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By Sloane Berrent, KF8, Philippines

“Tell Ma’am Sloane about your recent project.” Sir Rexon asks Sir Ronnie while we sit having lunch on Talim Island in Binangon, Rizal, where I am visiting an ASHI branch for the day. Everyone here goes by Ma’am and Sir as a sign of respect.

This island, is the 12th and final stop on the small transporter boat from Morong, and one of ASHI’s strongest branches and most remote. No cars are on the island, only tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars) and the main thoroughfare’s fences in front of the houses are painted with a scene of a garden that stretches the equivalent of 3 city blocks. The rest of the world feels far, far away.

I think the project is going to have something to do with this branch, I’ve heard all about how this branch gets books donated to the schools and how ASHI has a strong social development program to help the ASHI members learn financial literacy, good parenting, how to strengthen their community.

I’m wrong. It turns out Sir Ronnie saw on the news last year a story about 10 children on a small island called Magalundi Island about 100 meters from Ilio-Ilio City on the Panay Island.

These 10 children were reported as swimming to their elementary school, Binon-An Elementary School, in the morning and home in the afternoon because there wasn’t a canoe or boat to transport them and no school in their island.

There is a commercial boat, but the hours start after they have to be at school and end before they are finished for the day.

“But what about their books? Their uniforms?” I ask incredulously.

Sir Ronnie tells me they put their books and uniforms in plastic bags and buried them in the sand every day. “They couldn’t do their homework at night,” he tells me, that is the one thing that stood out most to him.

“Once,” he says, “a storm was coming in and one of the girls was responsible for her little brother when they swam. He was too little to do the whole distance himself and so would hold onto her neck and shoulders. The storm moved in fast, and unfortunately she lost him.”

boyschool2“So what you’re telling me,” my hands gripping tightly to the table and my appetite gone, “Is that there are children who swam to school because their family believed that much in education. And that they buried their belongings in the SAND day in and day out and one day while swimming the 100 meters one-way, that they swam twice every day, a storm rolled in and one of the boys died?”

“Yes. That is why it made the news.”

“Wow.” I pause mainly because no words seem to be able to escape my mouth with my jaw hung open so low. Finally I muster, “So what is the project?”

Talim Island Branch of ASHI, hundreds of miles away, under the leadership of the Branch Manager Ronnie, decided to raise the money to buy these kids a boat to take them to school.

The cost? 2,000 PHP (American dollar to Philippines pesos is 1:48 so about $42).

The time? 3 months. It took two months to raise the money and both ASHI staff from around the country AND borrowers pitched in. One month to have the boat built and then Rexon and Ronni drove it across Panay to a inaugural ceremony on the beach to give it to the families.

There was not a dry tear in the house. When they presented the boat this past May, the families cried and the teachers cried and the ASHI staff who delivered it cried.

“But,” I say after many moments of blinking back my own tears, “ASHI doesn’t even operate in Ilio-Ilio, and there are so many other natural disasters I’ve heard of like typhoons and flooding and the lean months. Why this project?”

Ronnie looks at me, slowly smiles and says, “Everyone should have the opportunity to go to school. And God tells us to help those less fortunate than us. When I saw the story on the news, I knew we had to help.”

Meeting Borrowers here, one of the questions we ask them is, “What are your hopes and dreams for the future.” Almost unanimously they respond that their dream is to be able to send their kids to school and college. Fees for book, required uniforms and tuition can be hard for a family in poverty with many children.

Here in the Philippines I’ve found time and time again, even those with little look to help those with less. That is the human spirit, that is humanity and it’s seeping here. Seeping through the boat, up the dirt path, around the corner with the kids playing hopscotch and the mothers doing laundry in the alleys and the men pulling in the morning’s catch of fish. It’s seeping all the way to the table where I sit, looking at a man who would not stand for kids to have to swim in dangerous water just to go to school.

Sloane Berrent, KF8, is currently serving her placement with Ahon sa Hirap (ASHI) in the Philippines. Spending time with ASHI members she has learned to throw pots, plant rice and helped man a general store and is planning to spend a day with more members to walk in their shoes. When online, you can find her promoting Kiva on Twitter and writing about social action campaigns on her blog, The Causemopolitan.

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