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Monday, 18 August 2014

Ayo-ayo Philippinas

Spend two years living and working in a foreign country. 
Spend two years in a vulnerable and humble position. 
Spend two years working for and with victims of sex trafficking.
Spend two years working with Filipinos who love their country. 
Spend two years working with Americans who want to learn and serve. 
Spend two years building mutual respect and trust.

I can hardly believe that this is my last day as a United States Peace Corps volunteer. I am proud to say that I have accomplished a huge goal that at times seemed impossible. This was truly the "hardest job I ever loved." I feel so incredibly lucky to have had this experience and to have met so many wonderful, caring and passionate people.This experience has opened my mind and heart in ways that I could never have imagined. 

Salamat kaayo Philippinas.

Batch 271

Monday, 2 June 2014

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

April Update

Well after three months of negotiating Good Shepherd Welcome House finally signed a contract to lease a space that will serve as our location for the Cafe Livelihood Project (This was the grant proposal Roy and I wrote which got us $16,000 from the Shelter Foundation in Switzerland to open a cafe that will serve as a training center and income generating project). GSWH signed a contract for two years, and now the fun begins as we try to get our electrical, plumbing and remodeling needs sorted out, followed by some serious deep cleaning, painting and decorating. The ladies at the center are getting really excited and we've been giving them trainings on cooking and restaurant skills. The name and theme of the cafe is still in question but we are aiming to be open by May. 

My primary assignment doing advocacy has reached it's sustainability stage. After 18 months of community organizing we are finally seeing our partners in the high schools and the barangay (local government offices) take on stronger leadership roles in implementing advocacy activities. They still need our help- due to a lack of funding and materials but it's been especially wonderful to see the students passionately facilitate seminars for the sole benefit of their peers, and great advocacy ideas have come out of it. Right now we are working on creating Human Trafficking Advisories that we can post in the schools and the barangay. We will also establish a grievance mechanism to assist our partners in reporting HT cases.

With all of these things going on it feels like the next few months will really fly by and my service here will end before I know it. Glad to know I'll be able to finish strong. In the meantime I will continue to make the best of my time working here in my home away from home.

Monday, 3 March 2014

A Visit from the Ambassador

On February 27th 2014, the staff of Good Shepherd Welcome House welcomed the United States Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg and USAID Mission Director for the Philippines and the Pacific Islands Gloria Steele. 

The visit began with a quick briefing from the Peace Corps-Philippines Director Denny Robertson who introduced me to Gloria Steele. We were able to chat while waiting for the Ambassador and apparently USAID has a grant that GSWH may be eligible to apply for. Her advice? Ask for more money. 

Before we knew it security was arriving to scope out the center and Filipino police were re-directing traffic. I was able to greet the ambassador outside and escort him into the center. Our staff shared about our various programs and I presented the work my counterpart and I have accomplished thus far raising awareness on human trafficking in the community. We then listened to a few testimonials from former beneficiaries who were victims of sex trafficking. One is now working as an experiential outreach worker for the European Union and another is studying social work so that she can help more girls.

The Ambassador was very attentive and encouraging. He thanked us for the work that we do and wished us well. It was a proud day for Good Shepherd Welcome House.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

In recent days I had the pleasure of travelling to Sabah, Malaysia. My boyfriend Roy and I made plans to visit the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu but our main objective was to attempt climbing Mount Kinabalu, a world heritage site and the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago. Mount Kinabalu is one of the youngest non-volcanic mountains in the world. It was formed within the last 10 to 35 million years and the mountain is still growing at a rate of 5 millimetres a year. 

With a height of 4,095 meters (13,435 ft), most hikers are recommended to split this climb into a two day hike, which requires lodging at a midway point at a hostel known as Laban Rata. This option seemed too expensive and unnecessarily complicated. After talking to some friends and doing a bit of research we found that it was in fact possible to climb the mountain in 1 day but we were warned not to attempt this feat unless we were in ‘extremely good physical condition.’ The caveat of taking this option is that you must follow strict time requirements to guarantee suitable weather conditions and safety. If you do not reach the summit by 1pm you must agree to turn around and promptly begin your descent. 

The day of the climb we arrived at the park office at 7:15am, paid 100 RM each for our climbing permit, and 70 RM for our guide named Francis who would accompany us to the summit. We got into a brief argument with the park staff who insisted we purchase ‘special insurance’ and eventually were able to talk our way out of it. Next we had to pay a van fee of 25RM to take us from the park entrance to the trail head at Timphohon Gate. The van took ages to show up and as a result we did not actually begin hiking until about 8am. 

Our pace was brisk from the beginning, fearing that our late start would prevent us from reaching the summit. The trail quickly developed into a very steep, endless staircase. At times we would climb over plenty of rocks which proved to be more mentally gratifying, while other parts of the trail were simply wooden steps as far as the eye could see. It didn’t take long for me to begin hating the sight of these steps, which made the grueling task all the more tedious.

We got warm quickly and stripped off our outer layers of clothing. It was not long before the sun was beating down upon my neck and bullets of sweat crowded my brow. The first two kilometers were especially difficult, it seemed our bodies were still adjusting to the idea of climbing a mountain. The higher in altitude we climbed, the more difficult it was to breath. I would raise my hands behind my head at any opportunity to try to slow and catch my breath, but it seemed impossible. We stopped every half kilometer for a drink of water and I was constantly panting with exhaustion. 

