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‘SMILES”, REFLECTION OF VOLUNTEERING IN PREDA 2014

January 27, 2017 ·  By Fionn Kinne-Coyle

image001When I first told people I was going off to the Philippines to volunteer, their first question was “”Are you going to get paid?” I thought this was quite amusing because I could see that they couldn’t really get through their heads the above and beyond wonders, adventures and life changing experiences you could grasp onto by volunteering abroad. Especially in the beautiful, wonderful Philippines, although dampened by its harsh poverty.
Volunteering for me is a chance to be able to give back to the world and the kids whom I worked with during my time here in PREDA, shedding a bit of light and smiles on their day and also their many influences on me and the gathering of many strong and powerful experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I was first introduced to the extreme poverty in the Philippines by my dad Declan Coyle who was a former Columban Missionary who was here for many years. He told me many stories about his time here and the work he ventured into which got me initially interested in this mysterious world of the Philippines.

But to me these stories that my Dad told me were nothing more than stories that I could not relate to being a teenager from Ireland where the biggest worry I had each day was what the Internet speed was like. Fr Shay Cullen founder of PREDA Foundation was a frequent visitor to our home through my years of growing up. He and my parents were close friends with my Dad knowing him from his time in the Philippines. He often came for dinner and would talk to us about all his work at PREDA. With Shays latest visit he gave me an invitation to come to the Philippines to do some volunteer work with PREDA and I leapt to this thrilling opportunity.
I unfortunately only had a very short spell at PREDA with only two weeks volunteering out of the three week visit I had here, spending my first week down in Malate Church with Fr Mickey Martin walking through the slums and street alleys of Manila and getting my first taste of the Philippines and the beautiful Filipino people. After Manila I was off to join Shay and the rest of PREDA’s determined staff and volunteers where the real work and adventures began.

My first day of volunteering here I met up with another German volunteer called Nicolas (Nico) who also happened to be doing two weeks during the same time as me. The other long time veteran volunteers who had been here at PREDA for almost a year now were on their last leg and were taking their well deserved holidays and were soon to be going home. It was incredible to see the impact this experience had on them and how they did not yet want to leave so soon and had already made the determined decision to return one day (which has rubbed off on me too even in this short time).

Nico and I, after filling out a form of registration and being briefed of the outstanding work that goes on here in PREDA, then went off to attend and help out in the setting up of an educational puppet show that was shown to a classroom of kindergarteners and their parents. After starting with and energetic fun ice-breaking game for the kids they gave an introduction and explained the principles of abuse which they then represented through a fun puppet show about the serious matters in a light hearted manner for the kids to enjoy which was a great way to get the message across from a young age and even to educate the parents about these issues. After the show was finished we enjoyed pizza and soft drinks together before parting.

The next day we met up at 6:30 in the morning, as we were off to work with the PREDA Pro Fair-Trade Department to go tree planting. PREDA distributes coconut and mango trees to impoverished and indigenous communities which helps to boost their farming, earnings and with that their quality of life. In addition, PREDA then offers to buy the harvest from the farmers for an appropriate price, much more than other facilities would pay in the past. This protects the farmers from exploitation and they get paid a fair price. PREDA also teaches these tribes about human and children’s rights and underlines the importance of education. Most of the adult generations don’t know how to read and write. When we did the attendance list to see if every farmer who was part of the program was present to receive their share and most of them signed with a fingerprint.

We drove up most of the way until the road was cut short due to recent damage from a typhoon we had just encountered. We then met the Aeta tribe who are located in Zambales. We were greeted by the chief of the village and were then settled into his house before starting a good day’s work of adventuring through the jungle, up and down mountain sides and through rivers. We had brought along 200 sprouted coconut trees to plant. What made the day so interesting and exciting for me was being able to meet the indigenous community. Seeing how they lived and went about their lives and seeing how the community has to work so hard to establish a living, which barely covers the basic primary needs.

We got the wonderful opportunity to eat and share our lunches with them which I am very grateful for. I got to try many new delicious foods and dishes which the women had prepared. After a long day of distributing trees the chief shared a speech of thanks where he thanked PREDA for all the help they had given their community. I also said thanks for the warm hospitality they gave us and for showing us their compelling lives. Then we went home for a well deserved rest to get ready for yet another day.

The following two days I spent my time down in the PREDA C4C Boys Home. I had visited both the boys and girls home over the weekend that I had arrived in PREDA before starting my actual volunteering. There I soon learned the safe haven these places carried with them. When I was down in the boy’s home I would socialise and interact with them. I would play games with them such as challenge them to chess and pool matches or listen to their favorite Tagalong rap music. While I’ve been here it’s been monsoon season so the weather has not been completely at its finest but with glimpses of paradise and sunshine breaking through. Because of the rainy conditions it made the basketball and volleyball courts unplayable (Me being 6ft 4 and constantly being asked if I played basketball I was looking forward to giving the game a bit of a play) but we were able to play a lot of fun indoor games and activities with the boys.
A lot of them being games from my childhood that we once played in the school yard. They were some of the highlighted moments from my experiences here in the boy’s home. They too shared their fun games with us or similar Filipino versions of games we would show them. The favorite game they would play with us was called Tom & Jerry a form of chasing game. Throughout these moments we shared many exciting memories together.

