In the most impoverished communities of Manila, Philippines, Holt’s on-the-ground partner is working with at-risk families to build and strengthen small businesses. Because when parents can independently provide for their children, we know that families succeed and children thrive.
Teacher Chris raises his hand to quiet his classroom of 15 children.
The 4 and 5-year-olds turn to look at him, each in their matching school uniforms — brightly colored T-shirts with Bertha Holt’s iconic “every child is beautiful” quote screen printed on the back. They break into song, cheerfully chanting, “Thank you, Lord, for giving us food. Hallelujah, praise the Lord,” in unison.
This is a daily ritual before the end-of-day meal is served.
On cue, two women — mothers of children in this preschool class — emerge from a connected kitchen with trays of chicken and vegetable pancit noodles. They place a bowl in front of each boy and girl.
While the children eat, teacher Chris circles the class — stamping children’s workbooks and cleaning up colored pencils. This veteran teacher has worked for Holt’s legacy partner in the Philippines, Kaisahang Buhay Foundation (KBF), for more than six years. He’s confident, enthusiastic and controlled, even at the end of his second shift. In the mornings, he teaches 3-year-olds in KBF’s free community daycare class, which is funded by the same generous Holt sponsors who provide monthly support for each of the children in the preschool program.
In the afternoon, the older preschoolers arrive. Today, the afternoon class is small because ten children are home sick with the flu. The older children learn about the letter “Q”, as well as the English and Tagalog spelling for colors. Each shift ends with a nutritious meal provided with funding from Holt sponsors.
Malnutrition in the Philippines is staggering. Many children show up to school on empty stomachs, and while providing lunch helps alleviate hunger-related disease and ensures children retain more of what they learn each day, the biggest threat to children’s health and well-being in Metro Manila goes beyond basic hunger. Poverty, spurred by widespread unemployment and underemployment, is endemic in Manila. Poverty threatens the stability, health and safety of children and families. Even skilled adults or those with higher education struggle to find jobs, and when they do find employment, it’s often unskilled, temporary work with low pay. When parents struggle to afford even the most basic necessities, like food, public transportation, adequate housing and healthcare, children are at risk. Mothers and fathers may be forced to leave their children for long durations to find work in neighboring cities, leaving children vulnerable to neglect or exploitation. Or families choose between purchasing critical medicines and food, which is no choice at all.
That’s why Holt’s family strengthening and preservation program in urban Manila takes a holistic approach to community and child development. Free preschool is just one part of the formula. We know that if parents have steady work, children grow up healthier, happier and more secure. We know that kids perform better in school and learn skills critical to land jobs of their own some day. And we know that when parents can independently provide for their children, they are more empowered and confident. By providing moms and dads with the tools and resources to generate income, the whole family grows strong and stable — and children thrive.
Metro Manila is a massive, crowded city — and it only continues to grow. Some estimates put the population at close to 20 million, but on less than the landmass of New York City, which has a population of 8 million, respectively. Living conditions within barangays — meaning “districts” or “villages” — are humble. It is not uncommon for multiple families of ten or more members to live together in less than 200 square feet of living space. While most people have some running water and electricity, hygiene is a major concern because there is not enough knowledge about proper sanitation nor the amenities to support adequate hygiene. Similarly, many people have a television, but very few have access to a computer or laptop. People discuss traffic the way people elsewhere discuss the weather.
Some barangays, including those where Holt has programs, worry about flooding because they are built close to the river. Built on a fault line and prone to typhoons, the Philippines is susceptible to many types of natural disaster. Constant rains cause flooding, often destroying the homes of the country’s poorest residents. In 2008, Holt’s preschool in Industrial Valley Complex flooded up to the first-story roof, with water pouring down the streets from the river several blocks away. As more people move to Manila, inhabitable land within the city is scarce, causing many people to build informal housing on government-owned land. So while most residents own their home — and often build it themselves from cinderblocks and scrap material — few own the land it sits on. They could be told to leave at any time.
In total, there are more than 42,000 barangays throughout the Philippines. Some are large and divided into escopas, which are like smaller communities within communities. Escopa III, where many of the children and families in Holt’s programs live, is approximately the size of two to four city blocks, but is home to more than 7,000 residents.
In a small classroom on the second floor of Escopa III’s community center, about 20 women and one man sit in a circle in plastic lawn chairs on a humid morning in early March.
