Thursday, March 15, 2007


So much has happened since the last post. We had a beautiful gala with all the WYA staff from around the world, our International Board Members, WYA interns, many friends and family all in attendance. During this gala I became president of World Youth Alliance and Anna was able to fully claim and enjoy her title as Founder. We were both able to experience and enjoy our new roles in a follow-up trip to Lebanon.

We travelled back to Beirut to meet up with many more young people, and continue to begin the work of WYA in the Middle East. Anna spent a great deal of time working to develop a curriculum which will incorporate WYA materials into a high school curriculum. In this way high school students will be able to study the WYA training sets with guidance from their teachers and to help in completing their high school studies. The training materials currently cover the WYA philosophy on the dignity of the person, UN language which has shaped and been shaped by WYA, developmental issues, and other movements and philosophers who have impacted the development of the ideas WYA works with. Through incorporating this into a high school curriculum the materials will also incorporate local heroes and cultural references to give concrete examples of how this message can be lived in their society and culture.

While Anna was busy working on curriculum, I met with over a hundred youth. The great majority of youth I spoke with became members and understood so clearly the importance of the message of dignity for their lives and for the Middle East. Many of the youth had already begun their own organisations which focused on economic opportunities so youth wouldn't have to resort to terrorism and violence, and on cultural ties which are shared and can bring young people together. They immediately understood how important WYA was to bring them together with other young people they might never meet and to begin to change their society.

We have many members from Lebanon and the Middle East enrolled in our online training program and I look forward to great things happening from WYA members in the Middle East. They are absolutely capable of making the transformations which they see need to happen.

Upon my return from the Middle East, a new batch of interns had arrived at WYA headquarters in NY. We have 8 interns at the moment. We have one Filipina, a Mexican, a Canadian, a Thai, and 4 Americans. They are an excellent batch with quite a range of interests and talents. One in particular introduced himself in an unforgettable manner by pranking the founder. Danny is hilarious and has pranked almost every staff and intern at some point or another, but also takes getting pranked quite well. He is working to organise an Emerging Leaders Canadian Policy Seminar in Ottawa at the end of September. Part of the organisation process involved calling numerous hotels seeking a discount. Clare and Ines, two other interns, decided to return his pranks and called pretending to be Laura from the Sheraton. Laura offered to Danny free hotel rooms and suites for all the WYA participants and guests. She also demanded within 30 minutes to have an organisational profile, letter from the president, and speaker bios. Poor Danny was so excited and panicked trying to get everything done. Then Laura called back, said they now wished to host the event at the Sheraton, to cater the event, and also to open up all their press contacts to WYA. Danny didn't even get off the phone but sent Jordan to get me. I didn't dare break Danny's heart further so I asked him to request a letter from the Sheraton confirming all they had offered on Sheraton letterhead.

Clare and Ines were so shocked that I would turn on them, but came rushing downstairs to say he'd been punked! It took a while for Danny and the rest of the interns to believe that not just the press and catering, but even the rooms were all part of the same prank. He took it pretty well and even managed to wait two weeks before pranking Clare.

So, now we're heading into the middle of our second internship of the year, projects are coming along nicely. We're all wary of getting pranked, and have started Wednesday lunches all together to get to know each other better.

That's about all for now.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 3

Thursday morning was our last day of GK Immersion. We said goodbye to our families, a number of the SIGA kids came to say bye, even Aliah was there. Instead of going back to build at Talanay, we toured a number of other GK sites. We visited another site nearby which was also under construction. We then visited Baseco, a slum beside the site of what used to be one of Manila's busiest ports. Baseco is one of the most dangerous areas in Manila. There are high crime rates and the police are almost entirely ineffectual there. GK now houses a few thousand families and within the GK site there is almost no crime and the difference in the people who live there and just outside is incredible. It is possible to look down the streets of GK to the very end, and see thousands of shacks at the edge of the GK site. It is possible to glance across the water and see a few meters away people living in shacks, then glance around and see people living in beautiful, clean cottages.

