Needing to recognize turning 50 with more than just a birthday party, I decided to take a leave of absence from my job as an elementary school teacher to do something a little different. Volunteering seemed the natural choice as I would be able to share my teaching skills, as well as immerse myself in a different culture for an extended period of time. I spent hours researching countries and volunteer organisations, and decided on the Philippines in part because of English being widely spoken and the close relationship between the Philippines and the United States. I chose Projects Abroad as I felt it was an established organisation that really tried to make a difference.
I did, however, have three big concerns about taking the plunge to volunteer on the other side of the world; first of all, how would I feel as a 50-year-old among volunteers who would most likely be considerably younger than me, secondly, would my skills as a Grade 5 teacher be a help or a hindrance in a class of five-year-old children in Bogo City, Cebu, Philippines, and finally, doing a homestay at my age after years of running my own household seemed fear inducing!
Naturally, I needed to worry about nothing, but throughout my time volunteering in Bogo City I certainly encountered differences, surprises, annoyances and excitement. I was volunteering during a very quiet period so I figured I may well be doing a lot alone. However, that was not to be - from arriving at Cebu Airport to be met by an enthusiastic and smiling Projects Abroad staff member with a welcome necklace, as well as another volunteer who would be living very close by to me and in the same school placement. Projects Abroad made it a priority to ensure volunteers were listened to, had a chance to share their thoughts and concerns and to offer support and advice for volunteers who were in a completely different situation from home life.
I particularly loved the weekly social events which involved history, background, facts, food and new locations. From a local coffee shop to the city museum to Zumba during sunset on the Projects Abroad roof, I did not miss one. These events included other volunteers from overseas as well as interns who were from the Philippines.
Living with a host family in the Philippines
The homestay component of my volunteering experience was certainly a wonderful experience for someone my age. I was concerned about my independence, and this was not something I needed to worry about in the least. If I had other dinner plans, if I wanted to stay in my room and read, or if I was going to be gone all weekend, this was never an issue with the family. Common courtesy meant letting the family know of my plans and respecting them. Despite me being older than both my host parents, they were extremely worried about my wellbeing, whereabouts and safety so it was important to remember the cultural differences and the responsibilities the host families have.
My homestay was clean and comfortable and, of course, there were differences from what we are accustomed to in the United States. Regardless of the differences, which may at first seem overwhelming and wrong, it really is not a problem Being safe, comfortable and with a family who enjoyed having me as much as I enjoyed being there are what matters. I was treated so well, I could get used to the amazing feasts at breakfast and dinner where every member of the family (grandma, uncle, the four children, mom, dad, the two girls who helped in the house and myself) sat down to a feast (and another volunteer who was part of the family for a short while).
Food is a huge part of the Filipino culture, and I can verify that from my experience. The family loved to explain everything I was eating, down to the last green leaf used as a herb. A packed lunch was prepared for me daily, usually including the famous Manila mangoes. The mangoes lived up to their excellent reputation. I also learned a meal is not a complete meal without rice, otherwise it is called a snack. So being served rice three times a day is normal!
My Teaching placement
I was placed in a school called Bogo Central III, two trike rides away from my homestay. Trikes are motorbikes with a passenger carriage attached, in which as many people as possible are packed in. I loved waving the trike down each time and squeezing on just like a local. At first I was terrified I wouldn’t know where to get off, or even how to flag one down and get on! I enjoyed talking with the drivers who loved to know I was in Bogo to work with children. They were quite amazed by that.
The heat was definitely a challenge, along with lots of heavy rain. Despite the weather I enjoyed walking as much as possible before the heat would take over. I enjoyed the local shops, places to eat, coffee shops and karaoke bars. Karaoke is a must by the way for anyone volunteering in the Philippines. There is so much to keep occupied with, and there are the days to relax and read at home, watch TV with the family, or even sing karaoke with the family as the majority of homes have their own karaoke machines!
As I am a Grade 5 teacher at home it was definitely a huge change working with five year olds, and so many of students in a really hot classroom. I thought our classrooms were hot in California, but I clearly knew nothing. I mainly assisted the teacher when she needed help and did not in fact act as a teacher like I am used to while back in the United States. A few days after arriving at Bogo Central, I had my 50th birthday and what a celebration the teacher I was assigned to made the day. There were cakes and cards and singing and parents and such an amazing sharing of warmth and joy. It was so different from any other birthday I have experienced. I absolutely loved the way I was completely welcomed and loved.
A key part of enjoying the volunteering experience in such a different setting is to take the initiative, jump in, check in with the kids, offer suggestions as to what you are capable of doing, and don’t be shy about taking part and offering up your skills. Each teacher is different in how they welcome volunteers so it important to take some ownership in finding a balance between being useful and helpful rather than in the way, difficult or needy.
Some of the students had limited English as well as their parents, so while there was a small communication barrier, it did not stop me interacting with all students as well as the parents. The parents were very involved and visible, and they came to view me as part of the classroom, really welcoming me in. It was an incredible experience and I soaked it all up, watching the kids at recess, exploring and marvelling at the very different school buildings and being thankful that I could be in Bogo City and experience all Bogo Central III had to offer.
To answer those nagging questions I had before leaving home; would I be too old, how would my previous teaching experience enhance or hamper my volunteering, and what would a homestay actually be like at my age all proved to be valid concerns, natural pre trip nerves, but truly nothing to worry about. I was responsible for how I handled my experiences while in the Philippines - accepting how different parts of the world are exactly that- different, and then embracing the differences with a positive attitude.
The challenges and self-growth I experienced by throwing myself into a five week stay in Bogo City were so rewarding that I truly hope such an opportunity will come up again. The new places I discovered, the challenges of school work in less fortunate parts of the world, and the warmth and welcome of complete strangers reminds me once again that there is a big world out there, with people waiting to become friends, challenges to be met, and adventures there to be experienced.