Some days, the weather outdoors soared to an unbearable 40 degrees Celsius. Yet, the team of 40 CapitaLand staff from various parts of Asia - China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and the Philippines - soldiered on. They were at the village in Tanay, Rizal in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, to help the community there rebuild their homes and they were determined to do a good job.
“The villagers lacked even the basic needs - a comfortable shelter, nutritional meals and clothing. The children were running around barefooted, even through the muddy paths that were covered with rocks and pebbles,” observed first-time CapitaLand volunteer, Senior Manager, Finance, CapitaLand Singapore (Residential), Tan Eng Keat.
The village of over 200 families, including 260 children, like countless others across the country, was devastated by Typhoon Ondoy in September 2009. That fateful day, the storm swept across many parts of Southeast Asia and racked up an estimate US$1.09 billion worth of damages. Thousands lost their homes. Many, like this community supported by the locally-based community development foundation, Gawad Kalinga (GK), have been struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives ever since.
The five-day CapitaLand expedition was part of the company’s continual efforts to build a better tomorrow for underprivileged children in the countries where CapitaLand operates and to encourage its staff to volunteer.
“I have volunteered in China before but they were mostly one-day affairs. I have always believed in volunteering and feel that when it comes to contributing, there should be no national boundaries. I wanted to see what I could do beyond my country,” said Li Ying Fang, Senior Executive, Administration, South China, CapitaMalls Asia, China.
Hard Work in the Hot Sun
Their job was simple – to help build proper homes for the villagers so they could move out of their ramshackle huts. But it was by no means easy.
The volunteers had to mix the cement, carry sandbags, dig the foundation of the houses, lay the bricks and even paint the houses – all by hand. No machinery was used. It was truly a labour of love.
“There were many rocks and boulders that were embedded in the ground and had to be removed so that the foundation of the houses could be laid. There was one particular boulder that we uncovered that measured around three feet by four feet! It took a group of us a couple of hours to dig it out and remove it,” recalled Tan.
But they kept their mission clearly in mind even as the blistering heat bore down upon them as they worked.
“The work was tough, especially working in the heat since I come from a more temperate climate” agreed Li. “But for us, it was only temporary. If our temporary difficulty could alleviate their suffering in the long run, it was worth it. I wanted to make sure they had strong houses so they would no longer be at the mercy of the elements.”
In Hot Pursuit of a Better Life
Apart from helping to provide them with shelter, the expedition also sought to better the lives of the people by bringing knowledge to and educating their children. The volunteers worked in eight teams, each tasked to cover a different aspect from English lesson to reading and computer skills, music, culture, arts and sports. Preparation for these lessons took place long before the actual trip.
Whether it was art and craft or learning language through drama, the volunteers’ goal was to let the children learn through play; and the children were certainly game for anything.
“I was moved by the fact that even though they were poor, they were full of joy. They were so willing to take part in all the activities and were so lovable,” said Li. “The children really need an education to give them the chance to get out of their impoverished lives.”
“It was special for me to have these uncles and aunties here at the village to teach us new things and give us presents! I enjoyed all the lessons and my favourite lesson was music and singing,” said eight-year-old John Robert Martinez.
A chance to go to school is not a given amongst the village children. 21-year-old Kim Maique is a student leader with GK who has lived in the village all her life with her parents and three siblings. After graduating from high school at the age of 16, her family was too poor to let her carry on. Now, through GK, she organises fundraising activities to help her village and gives tuition to the children thrice a week.
“I am enjoying every second of my life now and it is my passion to continue helping the young children,” said Maique who now dedicates her life to helping others get the education she was denied.
Fun in the Sun
One of the highlights of the expedition was the day trip the staff organised. They brought 80 children out of the village to Bakasyunan Resort for a Kiddie Olympics. From sack races to obstacle courses and tug-of-war, the children got to participate in games they had never played before. There was even a CapitaLand management team comprising Tony Soh, Chief Corporate Officer, The Ascott Limited; Arthur Gindap, Regional General Manager, Philippines and Thailand, The Ascott Limited; and Tan Bee Leng, Vice President, Corporate Marketing & Corporate Social Responsibility, CapitaLand Limited and General Manager, CapitaLand Hope Foundation that joined in the fun.
“The children have no real place to play. Their playground is a construction site with knee-deep trenches; their slide is a pile of sand. They don’t even have an open field for football and or other sporting activities,” said Belinda Yew, Senior Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, CapitaLand Limited in explaining the reason the volunteers arranged for a day of fun and games for the children away from their village.
Warm Relations Amongst Friends
By the end of the trip, many of the volunteers had made friends with the villagers. They also went on home visits and brought gifts of much-appreciated groceries, books and pre-owned toys with them. Virtually every family had a sad story.
“Their living conditions were harsh. Space was limited; their bed was just a wooden plank that the whole family of four slept on. They had no fans to combat the scorching heat, and their only form of entertainment was a radio. Their electricity came from car batteries, which cost 60 peso (USS$1.50) and could only last a week. The whole family lived on less than 500 peso (US$12.20) a month,” recounted Tan.
Yet another family consists of a 72-year-old grandmother who is taking care of four of her grandchildren. Another grandchild works at a construction site in Manila to support the family. On days when he does not send money home, the family goes hungry.
“The grandmother is suffering from cataract but she refuses to seek treatment because of the costs,” said Filipino volunteer, Donna Perez, Assistant Manager, Sales and Marketing, The Ascott Limited.
Even as the volunteers enriched the lives of the children in the village, the experience also enriched the lives of the volunteers.
“This expedition has certainly added more meaning to my life and made me appreciate what I have. The villagers may have suffered great loss but they still have so much joy in them. Even as they worked to rebuild their homes, they were singing and dancing. They’re truly an inspiration. Given the chance, I would volunteer for such expeditions again,” said Li.
“The children taught us the true meaning of happiness. Just like the Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, once said, happiness comes from within; you can have very little and still have a happy life. It’s all about perspectives,” agreed Yew.
Working together across countries and SBUs (Strategic Business Unit) also helped to strengthen the bond amongst the CapitaLand staff.
“The new friendships I made with colleagues from other SBUs, especially with our counterparts from the Ascott Philippines Group are invaluable. I even picked up a few Tagalog words,” smiled Tan.
When it comes to spreading warmth and care, neither language nor nationality is a barrier. This is what CapitaLand has proven again and again.
More photos of the volunteer expedition can be found on: CapitaLand Hope Foundation Facebook Page
This article is contributed by Belinda Yew, Senior Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, CapitaLand Limited