The people in GK Baseco are so friendly and so grateful for what they have. We stopped into a little classroom which was 4 meters by 8 meters. In one corner was a little play area for the children and the rest of the room was filled with tables, chairs and books. The teacher told us how he was able to teach the children thanks to the generosity of their international friends. He was especially pleased to point out the play area. This was a 1 by 2 meter area in which was a little plastic slide, some books, some stuffed animals and a few other toys. He told me this area was donated by the son of an international company, they had a plaque on the wall in his honour, he emphasized numerous times that the son donated this area personally. I felt so ashamed listening to him. That play area probably cost a total of $200. To anyone in the west that is NOTHING.

If we each contributed that amount to organisations such as Gawad Kalinga, and even more than that cared about the people who are living in such terrible conditions. If we didn't support greed and corruption through carelessness and the desire for our own comfort, there would be no need for this man to be so grateful for a plastic slide donated by the president's son of an international company. Gawad Kalinga is very careful to honour their international friends who make their work possible. Every street and house is named after the person or company who donated to make that possible. To the people living on those streets and in those houses, those international donors are really their friends, people who finally took the time to look past the misery of their conditions and realise that they are people who deserve a nice house and a clean neighbourhood and water, and a place for their children to attend school.

The difference these houses has made to those living in the communities and those working to build new communities is incredible. For the first time in their lives they are treated with respect, and looked on as part of the solution to the problems in which they live. The rich who generally ignore them and look down on them donate the materials but more than that come and work beside them to build their houses.

After Baseco, we toured a site which will soon begin construction. A group of children gathered round me as we walked through the site, and every time I smiled at them they would huddle together and giggle. Ren translated for me, that as the children would giggle excitedly and talk amongst themselves they would say "the white girl smiled at me." They were so excited just to look at me, catch my eye, smile and then turn to their friends and tell their friends I had smiled at them.

We sat down in a room for our final talk about Gawad Kalinga. A number of volunteers who were touring the site to plan the build joined us. At the end, they asked us to share our experiences, and all present turned expectantly to me. I didn't know what to do. As I'd spent two days building with those living in such conditions, I'd actively been helping them change and able to be their friend. At this point I was only able to see them, to smile at them, to leave them. I'd been telling myself all morning to be strong, not to see their poverty, but to see them for who they are. But it is very difficult to view someone as a fellow person and then to view the conditions they live in without strong emotions. So I tried to share my thoughts and couldn't, I just cried. I cried and tried to stop, to thank them for all they were doing, and for the incredible experience they'd given to me but I couldn't, all I could do was cry. My sharing was not what I intended it to be.

I finally stopped crying and we took a picture all together, at which point Tam asked me what I thought of Gawad Kalinga. Talk about terrible timing. I managed to hold back the tears since the children were all waiting for me, looking at me, and I wanted to at least leave them with a smile. We walked back to the van, and I chatted somewhat with the children asking them their names and ages. One little girl left the group and came with me all the way to the van, where we hugged and then I left.

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 2

Wednesday morning we woke up at 6:30 so we could get to Talanay early for more work. We rented a jeepney to go to the other site, and a number of the SIGA kids skipped school to come help us build. It was the first time any of them had travelled to another Gawad Kalinga site, and they enjoyed the experience, although they said it felt a bit strange also. Having helped to build their own homes they were already experts and many commented that it was nice to help those in another community who were trying to achieve what they already had. Wednesday morning some of us again painted others of us helped make concrete. They had a big pile of sand that had to be sifted to remove the rocks. Two people held onto either end of a large sifter and shook back and forth while other people shovelled sand from the pile onto it. Once the pile of sand was big enough, the two people emptied the rocks onto a separate pile, while others filled up bags with the sand and transported them to another place where it was mixed with water to become concrete. The local kids were eager to help and loved sifting and shovelling sand. They'd work hard, tire quickly, and then run around for a bit before returning to help. A couple little boys climbed a tree nearby and would return with handfuls of small, red fruits from the tree which they encouraged us to eat. Even our Philippino friends had no idea what the fruits were, so I ate them and hoped I didn't become sick.