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They are just a few of the beneficiaries of the Holt-funded community support and loan program in this neighborhood, and they all have a few things in common. Each member was chosen because they have children under 18 living in their home — either their own children or close family members who they care for, like grandchildren. Each was identified because of their significant financial need. And they were selected because they have access to or already manage a small shop or stall in this neighborhood called a sari-sari store, which means “assorted goods.”
Community group members meet monthly to offer support and advice to one another and discuss common issues like children’s education and how to drive sales at their sari-sari. Each member also has access to interest-free loans, a service provided with capital funds from Holt donors and sponsors. Each member can take out one loan at a time, starting with a small dollar amount of about $100. They can use that money to invest in their store — purchasing a greater diversity of goods to sell or any other activity that can boost their ability to generate income. They pay the loan to the group leader in small, weekly increments and the payments re-stock the funding pool. When families repay their first loan, they can borrow again at a higher level. This program is so effective that 100 percent of families have been able to successfully make payments, and many have borrowed two times or more.
And the small business investments from Holt sponsors and donors have been so effective at boosting families’ overall income, many have become self-reliant — empowering them to independently support the children in their care, and enabling Holt sponsors to support other children and families in need.
Victoria is a widow and the primary caregiver for her niece’s two children. She’s also the leader of the community support group. Before enrolling in Holt’s program, she sold charcoal out of her sari-sari, but she never earned enough to care for herself or her niece’s children. With her first $100 loan, she invested the money in purchasing dry goods, like ramen noodles, canned black beans, spaghetti sauce and rice. Almost immediately, her sales boomed and her monthly income doubled. She repaid the loan in small, weekly payments, and then borrowed again. She expanded her store to include eggs, dried fish, sugar and other items that aren’t sold anywhere else in Escopa III. Now, depending on the season, her income will sometimes triple or quadruple as she meets the demands of her customers. After all her overhead is paid, she pockets about 15-20 percent of her total sales, an amount that allows her to not only provide for herself, but for the children living in her home.
“This work gives me hope and relief,” says Victoria, who is also a member of the Barangay Vendor Organization and the Women’s Association. “I’m proud to be a leader here.”
Victoria’s sari-sari is just two stalls away from another member of the community support group, Nora.
At 50, Nora and her husband Diosdado’s three children are adults. However, they care for their two grandchildren, one of whom attends KBF’s preschool with teacher Chris. Diosdado creates Styrofoam signs for children’s birthday parties or corporate events, but his work comes and goes, and isn’t a reliable source of income. On his income alone, Nora and Diosdado struggled to provide for themselves and the growing needs of their grandchildren.
Like Victoria, Nora took a $100 loan last year to grow her sari-sari. Now, she sells small toys and crafts for kids. Every wall of her sari-sari is lined with packs of stickers, Hello Kitty necklaces, watercolor paint sets, action figures and toy cars. Each item is about 10 cents to $5 each — the most expensive being a Dora the Explorer doll set.
After considering all costs, Nora makes about $2 to $6 per day, sometimes more during Christmas. While this may still seem like a modest, if not desperate income, for Nora, it is a huge financial boost and has greatly improved the family’s diet, hygiene and living standards. And it’s given Nora hope for the future.
“I like having regular income,” Nora says. “We are able to pay for most of the needs of our family this way. This is our most regular source.”
Like all the beneficiaries of the community support group, Nora is self-employed. This means her income is more stable — not as susceptible to the high unemployment rates that plague Manila. By helping women expand their own small businesses, Holt donors provide the tools for lasting, sustainable transformation, stability and financial security.
And, because Holt’s programs enroll many families from each community, there is a strong sense of neighborhood pride, friendship and support between families. Holt donations pay for teachers, classroom materials and uniforms for the sponsored children, and KBF partners with community leaders to secure spaces for community group meetings. Parents of Holt-sponsored children help, too, taking turns to make class meals and snacks, or serving as a secretary for the class. The children and families also have many advocates from KBF, including the preschool teachers and community development officers who visit often — and sometimes live in the same community.
At a preschool in Industrial Valley Complex, one mother says, “You give our children hope and a good foundation. It helps a lot of parents like us. God bless.”
Another mother from Escopa III tells us how important Holt’s programs and community support groups have been to her family. Lorelie, a mother of eight, sells cooked food from her sari-sari cart, and with her loan, she has been able to expand the number of items she cooks and her income has grown.
“Before, I didn’t have the confidence to try new methods to grow my business,” Lorelie says. “At [community group] meetings, we share ideas about how to increase sales. Because of what I’ve learned and the support I’ve received, I’m not afraid for the future.”
Billie Loewen | Creative Lead
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