelled me towards a question I always find myself asking on these sorts of volunteer trips. Wouldn’t we do far more good by simply donating all the money we spend on flights and lodging to organizations like Childhope Asia? But then would we get the benefits of cultural exchange that also occurs on these trips? And aren’t the former more important?

In the end, the most important thing was that the children learned and enjoyed themselves. While they appreciated what they learned in workshops, most of them simply enjoyed hanging out with us in the evenings. They loved to take pictures on our phones and listen and dance to American music. Sometimes sessions got a little hectic, but we were still able to accomplish quite a bit. The children learned salsa choreography and showcased what their skills at a talent show at the end of our trip. I had a blast working with Childhope. Those children taught me about the appreciation of the “small things” like human connection and enjoying life for what it is—something monetary donations cannot do. I can only hope that they feel like they gained even half of what I did during our time together.

We got to see first-hand how a non-profit organization is run at Stairway Foundation. Stairway, a unique treasure on the island, Puerto Galera, is an organization that works with young boys who have previously been street children. Most of these kids have also experienced sexual abuse. The boys live at the foundation where they participate in schooling to bring them to their appropriate grade level; recreational activities like sports, arts & crafts, and theater; therapeutic sessions with their on site social worker; and chores to teach them about responsibility and work ethic. Needless to say, Stairway is a haven. I absolutely fell in love with this organization.

During my five days there, I was paired with my buddy, J. J is 16 years old, though his size is that of a child much younger. Together with a couple of other buddy teams, we formed the Red Team. We did a range of things, from creating our own theme song and chant, to learning the cup song, and making dream catchers. Through a host of activities, our buddies were responsible for teaching us new skills and tricks. J even taught me how to say a few words in Tagalog. He is beginning to learn English, so we sometimes had a difficult time communicating. It was a challenging, but beautiful experience to figure out how to communicate without words. Beyond teaching me new skills and words, J taught me so much more about life, resilience, connection, and happiness. Although all of the boys had been through a great deal, their ability to bounce back and genuinely enjoy all the beautiful things that life still has to offer them was very inspiring. I was constantly reassured that I will dedicate my life to working with and for youth.

It was very difficult to say goodbye to all those wonderful kids. At times, I felt guilty thinking about the potential harm done in having people continuously leave their lives—especially for the Stairway children. The last thing we want to do is make a child feel any more neglected or abandoned, which many of them have already experienced. We must recognize that while they may have enjoyed the few weeks that we were with them, their lives go back to normal after we leave. And we can only hope that they will keep and use what we taught them. While I do believe that these sorts of trips allow cultural exchanges that are necessary for global understanding, humility, and compassion, I also recognize that we must always question how much good we are doing, and take full responsibility for any harm we may cause.

Fortunately, I have been able to keep in touch with many of our kids and am hope that the lessons we were all able to learn from each other are unique lessons that we can always cherish. I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to travel to Manila and Puerto Galera. It was truly life changing.


Originally Written in 2016