At breaktime the women were true to their word and gave us putopao. Putopao are little rice bread rolls with some sort of filling inside. No one in the community has a stove, so they must have gone to the local bakery to make them for us. They were so thrilled to offer me their local specialty, of course I was thrilled to eat it by then. I ate lunch with my sister Ann from Brookside at a local woman's cottage who owned a little sari-sari, a store which sells almost anything the community could need but in tiny packets for one meal or one day, which is all the people can afford to buy at a time. During our lunch break we sat outside and gradually most of the children came to play near us. One little boy in particular was such a clown, he would run at top speed towards almost anything or anyone, swerve just before killing himself at some incredible angle, then stop and grin at us waiting for approval. Philippinos, as a nation, are not camera shy. Once I took out my camera, the kids spent the next hour coming up with creative activities, poses, faces, anything so I would take a picture of them. I let one of the kids take a picture with the camera, and after that they all wanted to try so I had to tell them it ran out of batteries so I could get it back.

In the afternoon we taught a SIBOL class at the local school, of children 3-7 years old. Charisse and Ren taught the kids some english words, then we drew pictures together. One little girl came to the session late. There is a morning and and afternoon session of school for the children. This little girl generally attended school in the morning but she'd heard a foreigner was attending their school only in the afternoon so had gone home and cried to her mother. Her mother had then spoken with the teacher and she had received special permission to attend school in the afternoon to meet the foreigner. In my group, I had the little girl who arrived late, another little girl and a little boy. We each drew for each other what we wanted the other to have. Every single child in that school drew a house. A house was the best gift they had ever received, so when they thought of generosity they thought of giving a house. We then read a story to them, I read in English while Tam read in Tagalog. We sat at the front to read, and while I was reading one little girl began touching my leg, then another girl joined in, a little boy, then half the class was touching my leg. I think they wanted to check if my skin felt different to theirs. The teacher of course was mortified and told the children to sit back and stop touching my leg. Two little girls were quite creative and then draped themselves across my knees so they could continue touching my legs without getting in trouble.

One beautiful thing about my encounters with all these children, in all the GK communites I visited, was how open they were, within seconds I became their Ate. We didn't speak the same language at all, so instead they introduced me to their games and invented other ways to get to know me. One little girl named Aliah, from Brookside, about three years old attached herself to me within seconds of seeing me. For the next three days we were practically inseparable. I became her Ate, her horsey, her amusement park, and she became my little shadow. Her mom came up to me the second night and told me that Aliah wanted to sleep with me, it was heartbreaking whenever her mom had to take her away and she would cry to come back to me. When she did return she'd run up to me all smiles and pull at me until I picked her up.

Wednesday night we had our second talk on honour. I spoke on behalf of the WYA about Dignity and Honour. I mostly wanted to convey to the youth how special they are. They've come from tough backgrounds and haven't experienced much privilege yet they had been so warm, so generous, so happy, so filled with hope. So I spoke about dignity with them, and how it tied together all our experiences, and what they could do as part of the WYA to bring their experiences to others and how they could also continue to improve their lives and their communities through living out dignity. Their levels of english comprehension varied, so I tried to speak simply. One funny aspect was that I was playing with Aliah before I went up to speak. I knew I couldn't leave her behind or she'd be sad, so I just brought her up with me, sat her on my hip and had baby in one hand, mic in the other. Of course, all the kids thought it was hilarious to have me speaking to them holding one of their babies. After a while though my arm grew tired and I had to put her down. Without me holding onto her, she took one look at the crowd and ran for the nearest break in the chairs to escape the staring eyes.

WYA has volunteered for a while with another GK community, Castaneda. A number of the youth from that community drove an hour and a half to join us for that evening. Erika told me after my talk that one of the boys from Castaneda started to cry as I was speaking. After I finished speaking, we had a party together. Greg is a rapper and also breakdances, so he started the festivities, another volunteer did some freestyle. The SIGA kids performed a number of hiphop dances for us. They compete with other GK communities, and always win. They choreograph themselves and could win against many groups with professional choreographers, they were quite impressive and danced for more than 15 minutes with all the moves perfectly memorised. They called on a number of us volunteers to freestyle at one point, and I became one of the lucky victims. Greg, Zeus, some of the SIGA kids, myself and Gail were chosen to freestyle for everyone. Thankfully Gail and I were equally terrible, since everyone else chosen was a great dancer.

