Alison Oatey. Who is she? Everyone in Bliss recognizes her. The children call her Ate (big sister). All the homestays know her as Nanay Virgie’s volunteer. We would even mention her name to other volunteers. Whenever a new volunteer would ask about any past volunteer who returned, her name is the first thing to cross the mind of every VFV coordinator.
We know Alison as a primary school teacher who comes from Central England. What else do we know about her? Well, Alison just happens to be the only person who has volunteered with VFV for 10 years! Yes, 10 wonderful years! Can you believe it? So, let’s try to get to know her a little bit, and find out why she has kept on returning.
Asked how she came to choose the Philippines for her first volunteer trip, Alison replied that she had never heard about the Philippines before, she had no idea where the Philippines was. She just wanted to visit a country her friends had never been to, and be able to tell them stories about it.
Alison first volunteered with VFV in 2007, and, according to her, it was actually the worst year in terms of her volunteer placement. She was placed at a child care facility and was bored because there was not much to do, and duties and responsibilities were not clearly outlined. She felt like she couldn’t use her own initiative. You will wonder therefore, how come she returned to the Philippines 9 more times if her first year wasn’t that good? There’s got to be some reasons, right?
Here’s what Alison loves about the Philippines and her reasons for returning – the people, the culture and the lifestyle. Time and time again, her interaction with the locals and her experiences in the community have made a huge difference. These defining characteristics of the Philippines are what has made her come back 10 times.
As Alison has experienced herself, the Filipino people are kind. They go above and beyond to make you feel welcome. The smiles the locals give her, a wave, a shout of greetings whenever they see her, all these make her feel part of the community. They are very open and willing to share their life. Filipinos are generous with their time, are hospitable, and brimming with positivity. Filipinos inspire Alison because, despite many of them having so little, they are still able and willing to give as much as they can of themselves. They have this passion to help others, despite their own adversity.
According to Alison, living in a culture totally different from her own helps her appreciate what she has and what others may not have. It gives her a perspective on the world and opens her eyes to other people’s lives. Experiencing the Filipino culture makes her realize that some of her worries and stresses are trivial in comparison to what others, like some locals, deal with on a daily basis.
Learning about traditions, local foods and daily routines are really important to make her feel she is part of the culture. Alison said it would not be half the experience it is without the homestay experience. During her 10 years of volunteering, she has lived with a local host family. Her homestay mother, Nanay Virgie and her family, make her feel so welcome and part of the family. Alison likes the fact that her Nanay has time to chat with her and they share their day together, and even still asks about Alison’s culture and way of life. They learn from each other and Alison sees the family as her second home.
Alison shares the impact that volunteering has had on her over the years. Personally, volunteering gives her confidence because she is often out of her comfort zone, like riding a jeepney, conducting an activity at the volunteer placement, and meeting new people. Volunteering also allows her to learn new skills. During job application, understanding another culture has its benefit. Clearly, volunteering has helped Alison understand herself more, she realises what she enjoys doing, what she is good at, what kind of people she likes to interact with, and what she is or isn’t comfortable with.
Alison has since shared her experiences with the children at the school where she teaches. She teaches these children about the Filipino culture and helps them see similarities and differences and appreciate what they have. Since 2014, her school has been conducting a cultural Philippines Day every year. Every Philippines Day, the children get to learn something new about the Philippines and raise some funds to support a local school in the Philippines.
Alison does not just share her time, skills, and resources through volunteering. Since 2007, she has been providing educational support to a child from Tacloban City. What inspired her to do this? Her interaction with the local community. Alison sponsored Rizza when she was only 6 years old. Now she is almost 19 years old. Alison witnessed Rizza transform from a very shy girl to a young lady. Coming back to Tacloban gives her the opportunity to see Rizza grow and develop, and interact with her and her family. Looking back, Alison realizes that supporting Rizza was the right decision. It gives her comfort knowing she is making a difference in someone’s life, no matter how small it may be.
What does Alison like about VFV? She clearly sees the difference VFV is making in the community, which is VFV’s priority. In addition, as a volunteer, she is given the opportunity to work in a placement and interact with the locals. She likes the fact that there are extra activities she can participate in. Among these are the regular project visits and excursion with fellow volunteers. There are also events such as the fun run, tree planting, and relief distribution with staff and volunteers. There are tutorials with the sponsored kids, and of course, excursion with the homestay mothers.
Over the last 10 years of volunteering, Alison admits that her experiences have shaped her as a person. It has helped her appreciate her own and other people’s lives. Above all, it has given her friendships that she hopes will stay with her for the rest of her life. These friendships are one of the reasons why she keeps coming back to the Philippines. The kindness of her homestay, especially Nanay who welcomes her every time, Rizza, her sponsored child, the people in the communities she has worked in over the years and the VFV staff, past and present, who welcome her with open arms. She has experienced it herself: Filipinos are full of love and care for others, no matter what their life is like, they give an open heart to make her feel a part of the culture.
To Alison, thank you for 10 amazing years! 10 amazing years may have shaped you as a person, but you have made a lasting impact on us too. You inspire us. You inspire us to continue helping, even in small ways, because we know even little things can make a difference in the lives of other people. Cheers to you! For your dedication to help others. Here’s to 10 more years!