Heart-to-Heart: Helping Manila's most vulnerable

Our first shipment of soap to the Philippines was to Journey of Hearts, a community group founded by a freelance theatre practitioner, Guo Xiong (centre in pic), about nine years ago. SCSG caught up with him to find out more about the group’s efforts in the slums of Manila.

How did it all start? I went on a solo trip to the Philippines in 2009. When I first arrived in Manila, the scene was very surreal. Children were selling magnolia on the streets instead of going to school and so many people were living in poor sanitary conditions? From that day on, I decided to travel less, and to dedicate more time to help the people there. I went back the following year to see what I could do in my own capacity. I met a local, Mark John Romatico Villanueva in 2014 who became my first volunteer in Manila. I eventually hired him as full-time staff in early 2017, and found Journey of Hearts(JoH) in the same year.

What have you witnessed at the slums that strike you most? I have seen how a family of six, parents and young children all surviving on just one meal with only white rice and half salted fish surrounded by flies. People literally eat “junk” food, locally known as “pagpag” (leftovers mixed with garbage discarded by fast food restaurants). There are also people living in the “tunnel”, the small and dark space between the bottom of the bridge and the river. They live in extremely harsh environment. Cockroaches and rats are everywhere. Their homes are flooded during high tide. They are called “living dead” by the media and their main jobs are cleaning and digging graves and so on. Aroma and Happy Land are two different places but under the same jurisdiction. The main tasks of the residents here are garbage sorting, cleaning, etc. If it rains, the places will be wet and muddy, making walking difficult. Life is hard and because of the meagre family's income, and many children do not have the opportunity to go to school.

What kind of humanitarian work do you carry out in these slums? Initially, I focused on helping the children and provided them some food, stationery and goodie bags. Later, I got to know a family with eight children and realise even the adults did not have any access to assistance. I changed focus, and started distributing daily necessities and food to families. For the past two years, we have also been actively working with the chairmen of Barangay (liaison office) in different regions, essentially providing free lunches and education for the poor children. We also provide educational materials and tools. We teach the children how to brush their teeth and wash their hands. In order to strengthen environmental awareness, we teach the children to eat with their own utensils and also encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

The challenges you face then and now. The challenges then were money and manpower. I was alone and did not register for charity. I couldn't collect donations from the public and had to use my savings and rely on donations from friends. Three years ago, I accepted Channel U's info documentary "Going Miles, Spreading Smiles" request to film my work at Payatas dumpsite. Many people contacted me after the show aired. Some donated, some wanted to visit. There were also religious groups wanting to help. I had to decline them as it was a huge responsibility and I had always wanted to keep it small rather than expand. Our food programme for children has grown from 800 to 1,600 kids per month and the highest record is 2,400, and it takes a lot of coordination work.

The bigger challenge now is that my staff will leave next year and the lunch programme may have stop. We may just narrow our focus and work with the orphanage.