We also cooked everyone dinner, we made spaghetti and Erika brought chicken. Philippino style spaghetti would not be appreciated in Italy. Philippinos love everything sweet, including spaghetti. I don't dare give away the recipe but the kids loved our spaghetti, they gave us the highest compliment - that it tasted like McDonalds or Jollibee spaghetti.

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 1

Tuesday morning Renelyn, Tam and some others participated in a Gawad Kalinga immersion. Gawad Kalinga is an organisation which works transforming slums. They work with donors and the people living in the slums to build cottages. For people to qualify to have a cottage built for themselves, they first need to work a certain amount of time building cottages for their neighbours. The children are also enrolled in schools and in youth groups for their age. Healthcare is made available to the communities and different experts help with talks, with skills, with seeking jobs. The most important part of Gawad Kalinga is that it doesn't just give the poor what they need, the poor become partners in transforming their communities and themselves. There are homeowners associations, and the president of the association is typically the last one to receive their own house.

Our immersion consisted of working in one slum site, and staying in another community which had already been transformed. Tuesday morning we drove to Talanay and spent the morning painting - one important aspect of Gawad Kalinga is to make the communities beautiful, so the cottages are all painted bright, warm colours. There were a number of children who gathered to watch us and play nearby. The children all help whenever they're allowed, they tried to help us with painting but were shooed away by their parents for wasting paint. Another aspect of Gawad Kalinga is that the volunteers don't just come in, work, and leave. It is important that the volunteers meet and get to know the people living there, so breaks are scheduled frequently to allow opportunities to chat and hang out. During these breaks there is of course always food. Philippinos are very hospitable and very generous, even the slums we were always offered more food than we could eat. Our first morning break they made chocolate rice porridge for us. The whole time I was eating, the women watched me to ensure I liked it and asked me frequently if it was good. Thankfully it was delicious so I could honestly reply that I loved it. Afterwards they asked if I'd ever eaten putopao, and since I hadn't they promised me we would have it the next day for our snack.

After painting all morning we drove to Brookside, the Gawad Kalinga community which is already a community of beautiful cottages. We arrived at lunchtime and were taken to the school where there were some hotplates to cook on. Greg, our rapporteur with GK, asked the women how to cook rice and they went into detailed descriptions so I finally mentioned that I know how to cook rice. The women were so excited, they asked "you know how to cook?" yes, "you know how to cook rice?" yes, "without a rice cooker?" yes. So then two of them followed us down for proof of this novelty. I will confess the rice was a little mushy, the pots were designed to cook for upwards of 40 children at a time, so cooking for 7 was hard to measure but the women were still impressed.

We then walked up a little hill to the community center. In each GK community they organise productivity activities to allow the communities to be self sustaining. In Brookside the women bead flip-flops. We spent three hours beading flipflops with them, and not one of us finished a whole pair. Of course, the women were much faster than we were but it is quite a lot of effort, they sell the flip-flops for 100 pesos - the equivalent of $2USD. Each woman receives for the sale of one of her flip-flops 15 pesos. They are lucky to sell 3 or 4 flip-flops each/week. These tiny amounts of money enable the women to buy food, school supplies for their children, and mean the difference between surviving and begging.

Upon arrival to Brookside we were each given families, we ate and slept with our families and hung out with our brothers and sisters, I became Ate (big sister) to a fourteen year old girl named Ann. Tuesday evening, we all met in the community center for an evening activity with SIGA, the community youth group. GK focuses on hope, heroism, and honour in transforming the slums. There is a Tagalog word, bayani, which roughly translated into English means "one who carries a home" or hero. We listened to a talk on hope given by one man who used to be a millionaire and gave it all up to work full time for GK. The president of SIGA also spoke about hope, the president is 17 years old and studying information technology in university. He spoke about growing up in a slum and the transformation that happened to his life when he was able to live in a house, attend school and receive the opportunity to attend university and have hope for his future. He was shy about his english and interjected many of his sentences with "parang" rough translation "like." This caused the other kids endless amusement and him much shyness but his talk was beautiful.