Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where volunteering and fun are one

 In early 2005 Global Volunteer Network was looking to expand to more countries and offer wider choices to potential volunteers.  The Philippines has always been a sentimental option for GVN founder and CEO Colin as he spent time in this country as a volunteer himself before establishing the world’s biggest volunteer network.

 Fortuitously, GVN’s Nepal partner’s director was Filipino-born whose sisters are peasants and women’s rights workers.  A brother-in-law was secretary general of the biggest teachers’ federation in the Philippines.  She convinced them to put up a volunteer placement organization which would serve as an extension of their community development advocacies.

 Thus was born the Center for Volunteerism in the Philippines (CERV-Philippines) which took its first batch of volunteers in August 2005.  It was founded by the husband and wife team Raymund and Pom Villanueva and Eden Navia.  Raymund is the teacher leader, Pom is the women’s rights advocate and Eden is the peasants’ rights activist.  CERV has since then taken in three more members into its lean staff machinery to undertake various administrative and project implementation tasks.  Nearly five years hence, CERV remains a Philippine partner with only good prospects ahead.

 The Philippines is, to put it mildly, a very interesting place for volunteers.  Because of its 400+ years of colonial history the locals were initially loathed to allow volunteers to work under the heat of the tropical sun, especially White “guests”, believing that hard and manual labour are only for Filipinos and that members of the “Master Race” must take it easy.  Lavish attention in terms of the best accommodations and food were showered on them.  This led to some excesses on the part of some volunteers who mistook it as a license to do what they wanted, expecting to be readily excused every time.

 But most volunteers were equally determined to show the communities what volunteering was all about.  They worked harder than the locals and open-mindedly immersed themselves into the colourful and complicated Filipino culture.  After early hiccups, CERV volunteers have endeared themselves to the communities they serve.  The communities have grown to be more relaxed with volunteers from all over the world while managing to remain warm and hospitable.  This, without doubt, is the biggest strength of the Philippine volunteer experience.

 In less than five years volunteers have transformed many run-down schools into colourful and more functional learning institutions.  They have rebuilt new ones from the destructions of typhoons and decades of government neglect and corruption.  They have taught tens of thousands of students and provided primary health care to scores of poor patients.  They have delivered babies and took gravely-ill patients to bigger hospitals in the cities.  Volunteers have planted thousands of mangrove seedlings to jumpstart environmental rehabilitations of coastlines.  They have donated hundreds of relief goods in times of disasters and gave even more books, school supplies, medicines, even microscopes to schools that did not have them.  Volunteers have also assisted in providing life-saving and life-altering surgeries to two poor children while even more are being sponsored with their education.

 All these are reciprocated with genuine gratitude and long-lasting friendships.  Some volunteers have been made godparents in Catholic christening and weddings—effectively making them integral parts of the family.  They have been asked to keynote school graduations and serve as judges for school and beauty contests of various genders and age.  They have been invited to attend fiestas and festivals, family picnics, watch local and international soap operas on the telly, or to simply hang-out—an intimate Filipino predilection.

 Volunteering in the Philippines disappoints in terms of the romantic (sometimes misguided) notion that the placement areas should be abjectly destitute, even dangerous, communities.  They are nothing of the kind.  CERV’s  placement areas are—while definitely poor and in need of assistance—beautiful with crystal clear sea and fresh waters, good snorkelling sites, breathtaking views of verdant mountains and limestone cliffs, lots of fresh sea food,  and a very safe environment.  Coupled with the famous Filipino’s hospitality some volunteers may be excused to sometimes think they are vacationing for a substantial part of the time.

 For sure, there are things that could qualify as the “requisite hardship elements” in the volunteering experience.  Travel to and from the main placement area of Romblon is an 18-hour affair involving bus, ferry and tricycle rides.  Internet is grindingly slow—unless you travel on a boat for an hour to commercial broadband internet shops on another island.  There are regular power outages.  Volunteers must get used to eating rice at least three times a day.  And roosters start to crow long before sunrise (so earplugs may be a good idea for your first few nights on the island).  Volunteers must also accept the fact that the Philippines has many holidays that cause schools and clinics to suspend operations.

 But CERV is not making excuses for these.  The Philippines is what it is.  And based on its’ experience with hundreds of volunteers from all over the world this unique combination of work and play, volunteering and ‘vacationing’, being a ‘tourist’ and being a citizen of the world is just the “right mix.

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