Thursday, August 14, 2014

"You can": The Power of Youth-led Voluntourism

September 30, 2013 is a date that I will never forget. It was when my participation in the International Citizen Service (ICS) program began.
ICS is a United Kingdom-funded development program that brings together 18 to 25-year-old young people from all backgrounds to fight poverty overseas and in UK communities.
Although I was happy to be selected, I admit that I initially had a few doubts and worries.
But I asked myself, “Isn’t this risk worth taking if it is for the benefit of the nation and for the empowerment of my being?”
So I bravely took the first step, and I never looked back.
Unity in diversity
UNITY. Filipino and British VSO-ICS VI082 staff and youth volunteers posed for a photo in the midst of their volunteer work in Bohol, Visayas. Photo courtesy of the VSO-ICS Youth Programme

Up for the challenge
I was made aware from the very start that volunteering with ICS is not a vacation.
In light of our aim to increase the awareness of the local youth on environmental issues and sustainable management, we were given opportunities to hold training and planning sessions among the local youth leaders on civic participation, fundraising, leadership, and communication.
We also developed resource materials and teaching aids to empower these promising and bright Boholanos to become positive agents who will lead environmental discussions and projects in their respective communities.
Essentially, we just believed in them.
PROMISING. During the volunteer program, staff and youth volunteers worked with some of Bohol’s promising youth leaders. Photo courtesy of the VSO-ICS Youth Programme

Shaken, but not defeated
On October 15, 2013, just as when our youth engagement activities in our respective communities were already gaining momentum, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the province of Bohol.
We organized a Community Action Day that allowed us to gather relief items from generous families who did not seem to have much but still decided to give. 
We made it clear to them that we are one with them in believing that their lives can soar again.
We hoped with them.
COLLECTIVE. Youth volunteers show their Bayanihan spirit as they take part in the distribution of relief goods to the Bohol earthquake survivors. Photo courtesy of Zahra Kazmi/VSO-ICS Youth Programme

This is our story:
'You can'
It has already been more than 3 months since I finished the ICS program and parted ways with my co-volunteers, yet up to now I still find it hard to put into words the lifelong positive impact that the program has made in my life.
I believe that in my own little way, despite my weaknesses and shortcomings, I know that I can empower at least one youth out there.
You simply can.
You may say that you are poor, shy, insecure, and weak-willed. But essentially, you still can. In today’s age when we face a lot of development problems that seem to tower over us like Goliath, this world needs you. You do not really have to be the brightest, bravest, and the best. This nation needs you.
You and the extraordinary exploits you can do. Your unique being and the powerful ripple you can deliver. You, who can take risks, who refuse to back down, who can empower even at least one living soul. You, whose undeniable potential to shake and move things far outweighs all of your fears and weaknesses combined.
If you only take that first step. You are not a mere spectator. You matter. 

*entry to the World Tourism Day Blogger Competition 2014
*word count: 496 (excluding photo captions)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On listening

I met Tatay Loreto one gloomy afternoon while I was in the midst of what people referred to as the tent city, a heartbreaking vestige of what was left of the area after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged the province of Leyte in November 2013.
While I was trying to figure out which tent to visit next out of thousands, he suddenly called my attention. "Sir, are you from the United Nations?" he asked.
"No, sir, I am not. But I'm here to gather stories. How may I help you?"
He requested me to come closer to him, and then I listened.
‘Brave but stubborn’
Tatay Loreto, a doting father in his 60s, was among the brave but stubborn ones who did not join the typhoon evacuation efforts the night before. Why? Just so he could guard his house by the sea on that fateful day of November 8th.
He stayed behind together with some fishermen, a British pharmacist and his wife, a female seaside restaurant owner named Yolanda, a vacationing young boy and his mother, fathers and their wives who once vowed that only death could tear them apart, and their teenage sons and daughters who left the evacuation centers and promised their parents that they would be back.
All of them thought that 5-meter-high waves only happen in the movies. They thought that it was just another typhoon, and that in a few hours this apocalyptic deluge would soon pass. They thought they were strong swimmers.
These people, together with their dreams, did not survive. Only Tatay Loreto did.
He shared how he clung on to an electrical cord, which was almost the same level as the roof of the town’s tallest building.
He fought and fought and fought until a couple of hours later, he found himself moved kilometers away. Dazed and wounded, he searched for his loved ones in a place of what could be considered as their own version of Sodom and Gomorrah.
He eventually found them. They cried and hugged.
He told me, "Sir, I need a boat with an engine to make a living. Or even just a fish net."
"Ah, ok, sir, let me just jot that down. But I cannot promise anything,” I replied.
"Oh, do not worry. Whatever help you can give, sir, I will accept," he said.
"Anything else that I can do for you, sir?" I asked.
"Just do not forget me," he whispered.
And after he said that momentous statement, he gave me a pack of biscuits and a bottle of energy drink – kindness that he pulled out of his own emptiness.
It was as if he was telling me to remain energetic so I could keep on going because in those other tents are dignified people who are still waiting to be listened to, whose stories also deserve to be told.
We then hugged as if it was all that mattered.
'Emphatic listening'
I surely did not forget Tatay Loreto and the 15 more people I met that day.
Now that I think about them, I hope that I was able to give them a temporary oasis of peace at the very least despite being in a place where destruction and chaos seemed to stretch endlessly.
Most importantly, their simple yet heartfelt stories of loss and love often remind me of my “why’s” as a development worker and a human being, of how I need not really be the bravest, brightest and the best person out there just to make a "ripple," and of how listening to people with empathy can potentially light up a million universes.
Indeed, listening reaffirms the existence of another life and makes people feel that they are not forgotten.
This article will not propose a groundbreaking solution to eradicate global hunger by 50% or to solve any form of global crisis. I wrote this essay to emphasize the fundamental importance of empathic listening, a skill that can be developed and mastered not only by the valedictorians, topnotchers, innovators, leaders, policymakers, CEOs and other people that this society labels as the crème de la crème.
Listening somehow equalizes the playing field because truthfully, we can all listen. Empathic listeners are not superhero geniuses; they are simply us.
After a few years of working in the development sector, I realized that one of the most comforting moments a disaster survivor or a marginalized rural poor farmer can ever experience is to be genuinely listened to.
Crisis recovery often takes a long time to materialize, so being listened to somehow gives the affected people this message: "The future might look bleak for now, but we will soon rise." The people whom I have met and listened to in both my personal and professional journeys often told their most heartfelt stories to me, and it is through their stories that I found a way to connect my humanity with their humanity.
I eventually realized that listening can somehow pacify a displaced mother's troubled heart and restless soul, can light up the imagination of a child trafficking survivor, can make a depressed individual feel that he or she matters, can infuse hope and a sense of companionship in a world riddled with conflict, and can give a surge of empowerment for people to become better human beings.
May our ability to care for others by listening not get a lost in a sea of apathy and policy conundrums.
Hearing stories of others may just happen as a brief and fleeting moment in our lives, something that can occur while we are seated in a bus, waiting for someone at the airport, or looking at the setting sun from a balcony. However, a lot of us actually live for small moments like this – little triumphs that can deliver life-changing effects.
The human person is, after all, still at the center of all the development issues that we face, and it is by listening that we might finally get to hear the stories and answers that we have been longing for.