Voluntourism (volunteering + tourism) is an age old concept that have been growing in popularity in recent years.
For almost six years now, my friends and I, both old and newfound, have been trekking to remote schools in the country to deliver their much needed resources, from construction materials to pencils. We call our group TREK or TRails to Empower Kids.
We trace our roots from the country’s highest peak, Mt. Apo. During our three days of traversing this sacred ground, we conceptualized this great way of expressing our gratitude to the communities in the mountains. We owe a lot to them, not just for allowing us to pursue our hobby, but also our safety and very often, our convenience. It is not unusual for locals to offer refreshments and even a roof to stay in to mountaineers.
We organized our first outreach months later in Itogon, Benguet. We discovered this remote school after scaling its popular mountain, Mt. Ugo. Despite being located less than two hours away on foot from Binga Dam, the school seemed deprived, so we decided to help by giving students school supplies, backpacks and toys, plus organizing a party for them, complete with party fares and favors.
The joy of that TREK was so palpable, not just for our beneficiaries but also for our volunteers. So, we decided to make our outreach programs regular to experience more these joys of voluntouring.
Giving back and leaving with more
“Hindi pala kami nakahiwalay sa mundo, kasi nakarating kayo dito.”
These were the words of Mayor Batara Laoat when he addressed our group after we reached out to four of their schools in Pudtol, Apayao. It was a long and difficult journey, which included an overnight but trip, hours on a dump truck plus long walks.
Feeling how much just our presence can affect a community means a lot. In most of the schools we reached out to, we were the first visitors.
In Kalinga, one of the village elders composed a poem to express his gratitude. In Benguet, the mothers rehearsed and sang a beautiful thank you song for us. In Nueva Vizcaya, the men gathered up their gongs and danced for us.
These left imprints in our hearts, which is far more than just having photos to post on instagram or status to write on facebook.
Of course, more beautiful than the poems, songs and dances are the delight we see in the children’s eyes.
Experiencing local culture
When we were scouting for a school in Kalinga, we visited the distant village of Lobo. With the help of friends from a local mountaineering group, we were introduced to the village elders who immediately convened a meeting. We were asked to stand on top of this boulder to address the people. We later found out that it was a place of honor in the community.
Also, in Kalinga, since I was not a meat eater then, they cooked for me this delicious vegetable viand, which I later found out to be a special meal cooked only as thanksgiving for a good harvest.
Our TREKs do not only allow us to witness but also experience these cultures that modernity sometimes fade away.
Seeing first hand why it is more fun in the Philippines
If schedule permits, we also organize side trips for our volunteers.
In our recent Mindoro mission, we took advantage of the long weekend and camped for one night in the yet to be discovered fine sands of Buktot Beach. The beach is quite far so it is away from the radar of most travelers, so even on a long weekend, we got to enjoy the beach exclusively.
I actually visited a lot of the country’s spectacular beaches because of TREK, which is as far as Dilasag in Aurora. Similarly amazing were the beaches of Casiguran and Aurora.
In Quirino, before we headed back to Manila, we got a chance to explore the majestic Governor’s Rapids in Maddela and Aglipay Caves in Aglipay.
During our first visit in Itogon, Benguet, our volunteers also toured Balatoc Mines and Binga Dam.
Personal growth (or, shopping becomes fulfilling)
All the TREK experiences — from fundraising, to working on logistics, to dealing with locals up to the actual program all give good learnings. But, more than that, the experiences are so rich it adds up to personal growth.
Our exposures lead us to appreciating what we have and what we had growing up. Very often, I lust for the new trekking shoes or other mountaineering gear. Well, I still allow myself some, but much more thought is put into every purchase. Why? Because some kids walk hours in mud and difficult terrain with only worn out slippers. I can live with an old pair of trekking shoes and find better use for my money. I actually find it more fulfilling now to shop for toys, storybooks and school supplies.
Understanding local problems
There is a huge difference between reading or watching about the plight of students in the mountains than actually experiencing it with them. That is why we make it a point to conduct a recon before the actual outreach. It is just hard to decide on what these kids need with all the creature comforts around us.
Of course, we link them up with the current issues our country is facing now, but writing about that now would wash off the spirit of this article. But, just so you know, we are also mad!
Meeting inspiring people
Weeks ago, I met Teacher Wishly Ballosan Jr.
Teacher Wishly is one of the teachers of Mapedya Elementary School in Papaya, Nueva Ecija. Like all of the schools we helped, Mapedya is isolated.
It took me almost five hours on foot to reach Mapedya. The trek was grueling, especially under the heat of the sun, but Teacher Wishly and his co-teachers’ dedication inspired us to keep on walking.
They do this every week, leaving behind their families. Some are content with going home only during paydays because of hardships. Yet, despite the measly salaries, they still share what they have with the community members.
One of the items on Teacher Wishly’s list is medicine. He said the teachers are the ones who provide medicines and we witnessed it when we visited.
He also asks for rice for their feeding program. Food encourages his students to go to school. We are hoping when we conduct our outreach this December, we can provide enough, plus the items on his students’ wish list.
Of course, Teacher Wishly is just one of them. All of the teachers we meet are inspiring and are pictures of selflessness and dedication.
Meeting new friends and bonding with old ones
There were seven of us when we conceptualized the group. Fifteen people joined our first outreach.
There are hundreds of us now. A lot are fellow mountaineers and those who want to get into the hobby. Even my 15 year old nephew, LJ, looks forward to bonding with this sometimes serious but very often raucous bunch. He is also an aspiring mountaineer.
A lot of my close friends now are my fellow volunteers and I met them or kept our friendship strong because of TREK.
There is Velle. I have known her for years, since she is one of my sister’s good friends, but it is only now that we are close because of TREK. Some of the bonds were also made stronger. Some of them are now my kumares and kumpares.
There is a quote from Ben Carson that goes “Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.”
Well, hours after our outreach programs, in social networking sites and in every reunion, we relive our experiences through photos and stories. That is because our happiness cannot be contained in one single event. It is forever. That is the kind of happiness giving gives. That is the kind of happiness that will let our group live, for as long as there are kids in the mountains to help.
TREK’s next outreach is December 7, 2013 at Mapedya Elementary School. Volunteers and donors are welcome to experience the joys of voluntouring. For more information, log on to www.trailstoempowekids.com. For more TREK stories, visit www.kellyaustria.com.