Last month I stepped down from my role as Soap Cycling’s general manager in Hong Kong, ending nearly four years of volunteer and paid service. During that time, the organization has shipped out over 90,000 kg (2,250,000 bars) of reprocessed soap discarded from hotels to 109 charities and individuals located in 17 countries from North Korea to Cameroon.
With my paid job complete, I took the first two weeks in early December to travel about the region, updating my network, job hunting, and tying up loose ends. Due to a last-minute change of plans, I found myself heading to Manila for a long weekend. As Soap Cycling has several local charity partners in the Manila metropolitan region, it seemed like a great opportunity to connect and witness a soap distribution firsthand.
One such partner who offered to let me join their activities was Kilos Bayanihan ("KB"). Since 2016, Soap Cycling has shipped 1,800 kg or 45,000 bars of soap to bolster their activities in the slums of Manila. Starting in 2009 in the Visayas Region of the Philippines, KB acts as a channel for much-needed donations of food, educational assistance, and daily necessities to children living in poverty, both urban and rural. They target populations going through extreme hardship resulting from natural disasters, fires, and relocations due to redevelopment of urban sum areas. Founded by Alan Niewald, an American who frequently traveled to the Philippines and witnessed the poverty and despair that is all too common across the country, he teamed up with local volunteers to create regular programs of distributions and education to marginalized communities. Now a registered charity in the US, it collects funds and donations of lightly-used goods from the States and works with local teams in Manila and elsewhere to provide hope, guidance, and support to the Philippines next generation.
On Saturday, December 14th, I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport with 40 kg (1,000 bars) of soap collected from local hotels in Singapore, my last port of call. The previous day, I joined the Soap Cycling Singapore team to conduct a corporate volunteering session with AMEX at their offices in Marina Bay Financial Centre. A very enthusiastic and hardworking group, they even created some festive Christmas cards to wish the beneficiaries encouraging messages for the holiday season.
While I had transited through Manila a few times for different work trips to various parts of the Philippines, this was my first opportunity to really explore the city on my own. Complete with a sim card, a few thousand pesos, and a pimento cheese sandwich, I summoned a Grab and made my way some 20 km north to the community of Malabon. Originally a small fishing village on the outskirts of Manila, over time it has grown to become one of the most densely populated areas in the metropolis. With over 350,000 people living in under 16 square kilometers, its low-lying topography and collection of rivers make it prone to periodic flooding during typhoons.
After a grueling 2 hours sitting in Manila’s notorious Christmas shopping season traffic, I made it to my destination, the Fisherman’s Mall. The scene was pretty hectic with families, tuk-tuks, and street vendors all jostling for space along the community’s crowded thoroughfares. Coming from uber tidy Singapore, it was certainly a shock to the senses. I waited outside the local Jolibee outlet for my contact, Mark De Los Reyes. I’m sure I stood out like a sore thumb and was quickly gathered into a waiting motorcycle sidecar.
Mark took us a few blocks east where a group of 40 or so kids were engaged in playing local street games. They appeared to range in age from 5 to 8 years old and seemed genuinely excited in meeting me (all were curious about what I might produce from my large suitcase). Mark gave a kind introduction in Tagalog, giving my name as “Sir Pao” for easier pronunciation. With the formalities out of the way, I produced the soap and a mad rush ensued by each child to gather as much as possible. Mark explained that the cheapest bar of soap in a local sari-sari store would retail for about $25-30 pesos (appx $.50 USD) (do some research on the annual/monthly wages for slum dwellers in Manila) and families often had to decide between purchase food, water (there is often no access to regular municipal water supplies for families living in unsettled living conditions), and other daily household necessities such as soap. If there are any doubts that soap is important, the statistical outlook for these kids is quite grim. The childhood mortality rate for Manila slums is double the national average in the Philippines (72/100), with diarrheal disease the leading killer. Gastroenteritis, as diarrhea is scientifically called, is easily preventable by handwashing with soap. For reference, the childhood mortality rate in the US is 6/1000.
The soap was gone in a flash, but I still had an ace up my sleeve. I produced the Christmas cards created by AMEX for a final dissemination of holiday wishes from the folks back in Singapore. The kids were very excited to receive such simple, but sincere, personalized gifts, of encouraging messages from well-wishers. We posed for a few group photos before the kids ran off to play in the street, gleefully toting their bags of soap home for their families.
With our work complete, I took Mark and his colleague to the local Pizza Hut for a debrief and dinner. For $1,000 PHP (around $20 USD), a Filipino Christmas feast could be had complete with a large pizza, pasta, salad, and chicken wings. Not too bad!
Mark filled me in on some of the details of KB’s history and mission, as well as his own path to being involved in the organization. A native of Malabon, he currently studies political science at the City of Manila University and aspires to study law so that he can help those in need navigate the often byzantine bureaucracy of Manila to access social services and secure their rights. KB’s foray into Malabon is quite recent, commencing 37 weeks earlier. Their original bases of action in Manila are Tondo, the neighborhood just 8 km to the south.
When I asked Mark how he targets the children to participate in the program, he explains that KB works with the local barangay social workers to identify families living in unsettled living conditions. In 2016 a large fire displaced over 100,000 families and (at Soap Cycling we also provided soap to several charities who requested soap for those displaced). Fires in squatter settlements occur regularly (the latest in May displaced 1,000 families), wiping out all the household assets While in the immediate aftermath of a disaster the city government is proactive in providing triage support to these families, over time the impetus for continued aid wanes and many often fall through the cracks of a very porous social safety net. Other disruptive events include a recent road-widening scheme along Manila Bay that displaced several hundred families and even a recent Typhoon Kammuri that caused widespread flooding, damage to squatter homes, and disruption of municipal services. The children targeted by KB are those living in precarious situations that are one disaster away from losing everything.
I was always curious about the name, Kilos Bayanihan, and what it stands for. Mark explained that “Kilos” is the Tagalog word for a movement, action or behavior. “Bayani” as a noun refers to a hero or person who offers a free service in a cooperative effort. “Bayanihan” is a verb that means helping each other for a common purpose. Taken together, it means “Let's Move it together.”
Mark felt that while those who donate their time and funds to help the children in need were indeed heroes for their contributions to KB’s mission, in fact it was the kids themselves who were the true heroes, braving the dangers of the streets in Malabon every day. Due to the unsettled living conditions faced by the families living hand-to-mouth existences, many of the kids were out of school and often had to resort to illegal activities such as petty theft to support their families. Hard to imagine for kids so young, but Mark recounted several stories of kids that age and younger being involved in gun play tied to local gang activity. KB’s primary mission is to provide material assistance to their families. With the support of organizations such as KB, these intelligent and energetic young people have a chance at a brighter future.