Zyss: Life lessons continue years after founding

This is my third year back to the Philippines. When I first arrived as part of a pre-medical trip with a Western group, I had no idea I would start a charity and work so hard raising money to keep 20 children out of the dumpsite and on the road to independence.

I have truly learned the meaning of the saying: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’

Three summers ago, I stumbled onto the ‘dumpsite children’ – young children scavenging in the dumpsite outside of Tacloban City, Philippines, to survive. They had no hopes or aspirations. Every day they concentrated on finding enough food so they could live to the next day.

Today, these children have been in school for two years, gained weight, received medical attention, housing, food (a nutritious breakfast and lunch in school everyday) and can dream of a future. Most have had various skin diseases and vitamin deficiencies, which we have taken care of, and now, they look like healthy children.

Last summer, my partner, Blair Smart, and I set up a basic webpage, feedingafuture.org. We have successfully raised enough money to sponsor 20 children. Our goal now is to keep them sponsored until they finish their education.

There are so many more children here who need help. But if we spread ourselves too thin, we will not be able to help our original 20.

It is heartbreaking to have to choose who will eat and who will not.

This summer, we have enlisted the help of the Tacloban City Rotary Club and are planning on setting up a small farm behind the school so that the children can learn the benefits of farming. We will be able to grow some of our own vegetables, which will reduce our grocery costs, while teaching our children more independence.

In these three summers, I have seen and learned a great deal.

I know I cannot help everyone in dire need. I must choose who I think will benefit the most from our program. I offer food as an inducement to the children to go to school rather than scavenging the dumpsite. This is all they have ever known and it is hard for them to believe they will be able to survive if they don’t do what they’ve always done.

I’ve learned that after several generations surviving in the dumpsite, people believe that is their entire world. That there is no world beyond these invisible barriers.

Each year it is harder to solicit money from people who have donated previously. Every year, we need to become more innovative to keep our project going.

We have been fortunate to have medical supplies, school uniforms and clothing donated and shipped. For all of these children, this has been the only time in their lives when they had new clean clothes. Seeing their eyes light up in their school uniforms and backpacks makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Many well-meaning organizations and programs initially help the most malnourished children. However, once their children reach a healthy weight, they are removed from the program and replaced by more unhealthy malnourished children. This becomes a vicious cycle. A child is given a very brief look into the possibility of a better life, which is then forcibly pulled from them, leaving them in a worse mental state than before. Any hopes and dreams are stamped out for good.

Our goal is to make a long-term difference by ensuring the children get a chance to graduate so that they can find good jobs and help their families out of the dump and, ultimately, to end the cycle of poverty.

For some charities, much of the money raised is spent on miscellaneous expenses and administration, leaving very little for its intended purpose. All of our donations go directly to maintaining the children. We pay for our costs and administration ourselves. We are keeping all the costs down to a minimum by pricing out everything, planning healthy nutritious cost effective meals, soliciting school uniforms, school supplies, and medical supplies. The Tacloban City Rotary Club has installed a water well with an electric pump for us. In the meantime we will work together with them to develop a farm behind the school.

And finally, the most important lesson of all, to believe in something to the point where you make it a reality.

Joshua Zyss is in his final year of a Biological and Medical Sciences degree in the Faculty of Science. Contact him at jzyss@uwo.ca.