My Reflection of RYM/SERVE Solidarity Programme in the Philippines

By Niamh Harrington

In July 2019 a group of 11 young people from Ireland travelled to Cebu City in the Philippines to work alongside Redemptorist Youth Ministry Cebu and Tacloban and the Badjao Tribe in the Nano Nagle Early Learning Centre. I was lucky to be part of this incredibly diverse and talented team where we learnt to collaborate with each other to achieve the best experiences for ourselves and all the people we met on this journey.

October 2018 began fundraising plans and thanks to the kindness of the Irish public, in addition to a quiz night and donations from local businesses I was able to attain my fundraising target making this project possible. The funding we gathered went towards our flights, accommodation, and the remainder was put towards SERVE’s funding of projects in the Badjao Community. Upon returning we learnt that our funding will be used to fix the gates to the Badjao School and its surrounding community as well as making improvements to stairs of houses that were built in Site B with the help of SERVE’s previous volunteers.

We had two training weekends before embarking on the project where we discussed what we hoped to learn and what skills we planned to share during our time in the Philippines. As I am involved in Scala on a voluntary basis working on the Meitheal Youth Leadership Programme, a programme I myself graduated from I felt confident in working on our planned Redemptorist Youth Ministry retreat. Another thing that filled me with confidence about this trip was my experience as a preschool teacher here in Ireland. I was delighted hearing that we would be working in the Nano Nagle Early Learning Centre and particularly in the Montessori classes made me feel super at ease with the project we had ahead of us.

Looking back on this who experience I have come to realise that this project was truly faith in action. Throughout my Religious Education studies in Leaving Certificate, I read about the concept Jesus shared of the Kingdom of God not being a place or a thing but a way of life. Until reflecting on this experience I did not really understand this concept. The warmth and welcoming nature of the Cebuano’s and Badjao that we got to talk to portrayed this nature of acceptance which we often lack here at home in our fast-paced lives. Every person I interacted with had a smile to share and kindness to offer no matter what life situation they were facing. The appreciation these people showed for the little things in life warmed my heart. The Prophet Micah’s vision of Justice, Compassion and Humility are the central theme of the Meitheal programme and are values I try to live my life by, but as humans we often struggle to achieve theses. Personally, humility is a concept I not only struggled to understand but up until now was a value that I felt I could never achieve.

To be humble in what we do and not look for praise or thanks is difficult because as people we often feel we need this appraisal to feel accomplished. Upon returning from this project many people were praising me for my courage to take on this “challenge and work in these upsetting conditions” an idea which really upset me because having been there and having experienced these interactions I came to realise that everyone including myself benefitted from this collaboration. While the cultural experience was diverse from the one of home, I could not call it upsetting because the incredible people we met live exceptional lives that they are proud and grateful for. Yes, I may have shared some skills I have learnt through my role as a youth ministry volunteer or from my career as a preschool teacher but unknowns to myself I gained a lot more from this project that I contributed. I now refuse to accept praise for experiencing this opportunity not because I feel it’s the humble thing to do but because for me these moments are something I was privileged to experience.

During our two weeks in the Philippines we spent time with Redemptorist Youth Ministry Cebu, sharing games, dances, friendships and a three-day retreat which allowed us to share our individual concepts of faith in action.  The use of creativity through music, dance and art by the Cebuano’s was something that enhanced my understanding of faith to no end. I personally gained so much from working with these youths as they were so open and willing to share their thoughts, practice and culture. I was delighted to learn some everyday Cebuano words, games and songs all of which I have began sharing in my classroom this year. Not only did our work with RYM Cebu include elements of faith but we also focused on Sustainability and the differences and similarity between Ireland and the Philippines. Stewardship of the planet is central in all walks of life and the climate change crisis is something that we all strive to help decrease.

A visit to the Leprosarium was also something we got to experience. The empathy shown towards the people staying in the leprosarium was something that opened my eyes to the world that we live so far away from. The prejudice we are conditioned to have in the Western World is something I was completely unaware of until it came to us walking into the Cottages. Apprehensive is an understatement of how we felt but I soon realised when I saw the RYM Cebu youth interacting with the residences that my society had programmed me to treat these people a certain way when in fact there was no reason to fear anything.

We also got to work alongside the teachers in the Nano Nagle Early Learning Centre and the Badjao Youth Council. My passion for working with children was strengthened even more when I saw the children of the Badjao Tribe running to school with a look of extreme excitement on their faces. The appreciation the community have for the teachers Edwina, Pau, Janice, Venerva, Tommy and the Presentation sisters in addition to the pride of place the school holds in the community was something that melted my heart as a teacher.

The smiles on the faces of the young children, their families and the Chiefs of the Tribe were something that made the whole experience worthwhile. A day that will stick out in my head forever will be the day the Dentist came to visit the Montessori Children. The smiles on these childrens faces and the excitement about this new experience filled me with positivity. We also ran some workshops on bullying, human rights and the future of the Badjao with the Badjao Youth Council a group of 16-20-year olds who are a voice for the youth of the Tribe. Hearing from these incredible youths who everyday challenge the stereotypes about their Tribe set by the Filipino Population. Each of these students attends either High School or College outside of the community and are faced with adversities and discrimination for identifying as Badjao. While these obstacles continue to present themselves, the spirit and passion this Tribe have has encouraged these young people to rise above the hate and prove their value in this world through their successes as college graduates and educated members of the Filipino workforce.

SERVE work in partnership with the Badjao Tribe each year and ensure that each project has the needs of the Badjao at the core of the planning. The funding SERVE provides to this community gives the School opportunities to provide education for preschool children right through to adulthood. The school co-ordinated by Sr. Mildred and Edwina have fought to keep the youth of the Badjao in school while also valuing their Tribes believes and practices. The school also offers incentives for the children to attend Montessori classes, providing a hot meal for the children to take home after morning classes. Without the funding raised by SERVE volunteers SERVE would not be able to continuously support these incredible communities.

Solidarity is when a group work in harmony to support each other on their personal journeys. My experience in the Philippines has opened my eyes to a world of happiness and joy where people walk with each other in unity supporting individual difference. It has made me think about the way we look at life in a glass half empty manner when we should take a leaf out of these incredible peoples lives and see the world as a good place full of potential and opportunity. Without the kindness and support of everyone who donated, I would not have been able to pass that kindness forward through this experience. By passing kindness forward we are not only giving a little love but we are also getting a little love of our own. “Love your neighbour as yourself” Matthew 22:39. Thank you for your support and for taking the time to read my reflection on this solidarity project.

I am forever grateful for this experience,