Life on HK$4 a day an eye-opener for Hong Kong students in Philippines
A trip to the Philippines that combined volunteerism with adventure opened the eyes of a group of HKIS students to the plight of the nation's poorest
Dumaguete in the Philippines is best known to Hongkongers as a paradise for divers, a place where holidaymakers escape from the real world and relax. But not far from the resorts that line the beach, hundreds of families live in abject poverty; their "real world" means trying to live on 50 US cents a day.
Hong Kong International School teacher Jon Bryant recently led a group of 65 students to Dumaguete on a trip co-organised by Young Life and faith-based charity International Care Ministries (ICM), which works with disadvantaged people in the Philippines.
"It was very humbling to work alongside these kids and see how and where they live. We found ourselves comparing it to the snorkelling trip to Apo Island - you put your head under the water and it's a world so independent from you, there's so much life, it challenges your way of thinking about others," says Bryant.
The week-long trip was the first of its kind for the school since the travel ban to the Philippines was lifted and the high school students - accompanied by 20 adults - supported local teachers in the classroom and worked on sustainable projects such as making worm gardens.
"We saw this trip as a great opportunity for students - it combines volunteerism with adventure and was a chance to better understand the work of ICM," says Bryant.
Seventeen-year-old Imogen Yih is an old hand at volunteerism trips. In Grade 8 the HKIS student did voluntary work in Yangshui in China; in Grade 11 she went to Chiang Mai in Thailand and last year she went to Cape Town. But she says the trip to the Philippines left an especially big impression on her.
"These people are only two or three hours away from you, but they live in conditions so very different - they don't have a toilet at home, share one light bulb between a whole family and wash their clothes in the river," says Imogen.
The plight of the poor was brought even closer to home by the fact that she, like many of her classmates, is close to her family's live-in Filipino helper.
"I'm the youngest in the family. My parents are both doctors and away a lot, and I was raised in a way that I'm very close to our helpers. One has been with us for 18 years; she's my second mum. The trip was special for me because I was going to her culture, trying to understand where she was coming from," says Imogen.
ICM has 10 bases in the Philippines - including Dumaguete - and works with the so-called ultra poor. There are seven million people in the Philippines who fall into this group, the charity says. ICM's executive director Peter Maize has been with the group just over a year and says he joined the charity after 13 years in the NGO world because he believes it offers the best poverty relief solutions he has come across.
"There are many ways to help poor people. The old-fashioned way of dropping off big boxes of food, that's more the relief side. For most poor people around the world it's about subsistence. ICM is about improving their lives and putting them on the road to a good life," says Maize.
A cornerstone of this is a four-month programme for adults in the community that teaches a broad range of things, from health issues (even simple things such as the importance of hand washing for hygiene) to how to improve their livelihood with simple micro-enterprises, such as worm farms and making snacks that can be sold.
He says visiting these communities in the Philippines enables Hong Kong students to step outside the "expatriate bubble" and see that they live very privileged lives. They also see that the children in the Philippines are similar to them, even though their circumstances are different.
"For the students, a lot of the time its an adventure, it's not the usual Phuket holiday. It can be very hands-on and they interact with the local people, get to lead things and come away feeling empowered," says Maize.
Imogen enjoyed working with the children in the kindergarten, but it was the time spent with teenagers on the Young Life programme that was most memorable.
"We spent time together and talked about our passions and interests - they weren't coming from a position of needing our help, we were sharing. One girl was 20 and was studying psychology - and that's the subject I want to study. It made me realise we live miles apart, come from different economic backgrounds, but we're chasing the same dreams," says Imogen.
Louise Joachimowski is ICM's creative resources director and has helped train the ICM Choir since it was founded in 2010. Today the choir is made up of 12 students and all have been involved since the start, beginning when they were 11 or 12 years old.
"When the choir started, the dream was to bring them all to Hong Kong, but then we discovered that four of them didn't have birth certificates - which is a common problem in rural Philippines," she says.
Joachimowski and her team succeeded in securing birth certificates and passports for the whole choir and they visited Hong Kong. Those children - now teenagers - were back in the city recently to sing at the annual ICM fundraiser dinner and also visit HKIS.
"So often, people in poverty are dehumanised. When Hong Kong kids interact with the choir kids they see they are just like them - they have the same dreams, hobbies, do the same sports and are into the same music. It's fantastic these choir kids have been able to bridge a gap," says Joachimowski.
ICM sponsors the education - all the way through to college - for the choir as well as their siblings. That's 60 students in all.
"The message we want to convey is that these kids come from different circumstances, but through the power of hope and with resources and education we can achieve a lot," says Joachimowski.