Reading over their court case files as to why they had come to PREDA had me surprised and astonished to what they had done as they were all such friendly, good kids; and that’s all they were, just kids who have had troubled backgrounds which led them primarily to where they are now. You could see many different emotions run through the boys in a single day, from pure joys of happiness to a depressed and emotional state. In the boys and girls home they have padded walled therapy rooms called the primal room where they can release any anger, frustration or bad memories out. This is called emotional expression therapy which really helps them to open up about dark issues that trouble them.

I was very lucky with my stay because we had come during one of the parent visits. With a lot of the boys you could see a very broken and distant relationship with the parents. Not even a hello was present with some cases and even the parent’s presence was missing in others. I found this very eye opening. The PREDA staff at the boy’s home gave the parents therapy sessions which taught them how to deal, react and look after their kids. They also talked to them about self-reflection on themselves and not to always point the finger in blame towards their children as a lot of the trouble and problems in the household which leads to other issues usually start from poor parenting due to improper education on the matter. The parents were also asked to reflect on their childhood and problems that they had when they were kids and see if they were just off-loading the same burdens that they once dealt with, onto their children.

We then played games with the parents and the boys to reunite some form of connection and bonding between them. This went down very well with laughter and joy being brought back into their lives. Afterwards we then split off into four different improvised groups and were assigned different situations of issues that would occur which they’ve all most likely dealt with before in one way or another. Such as my group’s was “child coming home drunk”. After half an hour of planning and preparation we would then each present our improvised skits in which we showed the proper ways to react to certain situations and incidents. This brought a variety of funny responses and really brought out some of the talent in the boys.

To end the first incredible jam packed week, we went on an outing with the boys and their parents to the beach. It was a rainy day, but that did not stop us from getting into the sea, battling through the waves and running in the sand. A lot of the boys weren’t able to properly swim so they stayed fairly close to the shore but the more confident swimmers and I went out to use our bodies as surf boards and ride in the waves. It was great fun. We then played loads of fun games that were made twice as exciting because we were at the beach. One very memorable one had us lying on our stomachs on the sand in a circle with linked arms with people trying to pull you apart from the link until you were the last couple standingŠ or should I say lying. It was an amazing time and a fantastic experience down at the beach with the day being well ended with a tasty lunch under a beach hut. Especially with the partaking of the parents and having them involved in the antics added a whole new special touch to the day.

The following week had also a lot in store for us. On Monday I wrote up court case files to put up onto the PREDA web site which got me to get much deeper and personal with the defendants scarring and disturbing life stories. The next day was a work holiday for the celebration of the end of Ramadan. I went on a visit to the girl’s home with Shay which I could tell had a significant different impact on me from the first day I had visited them. Writing up the case files really got me more engaged with the terrors some of these girls have gone through which had me much deeper in thought about everything when leaving the place. I will never forget how noticeable that difference was.

On the Wednesday we spent another day down in the boys’ home. The usual routine went down during the day with the different and various activities going on. Occasionally sitting in on lessons even though I cannot understand a word of Tagalong, but it was still interesting to see how the classes ensued. All the boys were eager to learn, and were quite intelligent raising their hands to ask questions and taking down notes. We then got the real Filipino experience with transportation that day with walking through rice patty fields, then fitting six people on a tricycle and later calling over a Jeepney for our final stretch home.

I was no longer home before I had to get up and leave again with a 4 o’clock start the next morning. We were off to Manila back where I started this amazing journey. We were on a mission, a rescue mission. We left on our way to Manila to rescue three boys from PADAC jail in Paranaque and bring them back to the boy’s home. But before we arrived there we had to make a few stops on the way. We brought a few boys from the home along with us, a few for family visits and then we were leaving another boy back to the custody of his brother after his time in PREDA was up. We also had two other of the older PREDA boys along with us to welcome in the new boys out of the prison into PREDA and also to help us keep an eye on them as we were told on these rescues missions when releasing these kids from the jail it’s like opening a bird cage and having loose birds flying everywhere.
Our first stop was to let off one of our youngest boys to go on a family visit who was claiming he was missing his parents. He was young and sweet. The first time I met him he fell asleep on me, instant comfort and connection. His story was quite spectacular; he was close to getting life in court from being framed for the murder of his two cousins until PREDA intervened and saved him. Our next stop was to let off another boy to see his family in the restaurant where they worked. His English was stronger than the rest of the boys which made it nice to exchange conversation with him.

