Volunteer trip with FLAG Phil in Las Pinas, Manila, Philippines
I recently went on my own version of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love".
There was definitely a lot of Eating (border-line gluttony), a little bit of Praying, but more importantly an abundant amount of Loving.
Don’t get excited…I didn’t fall in love with a Brazilian businessman; I fell in love with 26 young girls. Wait…that sounds a bit strange….please keep reading!
I've always wanted to volunteer, and when the opportunity to work with young girls in the Philippines arose, I jumped on it. How hard could it be? It would be a lot of fun…I'll teach them how to make jewelry, salsa dance, and swim…easy!
Boy was I wrong!
Sure, showing up, giving them donated clothes and toys, playing and chatting with them was easy and fun; but getting to know them and their families, seeing where they live, and learning about their individual stories was heart-breaking. The experience was immensely different than I expected. It was better than I expected!
I was so pumped to meet the girls. As a 30 year-old professional, I was confident that I have a lot to share and teach them. But to my surprise, they taught me more than I could ever imagine. To be honest, I felt like I've cheated them, because I felt like I took more from them than I gave.
In the short time I spent with the girls, they taught me contentment, resilience, sisterhood, gratitude, and most importantly, the power of education…and oh yeah…that Girls Rule!
When I was first introduced to FLAG, I had questions as to why the focus on girls. Don’t boys need help as well? Do boys have more/preferred access to education? Shouldn't all children be given the same opportunity?
After my volunteer experience with FLAG, I got the answers to my own questions. Yes, boys need help just as much as girls do, especially in a country like the Philippines, where poverty is prevalent. It is important for every child to be loved and cared for, and to have access to the basic necessities. However, seeing it first hand, I believe that having a population of uneducated and un-empowered women has a more damaging and long lasting downward spiral effect to the family, community and over-all society.
I am very fortunate to have a mother who is empowered and educated. She holds a Bachelor's degree, has been in the workforce for over 35 years, and is an active member of the community. Like every mother she drives me bonkers, but I admire her dearly for who she is and for what she's done for our family, friends, and the community. Much of who she is, is a product of her upbringing. Just as the person I've become, has been the sum of my experiences and how I've been brought up. It's the cycle of life.
But what happens when the cycle starts off with uneducated, unencouraged, un-loved and un-empowered young women. From what I saw and experienced first-hand working at FLAG, the cycle ends gloomy. I saw families with 9 children with no food to eat; families crammed in spaces the size of my bathroom (and I live in a 1 bedroom condo in downtown Toronto); grandparents in their 80s taking care of their abandoned grand-children; children begging for money on the streets; and the worst of all, young girls soliciting money for sex. I knew these unfortunate scenarios existed, but not until it was in front of me that I realized they were someone's reality.
From doing home visits and parent interviews, I saw a generation of 3 women whose lives would've been completely different, had they had access to the services and support that FLAG offers. The program offers much more than just a before and after school curriculum, and a place for the girls to nap and eat. For these resilient girls, it's a place where they can be a kid, a place where they can explore the arts, a place where they are loved and encouraged, and a place where they can dream.
This experience proved the importance and power of educating girls. As Adelaide Hoodless puts it, "Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community." I strongly believe that a young girl who is loved, empowered, educated (may it be formal or informal), will grow up to be a young woman with high self-esteem and self-respect, who will dream and strive to do big things.
This young woman will be unlikely to end up as a prostitute, will be unlikely to have more children than she knows she can support, and will be unlikely to abandon her children. This young woman will likely be a role model to her siblings, will likely be a kind and compassionate mother, and will most likely be a productive contributor to the society.
At a young age, the girls of FLAG taught me all this…just imagine what they can do when they are young educated women. The possibilities are endless.
To find out more about FLAG, its founders, its mission, and how you can help, please visit http://flagphil.com/