The Philippines is a culturally rich and economically challenged country of thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. The island of Leyte is located among the Visayan Islands in the central Philippines. Famous for the mythical, rebellious, and unconquerable reputation of the Waray people, the location of General McArthur’s “I shall return” landing and most recently the infamous ground zero for the worst storm in known human history (Super Typhoon Yolanda), volunteering in Tacloban will provide volunteers with an incomparable experience.
The History of Tacloban
While Tacloban is the capital city of Leyte and a more modern Visayan city, it faces the same social and environmental challenges that the rest of the Philippines face. Tacloban is a place where villagers come to visit a modern shopping mall or see a movie, it is a city where they can eat at one of the many delicious local restaurants like Ocho or international fast food establishments. Outside of these restaurants are street children, because public welfare programs are still limited and sometimes inefficient because social welfare offices are often influenced by politics.
Many villagers migrate to Tacloban in search of work only to find themselves squatters in already overcrowded and unhealthy neighborhoods. Educational challenges abound in Tacloban, as many children do not attend school for lack of uniforms and books or because they are needed to work alongside their parents to obtain enough income to sustain themselves daily. The recent and limited acceptance of birth control nationally has not found its way to many local villages or provinces, where women, on average, have over five children and typically live in single room native huts. Not to mention the fact that domestic violence, poor nutrition, and preventable illness also plague Tacloban City’s more than 200,000 residents.
The increasing strength of storms ravaging through the region have left Tacloban even more vulnerable, as a city that sits near sea level facing the ocean head on. Mudslides due to heavy rains or typhoons, compounded by tree clearing, have led to entire schools or villages being buried. Most notably, in November of 2013 Tacloban took the full force of the Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) with 300 km an hour winds and a 30 foot ocean storm surge. While much of the city shows signs of improvement, since the storm killed more than ten thousand people in the region, there are still signs of its devastation all around. Tent cities have popped up, along with substandard row houses developed by the local government with limited funding. There is still much to be done as part of the recovery of Tacloban City, including the emotional recovery of its’ residents who continue to grieve their losses as they try to put their lives back together.
Projects & Placements
Volunteer opportunities in Tacloban are plentiful, and currently, many volunteer placements surround typhoon recovery efforts. However, volunteering in Tacloban is not a new concept, as international volunteer work in Tacloban was established more than 20 years ago. Volunteering in Tacloban can be categorized by the following placement areas: working with children, community development, education, health education, and, to a lesser extent, environmental work.
Working with children primarily involved working with children experiencing unique needs, such as street children who are often not orphans but simply children of market workers. Opportunities to volunteer in orphanages in Tacloban are also common, although typically require more screening and a more long term commitment from prospective volunteers. Some local nonprofit organizations also provide opportunities for volunteers to arrange after school activities for children, such as dance lessons, or provide after school tutorials for children in local community centers.
Community Development volunteering in Tacloban typically includes working with at risk populations or high need communities, either alongside the Department of Social Welfare or through one of the NGOs located in Tacloban. Community projects include building homes, providing nutritional education or feedings, and developing programs for at risk students.
Health Care and Education volunteer opportunities exist in communities in and around Tacloban City, in healthcare clinics, in Barangay (neighborhood) health centers, and through periodic medical missions. Medical volunteering in the Philippines is one of the most popular volunteer placements in the country, because it provides hands-on experience for pre-med students or undergraduates trying to decide what specialization they’d like to pursue in the field.
Teaching. Numerous rural schools remain in need of resources and educational support. Volunteers interested in teaching English or other subjects to primary school children will find plenty of volunteer opportunities in Tacloban. Luckily, English is the Philippines second national language, so most students will know a good amount of English already, making connecting with students far easier.
Special Populations. There are also some very unique opportunities for volunteers in Tacloban working with unique populations. Volunteers can work to rehabilitate children, and their parents, who work in the local dump site. Dumpsites only exist near urban areas in the Philippines, and Tacloban has a significant dumpsite on the edge of the city. Children and their families live in the dump, near to all the disease and dangers that accompany it, simply to make enough money recycling plastic to provide food for themselves daily.
Deaf educators also have the unique chance to work at a local school for the deaf, where Filipino Sign Language is similar enough to American Sign Language to communicate effectively with the students (deaf education instruction and materials in the Philippines originally came from the U.S.).