If we hadn’t been preoccupied trying to catch our breath I’m sure we would have stopped to take photos because the trail was so beautiful. We kept moving up over the jungle into the mist of the mountain.  Below us was a lush rain forest home to plenty of exotic creatures. The mountain has more than 4,500 species of flora and fauna, wildlife ranges from mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians and reptiles to insects and other invertebrates. On the trail however, the only animals we came across were birds and squirrels, blissfully unaware of our suffering.

We reached Laban Rata  at 3,270 meters (10,730 ft) at 11am and I could not wait to sit down. Our guide, ever attentive to the time, told us we could rest for ten minutes but had to keep moving if we were going to make it to the summit before 1pm. It was torturous seeing all of the two day climbers lounging around the lodge drinking beer. We had some muesli bars to boost our energy, and then reluctantly rose to our feet. By this point I was already doubting my ability to complete the climb under the time constraints, but Roy wouldn’t accept my lack of enthusiasm and continually offered his encouragement. 

The trail soon turned to naked granite rock in which our only compass was a rope leading to the summit. At many points the rock was so steep you had to use the rope to pull yourself up. At first this seemed like a nice rest for my legs but being so tired I feared there was a much greater risk of injury. At certain points, if I were to slip, I would have rolled right off a cliff into the clouds.

 I tried not to look down and used all my mental energy on just lifting one foot after the other. I was too close to turn back and I would never forgive myself for giving up so close to the summit. With every steep incline behind us, we hopefully believed we had reached the summit, only for Francis to repeat that we were not yet there and we must keep climbing. The time constraints, made the ascent incredibly stressful on the mind and body but without them, we may not have had the urgency and determination to get to the top. 

When at last the summit was in view, I was so happy I nearly burst into tears. My pace quickened, the hope of reaching the end filled my body with energy I didn’t know I had. Roy was yelling down to me, “We did it! It’s great! It’s great!” I pulled myself up over the last few rocks and I had the biggest smile on my face saying, “Yes! Yes!” We made it to the top of the world! By this point it was about 1:15pm but we convinced Francis to give us some leeway.

After a short victory beer at the summit, we carefully started the climb back down to Laban Rata. I did slip and fall at one point but easily recovered. We took a lunch break before descending the mountain which took us 4 long knee grinding hours. 

The steep trail was wet due to afternoon rain, and felt dangerous because we were so tired. We both tripped a few times and were lucky to finish without any sprained ankles. Despite the difficulty our moods couldn’t be altered. Nothing could spoil the gratification of our accomplishment. When we finally reached the Timphohon Gate it was 6pm and getting dark. We hurried off to find a warm cup of Sabah Tea and share our tale with anyone willing to listen.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Song of the Caged Bird: A Community Convention Against Human Trafficking

On December 14th my counterpart and I conducted a training seminar for our community partners which included core groups from eight local high schools and five barangay. The day began with a prayer and the singing of the national anthem. Then we had a former beneficiary of Good Shepherd Welcome House recite the poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Next we had a review from my counterpart on the recent human trafficking convictions in the Philippines, followed by our first guest speaker from the Children’s Legal Bureau who discussed the anti-trafficking laws and enforcement. Then I facilitated a break out session where participants were split into mixed groups and assigned to create a skit/song/slogan campaign to raise awareness about the anti-trafficking laws in their community. The campaigns focused on both preventing victims and perpetrators and the outcome totally exceeded our expectations. The participants came up with really creative musical adaptations and hilarious skits which proved how easy and fun the implementation of awareness campaigns can be. 

After lunch we had a family specialist from the Department of Social Welfare and Development give a presentation on family dynamics and domestic violence in relation to human trafficking. In keeping with the theme of family dynamics, I facilitated another break out session on how to assess a family using eco-mapping which maps the strengths and weaknesses of family and community relationships as well as displaying each family member’s connection to structural social systems. We concluded the session with hypothetical scenarios to test our participant’s responses to typical case studies and they passed with flying colors.  

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Super Typhoon Yolanda

Typhoon Yolanda was a tragic and devastating act of nature. To say that this disaster was anything less than hell on earth is an understatement. The Philippines and the world are hurting and we want someone to blame. We can blame the chaos unfolding on global warming, or the poverty in the Philippines, or poor disaster management; but this is just talk. This is critical analysis and this is numbers. When we are finished talking, the victims have less water, less food and less hope.

Here in Cebu Filipinos are not talking, they are mobilizing. Hundreds of volunteers are organizing and distributing donations to the affected areas.  Surges of more people who want to help are spilling out of the Department of Social Welfare and Development Offices. Instead of turning their hurt into blame and useless criticisms, they are turning their hurt into action and service. Yesterday I worked side by side with Filipinos who were frantically packing donations. The helplessness I felt watching the news just a few hours earlier, turned into hopefulness and purpose.

For many Peace Corps volunteers we have struggled to find meaning and purpose behind our work here. We are often frustrated with the cultural differences, complex populations and financial restrictions. Yolanda changed that. Our purpose is clear. So let’s not talk, let’s move.  

(For those who want to donate from abroad try the Red Cross or the World Food Programme.)