Dear blog followers, thank you so much for checking in on me. Your visits, comments and messages remind me every day that I am not alone!
Four weeks ago last weekend, I moved in with my host family, who are from a city called Davao in the southern Philippines and living in Dumaguete as my host mom Dizza finishes a masters degree in theology. She speaks English well and is passionate about all things feminist and environmental, and loves her sweet husband, a massage therapist by the name of Robie, and eight year old son, Burr, very much. Papa Robie cares for a tiny organic garden beside our home and cooks delicious vegetarian food for this happy home- the family has been an incredible fit for me!
Also four weeks ago today, I began my volunteer placement at an NGO called Little Children of the Philippines, or LCP. I am also volunteering my time on the weekends with Casa Esparanza, a temporary shelter for abused women and girls. My time outside of volunteering has been spent in weekly Bisaya (the local language) lessons, attending birthday parties, neighborhood potluck dinners and events like a city-wide boat race with my host family, and meeting Filipino friends for adventures in and outside of the city.
I hope to share some of what I’ve been learning at LCP and Casa Esparanza with you as I again present some questions I am grappling with. Again, your support in this experience is so tangible, and I want to invite you to share these stories and questions with family and friends- let’s keep these conversations going! And if you have any sensitivity related to topics of gender-based violence, please know that they will be mentioned in some of the descriptions below.
LCP is a short walk or bicycle ride from where I live. It is extremely well known throughout the city as a support for over 1200 families through its health, education, livelihood, and worship ministries, as it is American missionary founded. These programs include health clinics in 14 communities in and around Dumaguete, preschools in 7 communities, a daily on-site physical therapy program for children with disabilities, meat processing start-up programs for community mothers, and five long-term shelters for children and young people ages 7-21. Little Children of the World is LCP’s mother organization based in Barnesville, Georgia that manages funding, marketing and matching of American sponsors who fundraise money for each child to participate in LCP programs. My first month as a volunteer has been an immersion to learn more about its various programs and examine where my skillsets might best fit.
My tour of the LCP preschools was especially memorable as I realized, in the most fleeting snapshots, the varying challenges faced by each community LCP serves. One community, infringed upon by an enormous dumping ground, faces health problems that include illnesses of the throat and skin for children. A second, positioned beside the ocean and only minutes from downtown Dumaguete, hosts slum-like conditions as fisher folk struggle to earn their pay with the results of overfishing. A third has recently formed to house refugees of the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
I found a ministry of LCP called Schools on Wheels that provides schooling for street children in the afternoons to be difficult to leave after observing, and I have been spending time with its participants, fifteen bright, highly energetic 6-14 year old boys, two days a week with some plans to make recommendations for an activity manual to benefit the sustainability of the project.
A majority of the rest of my time has been spent learning about an LCP program called YIELD. Young Inspired and Empowered Leaders for Development is made up of sponsored high school and college youth through LCP. YIELD encourages youth toward a Christian lifestyle equipped with moral values, creates an inclusive culture of unity and cameraderie among members, and develops and strengthens members’ self-confidence and leadership skills so that they may become peer educators in their respective communities. During the next nine months, I hope to assist in planning creative workshops to enable the youth to develop professional skills in marketing, generating awareness around and raising funds for YIELD. Below is a youth-made video showing the vibrancy and passion of these high school and college students who I have been honored to meet so far- the narration is mostly in Bisaya, but you’ll find bits and pieces of English as well! It tells the story of youth leaders inspiring their communities to rise above habits such as skipping school and using drugs. I look forward to updating you on all that I learn from them throughout the year.
At Casa Esparanza, the short-term shelter for women and girls where I spend time on Saturdays, clients are given a safe place to live until their court cases finish or arrangements are made for them in a secure location in their home communities. The current ages of 15 clients range from a baby in a sixteen-year old’s belly to a six-year old girl to a woman in her late twenties. I’ve been observing interactive workshops on self-autonomy and self-awareness, and in interacting with these young women through jokes, drawing and songs, I am inspired by their laughter just as I am struck by the vast issue of gender-based violence. Many clients are abused or abandoned from the time they can walk, others raped repeatedly by their fathers or other perpetrators within their homes and communities.
Yet it was a moment in conversation last weekend with a house mother who lives at Casa when I wanted to break down and cry- and I did, in fact, end up leaving an hour later in tears as this exchanged weighed on me as if it was a physical load. We were speaking about her experience working at the shelter, and she asked me in English if cases of abuse and rape also happen in the U.S. I didn’t know where to begin to answer. Was I to respond with the statistics of 1 out of every 3 women in American universities who are assaulted sexually? By saying that children and women all over the world are viewed as objects, abused, and taken advantage of? Or with the stories of female friends, family members and even my own of grief and of suffering? I think I managed a response as intuitive as “Yeah, yeah it does,” and am still left with bigger, sinking questions. The words from the YAV director Richard Williams, who formerly served as a YAV in the Philippines, simultaneously haunt me and give me solace in moments like this. “Prepare to have your heart break open,” he advised, “and to have God there to pick up the pieces.” My heart feels shattered in these moments. I don’t know how what has been taken from these women and girls can ever be given back. I don’t know how they can be best helped in their various and individual healing processes. Sometimes, when we reach a place where we just don’t have the answers, all we can do is wait helplessly for the next shining moment of hope.
Every day of this immersion has been marked with ups and downs, as I attempt to absorb information at a rapid pace about these new settings, and adjust to schedule changes and decisions being made the moment before they are implemented. I am working hard to improve my Bisaya to understand even the tiniest bit of what is going on around me (Bisaya spoken far more commonly than English, although luckily in Dumaguete it is often scattered with English words throughout), and with this comes the necessity to be humble as I have become the punch line of most jokes that happen around me in the workplace. All in all, days can be exhausting, but I am so grateful for the constant foundation of my host family, my connection to other YAVs, and for the overall amazing ability of Filipinos to love and accept me into their spaces.
This week I head into another week at LCP, and this coming weekend I will lead a visual art activity as an informal form of art therapy for the girls at Casa Esparanza. As I pray for peace for each of these young women in their journeys of healing and awareness of self, I pray also for strength and hope to continue to abound in each young member of LCP and for wisdom and guidance for the loving LCP staff. I invite you to pray and to grapple with me as we look toward November together. Here are some lingering questions I have after my first month in placement- please ponder and share as you are able.
- What is the definition of empowerment, and what does it look like at LCP and Casa Esparanza as separate institutions? Is it access to resources, health, or education? Is it the ability of communities to initiate change and serve themselves? This is something I will continue to pay attention to as I observe the sponsorship model from the U.S. and the projects contributed by a constant influx of short and long-term LCP volunteers from America, Australia, Germany and Denmark (including myself!).
- Seeing as about 80% of LCP clients are strong Catholics relying on support from/required to attend services at a markedly evangelical NGO, how does the component of faith play a role in the work of LCP? Does it make its intentions any less valid, or its results any less tangible?
- Lastly, how does the work of LCP and Casa contribute to systems of oppression that I’ve written about in previous posts? How does its work move to resist them? Please hold me accountable in continuing to examine these two questions in particular as the year continues. Peace and warmth be with you, readers. –Emma