Philippine Self-Help Foundation

Three months as a volunteer with PSHF

My journey as a volunteer at the Philippine Self Help Foundation started this early January on little Guimaras Island, at the PSHF farm in Bugnay. I was assigned to review the economic aspects of the farm operations and the overall productivity as well as to research solutions for an ant infestation on our coconut bearing trees. For me, it couldn’t have been a better introduction to the Filipino world of authorities, bureaucracy and working culture.

Dealing with the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCO), our caretaker at the farm and other players on the local agricultural market, soon made me realize two essential things: First, Filipinos are terrifically friendly, smiley and accommodating people. Secondly, I would need to drastically adjust my perception of an efficient, transparent and lean approach to all kinds of management if I was to feel satisfaction for progress and accomplishment during the following weeks. Many thanks to Bernie, Joe and Pamfilo, the PSHF staff in Guimaras who helped me feel at home from the first day.

But how did I end up doing this voluntary work? After completing my business & marketing management studies, I worked for a multinational German corporation and this brought me to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta for a stay of six months. After finishing my contract, I felt that it was time for a different professional experience, something that would be closer to the reality outside the financial districts of the globalized world’s underdeveloped economies.

In my initial briefing, Richard introduced me the PSHF as a rather small organization with a significant personal touch, there was a bit of a warning that things are dealt with in a simple way and I should not expect everything to be too sophisticated. Now, a few months later and with a whole baggage of unforgettable experiences and memories, I consider myself very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be part of the work that makes the PSHF a wonderful and incomparable NGO with an immense positive impact on many people’s lives across the Philippines.

After two intense weeks in Guimaras, my next stay was to be in the PSHF office in Bacolod. The city is bustling with jeepneys and trucks, and glittery malls and high-end restaurants are springing up; it is also the capital of the Philippines’ sugar industry. Endless fields of sugarcane dotter the countryside and workers toil the fields and cut the cane for wages of 150 pesos ($US3) a day. Here and there, well-maintained mansions are in evidence, signs that the feudal system remains very much alive. In this context, where the vast majority struggles to make a living, and wealthy families and clans form their own monopoly of politicians and businesses, the true value of PSHF being a NON-governmental organization comes alive. As an institution which empowers those who can hardly rely on any other support, it has in fact been making a change in Bacolod for close to three decades. Loan and grant recipients that were first helped by the PSHF in the 80’s and 90’s still walk into our office sometimes, and by doing so remind us of how valuable the foundation’s work is.

In the Bacolod office, my main volunteer’s tasks were to assist with the daily operations and give suggestions on how to improve ongoing processes. In fact, I accompanied our field workers Lester Joy and Warlita on their weekly loan repayment collection routines throughout the city and led interviews and wrote project proposals for new loan and grant applications in the office. The PSHF’s approach is very personalised but quite time consuming. I highly enjoyed being able to help with drafting simple business plans and transmitting basic business appraisal skills to the applicants. Self-help is encouraged in an exemplary manner and the satisfaction of assisting someone in the planning of an enterprise that will improve his/her livelihood is indescribable. During my two months in Bacolod I developed a big admiration for the persistence and dedication of our office administrator Sherry, whose work is a very valuable component of the office.

It was mid-March when I had to say goodbye to Bacolod and move to Cauayan in the southernmost part of Negros Occidental province. The PSHF Cauayan office is situated in a region struck by a poor labor market, cause of the general depression in the area. While going around visiting projects and leading interviews with Bernie, the Cauayan office coordinator, the relief and hopefulness of people having PSHF staff listening to their stories could not been mistaken. I was happy to contribute with the writing of a project proposal for an educational loan as well as one for a business loan to leverage operations of a sea salt harvesting enterprise.

Although my stay of four days in Cauayan province was short, it took a big place in my memories. Not only because of the breathtaking landscapes - the green mountains, hills and fields contrasting with the different shades of blue of the ocean made even an almost five hour trip on the backseat of motorcycle a pleasant experience. To witness Filipino life far away from cities and mainstream touristic facilities contributed to my understanding of the country.

Last but not least, in the last week of my voluntary assignment I got to visit the PSHF office in Tagbilaran City, capital of the island of Bohol. Ireen and her team were highly accommodating and rewarded me with a borrowed motorcycle and some leisure time for me to explore the beautiful beaches of neighboring Panglao Island and the interior of Bohol. Yet, I was given the opportunity to support the two founders of a project funded by PSHF: A newly opened pre-school by the name of PSHF Lighthouse Learning Center Bohol. I assisted with the creation and the distribution of a comprehensive brochure about the school’s programs and helped the school founders draft a marketing offensive to attract new enrollments. On my last day, I was very happy to hear that the attempt was successful and that the school would be able to soon start their summer program with more pupils.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable voyage throughout the Philippines’ central islands, always as close as possible to the lives of those who shape the society of this Southeast Asian nation.

My sincere thanks to everyone in the organization who made it all possible by embracing me as a member of the PSHF family. I am sure we will always keep in touch in some way and I look forward to seeing you all again. I wish there would be more organizations like this around the world.

Robin Marques Dreke