Our next stop before the rescue was the hardest hitting experience I’ve had in my whole time here in the Philippines. We stopped off and walked through the labyrinth maze of the alley way slums in Manila until we got to the home of the brother of the boy that we were off-loading from PREDA. I was originally unaware of the happenings, thinking that it was another home visit until I saw the custody papers and distress that came upon the boy. The minute I crouched into this home that we all couldn’t even fit inside, and sat down beside the boy he was crying into his bandana, too ashamed to show his face. He was originally only supposed to be in PREDA for 3 months but ended up staying for 9. You could see why, that he had no home really to go to. His brother showed very little affection towards him for the whole time we were there. I was being more of a brother figure in comforting him than his actual brother was. This really had me feeling sick in my stomach when leaving him there. That will be something I will never forget, a feeling of helplessness. Understandably PREDA couldn’t do anything further for legal reasons and also for the worry of over dependence on the foundation.

Our next stop was another home visit with one of the boys where we had to interview and gather information from his parents. Again with not seeing his parents for a long time a simple “hi” was said to his mother when he walked in the door and then straight to the fridge to get a drink. Not another word said between the two, with a very subtle goodbye when leaving.

We then got on with the main reason we had travelled for so far and that was the Jail rescue. We pulled up outside the PADAC jail and immediately heard the hollering of the prisoners calling down on us from the barred up windows up above. “PREDA Boys! PREDA Boys!” was being chanted by the other boys we had left with us. When I first got into the jail I was first greeted by some girls that were in a small cell. I briefly spoke to them and then moved on. These girls were still only young teenagers with only thin mats on the floors to sleep on and nothing else in there plain blank cells. This prison was only small with a bigger prison situated beside it. To my right from the girls’ cell there was a larger cell with around 30 boy’s cooped inside. They were all very interested in me and our visit. I talked to a lot of them and answered many questions that they were curious about. A few of them ‘Beat-boxed’ for me and also rapped. Before I left some of them pleaded for money off me but because of regulations I wasn’t able to spare a single peso. Over here I’ve been begged at a lot for money even by children that aren’t even 5 years of age yet.

When I first arrived here I threw out the odd coins in my pocket but was quickly told not to and to ignore them and move on. Having to walk by a child pleading for money for food had me feeling nothing more than a typical ‘greedy white man’.
On the other side of the jail was another cell filled with more boys that were older in age and seemed to be the harder group of the bunch. There were a few men in this cell as well. I talked to them for a short while and then the conversation was quickly switched to looking for cigarettes or money off me. Beside their cell was the smallest cell in the prison with two men inside. They stayed sitting down for the whole time and didn’t make any contact with me. After the PREDA social worker signed off all the papers and documents for the three boys we were here to rescue; we took some photos to remember the day and then head on again.

The three boys were as timid as a cat and were all around the ages of 15. They had some of their family members there apart from one child who was by himself. One boy in particular really got my attention because he seemed very out of place for the situation. He was well dressed and appeared to be well off as well as his sister and grandmother that were with him, using an expensive phone and being treated to snacks brought by the grandmother. He didn’t really fit my usual expectations for these kids. I later found out this boy was only in the jail for one night, just before we collected him. He was put into prison by his father as punishment.
We then headed off back to pick up the boys we had dropped off with their families. When we went to collect the boy that we had left with his parents that owned the restaurant; to our surprise we found the boy that we had off-loaded back to his brother sitting in the restaurant.

The PREDA social worker sat down beside him to talk to him so I decided to leave them to have some privacy. When I met back up with the social worker she told me she left him with his other brother who was in the markets. PREDA are now currently looking further into this boy and monitoring the needs of a different integration or the possible return back to the boy’s home.
And with that and the collection of the other boys we had dropped off, with the journey home to PREDA ending my short but incredible two weeks of volunteering at PREDA Foundation. I could not have even imagined how amazing these past two weeks would have been with seeing the beautiful sights and surroundings of the Philippines as well as meeting the amazing people and capturing such powerful memories throughout my time here. I am forever grateful for the opportunity and chances PREDA and Shay has given me with my time here. Living these experiences will be something I will never forget and will cherish with me till the day I die.

The hospitality and kindness I have received here has been more than welcoming and I just wish I have given back as much as the Philippines and PREDA have given me. I am so thankful to all the staff at PREDA for really making me feel like home here and for all the life changing work they do here every day. I do wish to return to PREDA one day for a longer term to continue in helping them succeed in their amazing work here. This has been such an unbelievable and impactful experience PREDA has given me and with that I am forever in their debt. The compassion and power that I’ve seen here at work has really thrived through me and changed me for the better.

My journey of helping the well-being of others definitely does not stop here at PREDA. Those who can do, are those who can do more. We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.
And to all my friends wondering “Am I going to get paid?”
Yes, I am paid in six figures, S-M-I-L-E-S.

Fionn

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