The following entry is a testimonial from Andréanne Michaud, who led a group of eighteen year 11 students to volunteer in the Philippines last March 2011.
“Dear parents, teachers, principals,
As a high school teacher, I have had the opportunity to live the VFV experience with eighteen of my grade 11 year students. In this letter of recommendation I will explain why this program is perfect for high school groups with regards to security, cultural exchange experience and quality of assistance during the stay. Finally I will recommend some links and resource to prepare your students well.
Regarding to security issues, this project offers many advantages for accompanying adults. First of all, the community is use to seeing foreigners and volunteers. They are very welcoming and we truly felt included in the community. We therefore feel very safe in the barangay (neighborhood). Tacloban is also a very safe town if teens follow the basic security rules, such as never leaving things unattended, coming back before dinner (~18:00), staying in small groups and making sure to get in the proper jeepney (bus). Walking around town, my students felt safe although they had to get used to being stared at. The city center is at perfect distance from the barangay; it is close enough to go during the day but less accessible during the night for teenagers.
It was very easy for my students to bond at the center. These kids are alert, curious and always ready to play educative games. Also, since my students became role models for them, my students naturally had to uphold a certain behavior in the community. This was very helpful for me as their supervisor. Last but not least, the community adopts a curfew: after 9pm, all underage kids in the community have to be with their parents/host families. Since the curfew is well respected in the community, my teenagers could not argue this rule and had to obey. This was a relief for me as their teacher as I knew I would be home by nine o’clock.
Culture wise, the system of host families is really the key of the success in this program. Living with families, my students were all very attached with their houseparents and they each lived a quality time with them. The food was delicious and the houseparents are used to having foreigners; they are hence capable to adjust to allergies and dietary restrictions. They always want to please their new children and also agreed to cook with them some of the local delicacies such as mango float and homemade peanut butter! We are very happy to say that no-one got sick during the whole stay as everyone was careful in the preparation of food. Those who had the chance to have apoy (grandparents) or siblings had a wonderful time playing with them and bringing them to the [community] center during the evening to see the hip hop dance classes.
The staff from the center are all amazing people. They are always ready to help and I was amazed with their availability: even when they are not working, staff members are always on call. As we were one of the first high school group to live this introduction to international cooperation internship, two staff members came to welcome us at the Manila airport. During the first week, they organized Waray Waray and Filipino culture classes, carried a small orientation tour of Tacloban City and did not forget the security and prevention speech. Everyone at the center is competent and you will be amazed at how the community center constructs the hearth of the neighborhood. VFV works with sponsored kids, but also with toddlers, with kids who dropped out of high school or who work in the dump-site. They also put in place a micro-credit system for mothers and help them to create their small businesses, they give hygiene and mothering classes, carry play time activities with under-school children and organize rice distribution events. The staff were always open to new ideas and were always ready to assist us in any way possible. They are extremely generous with their time and I owe them a lot.
As for tips and recommendations, I do recommend to prepare your students in advance. Other than team building seminars, it is important that teens be open minded and ready to take initiatives. This is the key to their success in this experience. Also they must also be prepared for the weather. Although it was not always so, we got 2 weeks of non-stop rain out of 4. I was glad that this did not discourage my students to carry on with their activities. I do recommend that you teach some basic Waray Waray. Even if most houseparents and kids speak English, this will help them integrate into the community and will be a good impression to everyone. Also if you plan on volunteering in an orphanage, this will be extremely useful as 4 – 5 year old’s often only speak Waray. I did the first 4 lessons of this website and my students found it very useful: http://waraylessons.bythehost32.com. As for the pronunciation, we made it sound a little Spanish and it worked fine.
To prepare them culturally, I recommend the following book, which is excellent and easy to read. I did leave a copy at the center. I had my students read most chapters and we carried on discussions. “Do’s and Don’t in the Philippines” by Maida Pineda, illustrates by Stephanie Bravo. You can buy it new ($30), used ($20) or even download it ($10).
Finally communicating with my principal and with parents was easy thanks to the wireless internet connection. Although it was sometimes interrupted because of the heavy rain, I was able to hold regular skype communication with my school and with parents. My students were also able to keep a blog http://phap2011.jimdo.com (in French) and were independent with their iPod for basic communication such as short email, facebook and even to call home. Although there are some desktop computers available, bringing three mini-laptop was useful as it gave us more freedom. I also recommend that each adult bring a cell phone and buy a local sim in Tacloban. I found this was convenient to coordinate or ask for help. It also allowed me some free time, while staying on call. Teen do not need cellphones however and it does give them a break (I left our two sims at the center before I left).
In conclusion, I would gladly return to Tacloban to work with VFV, alone or with another group of students. We all came back extremely happy with our experience and were very sad to leave. I did see a wonderful transformation in my student’s lives and we all learned a great deal. I would be happy to answer any questions.
High School Teacher, programme DéfiMonde
Montréal, Québec, Canada