Zyss: Helping others make their mark on the world

This year, I had the privilege of being the group co-ordinator for a trip to the Philippines working with ‘Volunteer for the Visayans’ (VFV) for the month of May.

Our group consisted of 10 dedicated students who worked in rural medical clinics and participated in medical missions. They also helped with a number of other VFV projects.



It is hard to find the words to describe the hardships of life here. The entire group would adapt to the environment and quickly accept the fact, in the Philippines, there is never enough money, resources or time.

Most worked at the rural medical clinics, while others helped out at the VFV centre teaching area children. One volunteer taught at a rehabilitation centre for youths who had committed offences.

Thankfully, everyone found their placements to be a rewarding experience; being able to help make a positive difference in someone’s life is always fulfilling.

On May 21, the Western group participated in VFV’s 11th Annual Medical Mission, performing more than 300 free medical services for disadvantaged local communities.

I mentioned in a Western News article last year,  “Work abroad sparks new appreciation for life,” Sept. 16, 2010, that in the summer of 2010, Blair Smart, a medical student from Chicago, and I were volunteering in rural medical clinics.

By chance we ran into The Tacloban Dumpsite and saw numerous children scavenging for enough recyclables to pay for a bowl of rice at the end of the day. We decided to do something to help these children.

So this summer, after the Western group left, we started our own project to sponsor as many children as possible to get out of the dumpsite and into the classroom. Although not an official VFV program, the organization is helping us monitor the project while we are not there. We also pay the principal teacher a wage to ensure that all the children attend every day.

To date, we are sponsoring 18 children (12 girls and 6 boys) who formerly worked at the dumpsite full time. Now they all attend school on a daily basis.

The project provides the children with uniforms, school supplies, fees, two nutritious meals per day in the new school canteen (which we built), extra tutoring from the teachers to help get them caught up to their grade level, medical care and weekend meals and activities which are organized by local volunteers and VFV. With the extra money, we built two houses – one housing three of our sponsored children, the other housing four.

This year, I was approached by Estrellita Lacambra, a teacher at the school who has helped us co-ordinate our project. She took me to visit a small shack with seven children living in it. Their mother died last year of a disease which was very preventable, their father, who works in the rice fields, comes home every three weeks for one night. He brings some of his wages home (about $10) in an attempt to support his family.

I can’t imagine seven children living alone with no adults in the house and having to look after themselves. The oldest is about 15, the youngest 4.

We have sponsored three children from this family. I noticed one of the younger girls had a bad infection on her scalp. It did not help she washed with dirty water, or no one in the house knew what to do. I knew if she did not receive medical attention, her condition would worsen. So I took her to a private hospital.

The doctor who treated her prescribed antibiotics and told me she would have been dead in a few weeks from bacterial meningitis.

This time there was a happy ending. But the infant mortality rate in this environment is off the charts. The people have absolutely nothing.

Last year, after my return home, I tried to start up my own formal charity because VFV can only issue tax receipts in the United States through a sister organization, GoAbroad. Unfortunately, I soon learned it is not nearly enough to have one’s heart in the right place. Revenue Canada declined my application.

During the year, the group held several fundraisers at Western and many staff members joined in and helped with co-ordinating presentations, raising money, collecting medical supplies and cheering us on.

Two people I would like to give a special mention are Steve Patterson, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, and Claire Mortera, Faculty of Science. Without their support it would not have been possible to co-ordinate presentations and to ship eight crates, jammed full of donated supplies, to the Philippines free of charge.

Many thanks are also due to the Western Ontario Organization of Filipinos (WOOF), Cindy Morrison and Monica Chirigel, who donated significantly to my project. We solicited from hospitals, my doctor, orthodontists, pharmacies and my former school, Holy Trinity School, who donated copious amounts of uniforms and school supplies.

Strangers from across Canada were also mailing in money and supplies after they read my online article. What a success.

During the last two years, I have partnered with Smart to profile these ‘dumpsite children’ in order to find sponsorship for them. We have started our own Facebook page, Children of the Dumpsite Project, containing many pictures and videos with more detailed information about our project.

Our goal is to get as many children as possible out of the dumpsite and keep them out. By providing food at the school, it makes attendance attractive to the children. Over time, they begin to absorb knowledge until they reach the point where they are all caught up and are regular school kids.

Then before they know it, they will have a high school diploma and the world will be waiting for them to make their mark.

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If you are interested in volunteering for future trips, contact Christopher Franks, VFV co-ordinator, at chris@visayans.org.  VFV offers numerous placements for people coming from a variety of academic backgrounds. Visit its website for details.


Joshua Zyss is a fourth-year science student. Contact him at jzyss@uwo.ca.