As you may have followed on social media I've just got back from a visit to two of our schools in the Philippines. The trip, and a visit to the other two schools in Cebu, was cut short by a week because of the Covid-19 lockdown on Manilla that started at midnight on Sunday 15th March.
What does this mean for our 4 schools there and our other schools around the world? Imagine, if you will, five and a half thousand children to teach, feed, keep busy and organise when a city is in lockdown. Five loaves and two fishes....
First and foremost, there has been a lack of teachers - they were not able to travel to the schools to teach the children. On Thursday, before the lockdown was announced, the Boystown school had only 15 of the normally 65 teachers and now they will have none. Ever resourceful, and with the support of graduates and students, the Sisters were able to maintain lessons for most of the classes. The final year A grade students took time out of their own learning to run maths, technical and other classes for all the other years. Students were encouraged to organise themselves for other activities. Extra sports and interest group clubs were available during the week rather than just on the Saturday. Did you know the boys and girls have a huge variety of extra-curricular activity? Music groups, dance, Tae Kwondo, other sports, singing, prayer groups, cooking, sewing and many more besides.
They used the opportunity for example to get ahead with all the uniforms sewn and ready for the first year students arriving in April. There was even a competition over 30 minutes by group for the most and best sewn shorts! Other children were doing extra gardening, tidying up, extra cooking and offering to help where they could. Work continued to replace the soil and plants in the vegetable, fruit and flower gardens that were ruined by the volcanic ash in January.
The main worry is the price and availability of food - of the right quality and quantity to keep those five and half thousand children going and concentrating on their studies while the area is in lockdown and there is no produce from the gardens. Having now interviewed many students, I know how important it is for them not to be worrying about being hungry, where the next meal is coming from, where the money is coming from to pay for food and keeping their families safe. Such responsibilities lie heavy on a child.
The Sisters of Mary schools provide them above all with safety and certainty about tomorrow and real hope for the future. There are 11 thousand children in the 4 Philippines schools and approximately 20,000 in all across the seven countries. Let's pull together to make sure they can all be nourished bodily and spiritually in these difficult times.
On this, my first trip to Asia, the overall impression on the journey from the airport to the school in Cavite is one of busyness, noise and bustle. Of course, any big city is full of traffic and people and, living in London, am pretty used to it.
Driving through the school gates though, is entering a safe haven - birds sing in mango trees, children play basketball, they walk from lesson to lesson in ordered but chattery groups, lunch is being prepared in spotless kitchens, lessons happen in well-equipped classrooms and technical labs, children help with gardening. Above all the contrast with the chaotic and anxious lives that they have all come from "out there" couldn't be stronger. Here they are taken care of, nurtured, educated, taught life skills and kept safe from worry and hunger. Of course the children do still worry about their families, as my interviews with them demonstrated, but they are able to worry less because they have the knowledge that their time at the school is equipping them for a productive future. Their ambition, without exception from all of those I spoke to, is to support their families once they are earning their living. "I am determined to lift my whole family out of poverty" said one participant whose family had time and time again failed her and her siblings, "my goal is to build my parents a house" said another whose family all lived in a single room house. Former graduates from the Sisters of Mary schools across the world demonstrate that most of them do just that.
Even just the fact of attending the school has a positive impact on their families - one less mouth to feed means that one more sibling can attend local school, brothers and sisters want to follow the example, have more motivation to attend school regularly and study harder, parents can afford more food.
I don't know if you've ever been hungry but the stories that these children told me showed the level of responsibility they felt even before the age of 10 - to go out and earn enough to put food on the table for their brothers & sisters, to put themselves in danger just to get money for at least one meal a day, to become substitute parents when the family is dysfunctional. They often arrive at the school undernourished and undersized for their age and without basic social skills.
My first impressions of the schools in Cavite, the Boystown and Girlstown, is that the Sisters provide an environment that protects and nourishes much more than the body. Not only are they equipped with knowledge, life skills and technical expertise, they are loved and cherished and filled with a set of values that they all talked about. Hard work, helping others, respect, good manners and participating fully in the opportunities offered.
The happy, fulfilled, ambitious older children I met in their final year at the school are testament to the tireless, joyful and competent work the Sisters of Mary invest in these, some the poorest children on the planet, to shape the productive citizens of the future.
Clare Bamberger, Trustee, 16th March 2020