An interview with Glady Bunau, executive director of Holt’s long-time partner in the Philippines, Kaisahang Buhay Foundation (KBF).
Glady shares how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children and families in the Philippines — and how sponsors and donors are meeting their most urgent needs.
How is the pandemic currently affecting sponsored children and their families in the Philippines?
It’s been almost two years since strict quarantine measures have been imposed in the Philippines. Families are encouraged to limit going out from their houses unless necessary. Children are not allowed to go out as part of the government’s measure to protect them from being infected by COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic has uniquely affected children and families; their routines were disrupted, children missed being in school, children’s recreational activities outside their home became so controlled and limited. All family members adjusted to what we call the “new normal.”
At the start of the pandemic, the sponsored children and their families became worried about the tremendous effect of the pandemic on the children’s education, livelihood of the parents and health safety.
The children and their families had a huge adjustment to online/virtual classes. Everyone needed to learn how to use Zoom or Google Meet to attend their classes and to continue to have access to quality education. When provided with tablets, the children and teenagers under our educational assistance programs have mostly adjusted [to online education]. Students learned to use computers and other technologies for online classes because of course, most of the children and teenagers are tech-savvy… Give them tablets or cell phones, they can use them.
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But the parents are not tech-savvy, so they had big adjustments. They were forced to learn so that they can help their children with schoolwork online. … It was really difficult for them. There were parents who said that they were forced to study and review what they learned from school because they need to help their children accomplish their homework.
Very recently, the government has loosened up some restrictions and we are now under “Alert Level Three.” The government started to open business establishments, increase means of transportation, and other outdoor activities, but still with certain restrictions. Adults have started to go out, but children are not allowed to leave their houses yet because there are still a very huge number of COVID-19 cases.
The huge economic impact of the pandemic has left many families poorer, exacerbating risks and long-term effects on children’s safety, health and proper growth.
There were also members of the families in our family and community program that lost jobs because of the pandemic. … Some families have lower income because mobility has been very limited. Some of their working hours were cut. Thus, meeting the needs of their children were affected.
How have sponsors and donors helped meet the most urgent needs caused by the pandemic?
Our children always say they’re very blessed because of KBF (Holt’s local partner) and their Holt sponsors and donors who help them. They’re still able to access education because of the support of the sponsors and donors. Through the donors’ generosity, the children/scholars were provided with computers, tablets and mobile phones to be used in their online classes. They were also given “load or data” so they can access the internet.
Because of sponsors and donors, we also give them hygiene kits — sanitizers, face masks, face shields. … We also provide food. Even at this time, as part of the COVID-19 response, we are providing hygiene kits or “care packs” for our children. In October, I joined our social workers and community development workers to distribute food packs, school supplies and hygiene kits.
They were so happy because this year when we gave them school supplies, they were in plastic containers. Our problem in the Philippines is not just COVID-19 — flooding also. There are typhoons. Sometimes the homes of beneficiaries are flooded because their places of residence are in the flood-prone areas. So, the team came up with an idea to put all the school supplies in a plastic container — like an organizer — so that when their area gets flooded, the school supplies won’t get wet. … When the families and children saw these, they were so happy and excited. Plastic containers are very expensive for them.
Were the families who lost jobs able to secure new employment?
Some of them are starting to get back on their feet. Filipinos are very resourceful and resilient. That’s part of the culture. … They try to pick themselves up with a small-scale business in the house. We call it a “sari sari” store. It’s like a variety store. Some of the parents accept laundry job so they can earn income.
Do social workers help them figure out different ways to earn income?
They do to a certain extent. We have parent effectiveness services in which our social workers conduct virtual meetings since face-to-face meetings are not yet allowed. During the meetings, the social workers and community workers check the condition of the families and children. KBF is not only focused on providing assistance to the children. We also strengthen the capacities of the parents so that they themselves can meet and sustain the needs of their own children.
Do many people have access to vaccines in the Philippines?
Yes. Now, most of the people are getting vaccinated. … The government is doing its best to give free vaccines. The very recent concern now is getting a booster because most people have received two vaccines already.
How are children coping with the social isolation, and how is KBF helping children adapt to the new normal?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, all the children and teens — even the ILEA scholars — have had much less interaction with their peers than they typically would.
They’re not able to socialize. They can’t go out of their houses and see their teachers if they need to ask something. They miss their friends. They miss going outside. They miss going to the park. Their social activities are limited. And that’s why I always tell the social workers, even if it’s virtual, create activities where the children can share how they feel. … Our social workers for our family and community program have online sessions/meetings with children. They talk to them virtually.
We have 10 teenagers in the Independent Living and Educational Assistance (ILEA) program. Can you imagine having them locked inside the home? Teenagers like to meet their friends and be social but due to the pandemic and the presence of strict health and safety protocols, they cannot do so. So, I encouraged the ILEA social worker to organize creative activities for the teenagers.
Before, we did not have television inside the center. I said, “Let’s put TV inside the center so they can have a movie night once a week with popcorn because they cannot go to the movies right now. Theaters are closed.” Of course, Monday through Friday they are in their online classes. But on the weekends, they can have a variety of fun activities like movie night, board games and cooking day. They also celebrate birthdays inside the center. So that’s how we’re filling their days inside the center.
Activities help the children because it’s like providing psychological first aid. Whether or not they verbalize their stresses and frustrations, when you create venues or activities for them to express their feelings, you are providing psychological first aid. At ILEA, the social worker also encourages the teen scholars to talk about their feelings.
In what ways will sponsor and donor support be critical in the coming months?
Something I really hope for is to be able to distribute vitamins to the children on a regular basis to strengthen their immune systems. They are not in the budget of these families as vitamins are very expensive for them.
I’m dreaming that one day we’ll also be able to give the children materials that will give them enjoyment like board games and toys. These are things that are not in the priority list of the families especially during the pandemic. Their priority is feeding their children. But of course, we have to meet the mental and emotional needs of the children. Toys can help build emotional health in children during the pandemic, experts say. It’s not just about giving the children educational assistance and school supplies, but we have to give them something where they can divert their attention when they are anxious and emotionally stressed. … I am very concerned about the mental health of the children during this pandemic and social isolation.
Emergency and medical assistance when any of the children gets sick during this critical time is also needed.
What would you like to say directly to sponsors and donors?
I would like to take this time to thank all our child sponsors and donors. We could not do what we are doing without them. For all the help they send us — financial or material support — we are very, very grateful. All their support goes a long way. And this is a motivation for our children and families also to go on with their lives. Every support they extend to children and families, it gives them encouragement and hope. Despite the pains brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are gains. One of the gains is having donors and sponsors who help sustain the needs of children and families.
Even when we did our distribution, the families and children said, “Please tell all the donors that we are very thankful.”
Knowing that we are in a time of pandemic and financial instability, your donation is extra special to us. Thank you for your generous financial support during this challenging time. I hope all our sponsors and donors will never get tired of helping.
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