Sometimes living abroad, feels like living in an expat bubble. Due to language, schools and economic differences, expats in Hong Kong tend to surround one another with only somewhat limited local interaction. We return from one holiday to discuss where the next one will be, although many vacations allow interaction with different cultures, opportunities for families to give back are rare. In May, two expat families decided to organize a larger group to work with the ultra poor for fall break. They called the initiative “Skip-A-Trip,” skip your usual vacation and do a service trip in the Philippines instead. This seemed an especially meaningful way of beginning to do charity work with my 8 and 11 year old as our “helper,” like many in Hong Kong, is from the Philippines and has left her children and family to help me care for mine.
The trip was organized by ICM, a charity that has been working with ultra poor of the Philippines since 1992. They provide programming and support by working with local staff and pastors to directly impact families. They have been facilitating group trips for the last thirteen years, and each trip is modified to fit the age group attending. That said going into this trip I knew very little about ICM, and depended upon my friend’s good judgment in trusting this charity. In the end eleven families from Hong Kong International school embarked on this journey led by ICM’s very capable staff.
At the orientation meeting in Hong Kong families were introduced to one another and given the itinerary and packing list for the trip. During this meeting there was a game played with the children to help them understand poverty and than the adults went through the itinerary. We were going to build a ‘comfort room,’ enclosed toilet for an ultra poor family and neither my children nor myself had ever laid a hand on a hammer or a paintbrush. We then looked at the weather forecast, which was rain for the entire trip. I will say my children and I were trepidatious to say the least. This initial meeting on our “home” soil was necessary preparation to get us all in the right mind set for the trip. Instilling a bit of fear and helping us to prepare are part of what made this trip go so well.
Armed with waterproof gear, mosquito repellant a plenty and granola bars, we began our journey to Dumaguete City. After a quick overnight stopover in Manila, wake up was 5am, we were welcomed by ICM staff at their offices put into working groups and shown sketches of what we were expected to build. We also did another group exercise to get to know one another and each group was introduced to the ICM staff member that would be helping them build.
The ICM staff planned the trip so that there were always meals built in to the schedule, with time for questions and attention paid to any issues raised. After fortifying ourselves with lunch we were driven to the village we would spend the next day and a half working in. We were split into five groups of two to three families each. We all fanned out to our assigned families home from the church, which was located in the center of the community. We carried our building supplies to the house. From this very first moment the children were eager to help, particularly with the saw!
Our group was assigned to the Catalyo family, a mother and father with six children, four living at home. Elisiana, the mother, is a housewife who participated in ICM’s Values, Health and Livelihood program. A program, which through education and concrete services, helps equip students move up from the ultra poor bracket. Solero, the father, earns two to six US dollars a day collecting trash and selling to a nearby junkyard. Ultra poverty is defined as a per person household living off of fifty cents a day or less. The Catalyo’s spoke no English and we spoke no Tagalog; but our ICM staff member, Ado, was available to translate and, somehow, through smiles and gestures warm feelings were spread.
That first day we met one another, explored the area a bit and laid down the bricks for building the next day. The work was painfully slow. Each time we finished one task and felt ready to do the next, there was something we were missing or someone who needed to come by. We began to talk to the children in the area and ask them to come back the next day and play. We walked to the church and got more of the supplies rather than waiting for them to be delivered. We had not built much yet but we felt like we had learned something. Our assigned staff member, Ado, seemed to let us come to these realizations on our own. His patience was limitless and although he could have more efficiently done each of the tasks; he took the extra time to allow the kids and me for that matter to have turns. It was watching his behavior that I realized I had been missing the point. We were all feeling pressured to finish the CR, until we realized that this in itself was a lesson. Life was really hard when you live very far from the things you need and have no transportation or money to get those things.
The next day we returned to the Catalyo’s armed with toys and patience; and we had a really fantastic day. We were fortunate that a member of our group had put together a care kit for each family, containing balloons, model planes, art supplies, stickers and a beach ball. Those simple toys my kids get in goody bags and throw away. We had kids from all over coming to play with the kits as we doled toys out a few at a time. It was amazing to see how each supply was valued and used to create things. By today the building supplies and engineer had shown up, and we began to build in earnest. The kids helped at moments but as my eight year old has told many, he was “mainly working on community outreach! “
The kids came over and mixed cement or cut wood. The younger kids were having so much fun playing with the Catalyo’s and their neighbors it seemed like they had figured out their mission. Although I was not much help with the building process, when it came to painting the CR I found a place I could contribute. Together we made sure every inch of that room was a cheery pale green that we only hope will give the Catalyo’s some joy to look at. Amazingly enough, it never rained when we were working. Before we left we took a Polaroid of our group and the Catalyo’s in front of their new CR. Their daughter, a very shy four year old, finally after two days came out of the house to be in the picture, we left feeling victorious on so many levels.
ICM organized many other activities for us while we were in Dumaguete, their choir performed, a preschool visit, dinners, and talks. All activities were designed both to help us understand ICM’s mission and to help us make sense of what we were experiencing. The organization of the trip and the staff on the ground made all the difference making this trip successful for all of the families involved. I highly recommend going with a trusted charity that has experience in leading these trips if doing a service trip as a family.
I had signed up for the trip thinking that the kids being with their friends would make this experience memorable, fun and one that they would to repeat in the future. I will say we got all of that out of it and more, the building we left behind helped us feel accomplished and connected to this community. Most importantly, to me, my kids were able to see how similar families are no matter their income level or culture. We all want our kids to be happy and watching the kids play, Elisiana’s smile and mine were equally big. I am not sure how this will change our future attitudes, one can only hope, but I do know that we left this vacation feeling really good, not guilty, feeling good about what we had chosen to do with our vacation.
Details: There are many charities organizing these types of trips. We went with ICM: www.caremin.com.