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"I love you and I love me": Volunteering with the Stairway boys
13 August 2008
by Meghann Aurea Villanueva

Manila, The Philippines: I'm Meghann Aurea Villanueva (Meg). Born and grew up in the Philippines. I've been connected with IAVE since I first attended the 17th World Conference in Seoul, South Korea where I presented a workshop on 'The Impact of Youth Volunteering in the Philippines - a Look at the University setting'. I was only 17 at that time, and it was the first time I met Leo Wong, Carlos Roca Parada, and other people in the youth circle.

I recently finished my Master's degree in Conflict and Reconciliation Studies, and for my Master's thesis, I did a study on the Similarities and Differences of how Christian and Muslim Youth Understand Peace.

I am currently the Program Manager and Country Manager of PeaceTech Inc., an international NGO that promotes dialogue among youth from different geographical and social backgrounds – we utilize technology (internet and videoconferencing) to bridge young people around the world.

Before I was involved with PeaceTech, I was teaching peace education, English and education for international understanding.

I was a resource speaker at the IAVE World Youth Volunteer Conference in Panama, where I presented on 'The Global Impact of Youth Volunteering' in the plenary.

I've been involved in volunteer initiatives since the early age of 10, because both my parents work in community development projects and were both Jesuit Volunteers themselves. I have volunteered both in local and international programs, such as UN and ASEAN campaigns.

Recently, I spent one of the best five-day periods of my life at Stairway Foundation as a peace camp volunteer.

Living, eating, playing and learning new things with 30 young people who have their own different life stories to tell, it was impossible to leave the place without sadness and a strong wish to be able to come back again. We had three different groups – 10 participants came from International School Manila, another 10 are Mangyans from Tugdaan High School, and the rest, we call the Stairway Foundation boys.

Founded in 1990 by Monica Ray (USA) and Lars Jorgensen (Denmark), Stairway Foundation Inc. is a resource learning centre for marginalized street children in the Philippines.

Working directly with street children since its establishment, it was discovered through the alternative program that street children did not only struggle with problems related to violence, drugs, and alcohol, but also child abuse and sexual exploitation.

This realization brought SFI to join forces with international networks to fight against sexual abuse and exploitation among children, and challenged them to develop advocacy and capacity building programs geared toward this end.

Most of the children at Stairway are either abused or come from dysfunctional families or juvenile prisons. Some of them were drug addicts, homeless or street children.

The foundation provides a one-year programme that gives them an opportunity to gain practical living skills, where their basic needs, such as shelter, food and clothing, are provided for free. As they mature into the programme, they are expected to start earning through livelihood projects such as henna tattoo skills, tie-dye and t-shirt printing, designing dream catchers and making friendship bands.  Through these, they learn to provide for themselves through their own efforts and capacities. It increases their self-confidence and veers them away from begging, stealing or gambling. They also get assigned dishwashing and other cleaning duties every week.

The children are divided into learning levels and taught classes just like they would be taught in schools. They have their own classrooms and even a computer room where they are taught practical computer skills. They also undergo seminars on children’s rights, different forms of violence and child abuse. They also have yearly camps and tons of outdoor activities. Over-all, they are given a well-rounded program for their holistic development.

As a volunteer, I facilitated sessions on peace and conflict, as well as teambuilding activities. I was also assigned to lead the Yellow Team – a group that gave me some wonderful memories that I will never forget. Our team, composed of two international school students, two indigenous girls, two boys from Stairway Foundation, and one boy from Cairo, Egypt, ate together, washed dishes together, and accomplished group tasks together – most of the time, trying to get to know more about each others' personal lives.

At one time, my teammate had to wake me up for dinner because the group would not start without all of us present at the group dining table. I was teary eyed as I realized how much they cared for me to even go out of their way to find me.

Every morning, at 6.00 am, we would form a big circle by the beach and do some breathing and morning exercises. The highlight of this morning meeting was the activity called 'I love you, and I love me', where each person gets to say "I love you", looking straight to the person next to him/her, and end by saying, "And I love me".

In the circle, everybody receives an "I love you" from someone, and based on the Stairway boys I got to mingle with, I found out that the activity was therapeutic and at the same time, very relieving to them. I remember one boy, Christian, telling me "ang sarap pala ng pakiramdam ng may nagmamahal sayo"  which means, "It feels really good to know that someone loves you".

It is amazing how these kids, through their troubles, can give so much laughter and smiles in their faces. It is very admirable that despite their unhappy past, they manage to look up and be strong – and see a brighter future ahead of them.

My wonderful days at Stairway brought me back to memory lane.

I remember my first 'few steps' as a volunteer at 10 years old, when my father, who was then working in a community development program in a prominent university, took me to a week long summer camp for street children. It was my first time to meet children who didn’t go to school, or begged for food. I remember hiding behind my dad on the first day – shy that I might not be accepted because they all looked like they were already friends while I knew nobody. But a few minutes after, I was playing with young kids my age, and even found out that they lived right across my school!

As a youth volunteer in different programmes around the country, I always look back to this very humbling experience. I have been exposed to many kinds of people, from street children to persons with disabilities, to old people trying to understand why they are in senior homes. Meeting these people always reminds me that in this society where inequality is inevitable, the more people are concerned about others, the more understanding there is in this world.

I met and got to know other volunteers at Stairway.  They are what we call 'ate(s)' and 'kuya(s)' (big brothers and big sisters), who devote their time as teachers, as well as friends. I was very impressed with how the volunteers have become really close to the boys. They believed that these children need love. They believed that their presence would not only make a difference to the foundation, but make a difference in their lives as well.

The success of Stairway is because of the volunteers who continue to take the journey.  The camp opened my eyes to even more realities young people and children face.  It gave me a better understanding that in a world where inequality seems to overpower basic human connections, there lies a great calling for us to care and love each other, regardless of our cultures, beliefs and backgrounds.

Spending such happy moments with the kids was an example of appreciating our differences – embracing our diversity – by smiling to the next person just like we did every morning when we’d say, "I love you and I love me".

Courtesy of the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) 'e-IAVE' newsletter.