At first sight, it doesn’t appear an attractive proposal to have to leave your family on your 40th birthday to a far away country, and as I took off for Manila I was a bit emotional to leave them behind, especially as just a few hours beforehand I was informed that a typhoon was about to hit the northern part of the Philippines, which made me a bit nervous as well. I already knew the Philippines is a disaster-prone country (I think most of you remember the devastating typhoon Haiyan that hit the country in 2013), but being possibly personally affected made it different. I could now imagine a tiny bit of how hard it must be for these people living with the knowledge that something can happen any time! Besides the occurrence of typhoons, also floods and earthquakes are a common reality in this country with over 7,000 islands and more than 107 million inhabitants. Fortunately for me, but more importantly for the people living in that area, the typhoon slightly changed its course and only caused limited damage in the most northern tip of the country, and during our trip we only had bright skies.
Back to the reason for this blog: the IWitness trip! As you can read in the prior blogs of my great fellow IWitnesses, our three-day visit was really a fantastic experience. We got introduced to the project by dedicated Save the Children staff, visited surprisingly responsive and active government officials, got inspired by teachers and had all kinds of kids bring smiles to our faces!
One important eye-opener was that—although it’s normally not that easily visible as making a school accessible, providing materials or training teachers—the work that Save the Children does with various departments (Education, Social Welfare, Local Government Unit) and with various levels of government (regional, city and community) is one of the key things for this project to be successful! Although helping a large number of children and families within the three cities in Metro Manila where the project is being implemented is, of course, really important and a good first step, the most crucial and difficult thing is to have a lasting impact on a greater scale.
We witnessed Save the Children enthusiastically and with great dedication interact with various and often greatly cooperative government officials to try to get them on board to share that same vision of inclusive education for all (KASALI), so not only the children who are part of this project, but also many children after them and in other areas of the region or country can benefit from inclusive education.
On our last day, we visited a training of the United Architects of the Philippines, an organisation that contributes to the project by assessing whether schools and daycare centres are sufficiently accessible for all children. Here we heard the special personal story of architect Don de Vera, who as a baby was dropped by his nanny and left with a broken spine, after which he could not walk anymore and has to sit in a wheelchair. He told us the story of how he overcame all sorts of mental and physical barriers on his way, like prejudices in society towards people with disabilities, but also practical issues, such as in what bar to have a drink with his friends. He managed to graduate school and university and became an architect and showed that disabled people can do as much as and often even more than non-disabled people. A truly inspirational person!
Unfortunately, all good times come to an end, and once more we jumped in our van to face the heavy traffic in the urban Manila jungle. After finally having arrived in the Save the Children office, we had a last debrief session in which we shared feedback and said goodbye to our incredibly hospitable hosts.
During the long flight back, I was thinking of what I learned and experienced and what I would take back from this. My answer will definitely be the people!
To mention a few of these exceptional people: Teacher Gemma, who practises inclusive education in her classes.
Kate, one of our great hosts from Save the Children Philippines, who in my opinion is a leader of the future as I witnessed her interact naturally on different levels with children, teachers, mayors and also us high-maintenance IWitnesses.
The energetic mayor of Taguig, who made a very strong impression. If you have her on your side, don’t worry, she will make it happen!
And, of course, my great IWitness colleagues, who made this trip special and with whom I could laugh and share this amazing experience.
But the most special moment I will never forget was when a small girl with Down’s syndrome curiously scratched my beard when I was sitting next to her. In the end, it is for her that we do this! This will inspire me to walk the extra mile for the small part I can contribute to improve the lives of the less fortunate!
I hope one day together with my family I can return to this beautiful country with resilient, dedicated, enthusiastic, kindly spirited people, so they can feel and experience that as well!
Thank you all for this inspiring journey!