Those interested in business development or mirco financing will also find a handful of opportunities to help women establish stable incomes to support their families.
Environmental Work. After Typhoon Haiyan, and other recent typhoons and natural disasters, there has been a greater emphasis on solving environmental issues before they become calamities. Tree planting, recycling of waste, and safer farming techniques are all more frequently invested in. There are still limited environmental projects for volunteers to get involved with, but sporadic programs are common.
Life in Tacloban
The people of Tacloban speak the dialect which is just one of the many dialects spoken throughout the Philippines, related to the national dialect, Tagalog or Filipino, only in shared Spanish and American vocabulary. Waray people have a real or mythical reputation for being independent, they were not conquered completely by the Spanish, Japanese, or Americans. Today however, Waray people are extremely friendly, generous and full of smiles. Since the major disaster in 2013, there has been a large influx of foreign relief workers, which has led to more internationalization of the city. The larger foreign population has been taken in gratefully, but has also had effects on the economy of the city both positively and negatively.
Waray people like most Filipinos value family above all else. Fiestas are a time for eating and visiting with family and friends. Baptism, funerals, weddings, the marketplace, mass, and almost every occasion is an excuse to eat and chat, and maybe sing some karaoke. While most Tacloban residents speak Waray and Tagalog, slightly fewer speak confident English, though it is a language of instruction in public schools. Basketball is the national and local sport, every neighborhood has a court, if they don’t have a court someone has fashioned a homemade hoop to a tree or power pole. Big summer festivals include Pintados, which has been co-opted by the local government and includes parades, fiesta, food, and face painting.
It is said that 12 families rule the entire country, due to continued political power being kept within family trees. In the case of Tacloban, two of the fiercest political families live side by side though not always as neighbors and most definitely not as friends. The local ruling political family is the Romualdez family, which includes Tacloban City’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, who is the nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos (think shoes). The president of the Philippines, however, is Noynoy Aquino, son of the assassinated political opponent of Ferdinand Marcos, Ninoy Aquino. It is not a surprise that federal and local political disputes often revolve around these 12 families long history of opposition, often negatively effecting the local people who remain largely removed from higher level political decision making.
Costs & Affordability
The Philippines, in general, is a very affordable destination for volunteering abroad. The island of Leyte is among the lowest-cost destinations within the Philippines as well, due to it being one of the poorest regions of the country and its lack of large scale tourist attractions. The more local you go the cheaper it is. McDonalds has similar prices as everywhere else in the world, but a plate of chicken, rice, and veggies at a street stall won’t cost much more than a dollar.
Travel within the Philippines is also cheap, from ground transport, to sea to air travel, such as flights on Cebu Pacific airlines. The more you pay for transportation the more comfortable, and possibly safe, you will be. But if you are willing to cram into a van with almost 20 other people you can get from the northern tip of Leyte to the southernmost point for under $5.
Accommodation & Visas
Most individuals who volunteer in Tacloban City live with homestays, which is often the highlight of volunteering in Tacloban. Homestays are very affordable for international volunteers and are often included in volunteer fees. Meals are usually provided in homestays, and although may be seen as modest by Western standards at times, are always authentic and made from scratch with love. In densely packed neighborhoods, where social life is formed around a plaza, a basketball court. or a karaoke bar, social networks “in the real world” are very important as opposed to those formed online. Communities are close knit and long time neighbors are nearly synonymous with extended family.
Volunteers typically enter the Philippines on a tourist visa and are able to renew their visa locally at the immigration office in Tacloban for a small fee every 30 to 60 days.
Benefits & Challenges
The Philippines is an amazing country primarily because the people are so easy going and generous. As they have demonstrated after the typhoon and demonstrate in their everyday life, the Filipino people are more resilient than most cultures around the world. Locals smile every day, regardless of their personal struggles.
Many volunteers experience culture shock when they begin volunteering in the Philippines, due to the everyday exposure to the hardship and poverty of many families, while others struggle to get accustomed to the simple, basic living conditions. Volunteers should ask themselves if they can live in a very hot, humid climate without air conditioning alongside people who are happy to live life simply without many luxuries, before they begin volunteer work in the Philippines.
If you decide to volunteer in Tacloban, the Philippines will never leave you. You will always have a connection to the local culture, you will gravitate toward Filipinos in your home country, and you will feel a profound love and admiration for the incredible Filipino people.