Just about anyone can volunteer to aid the less fortunate, but would they be willing to for 18 years?

By: Jade Teo

Photos: Sherlyn Khong & Jade Teo

She’s been motivated to help them since her first trip to the Philippines when she was 22 and even founded a non-profit organisation (NGO) called acts29. Since then, Ms Sherlyn Khong and other volunteers continue to travel to Payatas, the country’s biggest open dumpsite, to aid the community living around it. “Education is the main aim because that’s the most important thing,” said the part-time tutor, who also doles out scholarships to children through her NGO.

“It’s not about ‘studying for the sake of studying’, but they study for a purpose.”

Their projects such as Dream Beyond, which are field trips that let the people and children to see beyond Payatas, help in their cause. Even though she graduated with an IT diploma from Nanyang Polytechnic, Ms Khong commented how she felt education would make the most difference.

She mentioned she has even used what she learned to teach the children, like training them on Microsoft and getting them to use YouTube. Though she half-joked she wished the Internet speed would be a lot faster sometime soon.

She told CATCH: “I think there are so many ways to help… So we’re very happy when people, students come over to teach.”

Nothing is too difficult unless we perceive it to be, and same can be said of reaching out to the people in the community. For Ms Khong, she takes on a very hands-on approach and if the people are preparing for college, she would set some time aside to prepare them with English essay writing.

It’s something especially those living in developed countries, like Singapore, can help with too. She explained how, for those who can’t travel or they’re in school, there’s always the option of making videos or lesson plans. 

But according to her, there isn’t enough content material or subjects being taught in the schools to prepare them for university, so “the whole village is now struggling” to learn the basic subjects, such as trigonometry.

She observed:  “It’s also a skill set of the volunteers that are coming. If we have a geography teacher, she teaches geography; if we have someone who cooks or is a cook, then perhaps work with the families, (with) the parents, to teach them nutritious dishes.” 

Ms Khong is a strong believer in the benefits that education can bring, especially to people who can’t afford to go to school. 

After all, this community lives around a dumpsite 12 to 13 storeys high of trash, which is about three-years’ worth of rubbish collected from metro Manila. That’s about five cities. 

“Just imagine Ang Mo Kio, and instead of having Ang Mo Kio Central, it’s a mountain of rubbish,” she described. 

The people who live here are mainly squatters, she said, and they live in makeshift houses in-between houses. The people build them with anything they find, from cardboard to galvanised sheets or wood, and they go as high as two-storeys.  

“With a lot of the kids we work with, they don’t necessarily differentiate what’s trash and what’s not trash, because everything has value.” 

It’s the parents who usually work as scavengers for 12-hour shifts at the dumpsite, so they gather five to eight gunnysacks and go down to the junk shops to collect their payment. Unfortunately “at the end of the day, this scavenger could be taking home less than 100 pesos, that would be S$3 or less”, so it’s barely enough to survive considering the average family size is about six. “It helps them that everyone works, so if everyone’s working there’s more money. But that means that the kids drop out of school at 10,” said Ms Khong. 

“So (acts29)’s work there is to really work with the scavenging families, support (them) and make sure their 10- and 11-year-olds stay on and go to school, so that can be another challenge. When children work alongside their parents, they see their parents working, or the environment is such that they see everyone else is working, they don’t see the point in studying.” 

She believes the children feel that it’s their moral obligation and they can’t see that far into their future. She remarked how they are planning for today or the next day; and don’t see that when you graduate at 24 years old, they would be earning more, enough to buy a proper house for their parents. And although many think this way, there are some children who know they have a future if they study. One of Ms Khong’s most touching moments was many years ago, when she met Julian Donaire, who was 17 or 18 at the time.

She said: “(He) shared with me his story: his parents had abandoned him and he was left with his grandmother. Then they moved to the dumpsite to stay. (And) at 10-years-old his grandma passed away, so he’s all alone.”

Julian had made his own squatter home, a very small room for him; and he worked at the dumpsite to support himself. He promised himself that he would get an education, so he went to the School for Humanity. This is a non-formal school providing alternative learning for out-of-school kids and teens. 

Since 10 till when she met him, he’s been going to that school to learn to read and write. He eventually qualified for Maritime Engineering and he graduated. Today he’s in his 30s and has a beautiful family, and they’re still living in Payatas. 

All their projects and initiatives are for people like Julian to “see there are options and there are choices”.

“And even for the volunteers, we live in this urban jungle – it’s also for us to go out and ‘dream beyond’ something for ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s for all the people (acts29) worked with, to find their purpose and meaning in life”.