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ILEA scholar Isla smiling in a red shirt outside the ILEA house

Growing up on the streets of Manila, Philippines, Ilsa never entered a formal classroom until she was 15 years old. Today, through the Holt-supported Independent Living & Educational Assistance program in the Philippines, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education.

Isla is a friendly and confident 23-year-old college student with glossy, straight black hair and a warm, beautiful smile. She’s majoring in Filipino language, loves writing poetry, and hopes to become a teacher once she graduates college in a year or two. She lives in an apartment in Manila, Philippines with nine other students, and shares a room with four other girls. They love to dance and make TikToks together, and they sleep in bunk beds, like sisters.

Isla has a great life, and a great future awaiting her. But it’s a long way from where she started…

Until she was 10, Isla slept under a bridge every night.

“I lived in the streets under a bridge. I collected garbage and called people to ride a jeepney,” she says, describing how she survived and helped her family survive. She earned money for food by recruiting riders for a “jeepney,” a uniquely Filipino form of public transportation.

She had a “street educator” — a social worker who checked in on her and her siblings. But when she began to face abuse by her step-father, she knew she needed to escape this life — even if it meant leaving her family.  

“My mother finished only grade 6 and my siblings weren’t able to go to school because we couldn’t afford it. I want to be a teacher to be an inspiration to my family.”

With incredible resolve, she approached the one adult in her life who could help her.

“I told my street educator that I wanted to go to school when I was 10, and I started living in a care center,” she says. Five years later, she was accepted into the Independent Living and Educational Assistance (ILEA) program in the Philippines — a program that helps provide higher education and transitional support for young adults aging out of institutional care.

Through the program, a group of boys and girls live together in group housing and learn essential life skills while completing high school or college. The boys and girls live in separate wings but share a common area, like a college dorm. Holt donors provide tuition and material support for the scholars through Holt’s in-country partner, Kaisahang Buhay Foundation (KBF). 

Independent Living & Educational Assistance in the Philippines
At ILEA house, the scholars live together and share common areas like a dorm.

“I’ve been at ILEA for eight years,” Isla shares while sitting in the living room of the ILEA house — a spare but homey space with a worn upright piano and a newer TV. “I like the comfort and safety. They meet my basic needs and let me feel that I am safe and loved and to trust myself.”

At ILEA, Isla has found a home, and a family of friends who share a common background and a common bond. As Isla says, “Having friends outside is good, but inside is better because we have similar stories.”

When we visit the ILEA home, the scholars laugh and joke with each other while eating a lunch of Jollibee fried chicken and spaghetti — a popular fast food in the Philippines. One scholar sits apart from the others and studies on a laptop. During the pandemic, the scholars had to use old computers. But just this year, Holt donors made it possible to provide a new laptop for each of the 10 scholars so they could attend class and do schoolwork remotely.

An accounting student, the scholar on the laptop just got a job in IT and is about ready to move out and live on her own.

Scholars in the Holt-supported Independent Living and Educational Assistance program in the Philippines
Holt sponsors and donors made it possible to purchase laptops for the ILEA scholars — making it easier for them to do homework and research jobs once they graduate.

“I’m encouraged seeing my roommate starting a job and looking for a house,” Isla says.

At ILEA, the scholars build skills that will help them transition to living on their own — skills they likely would have learned growing up with their family, but missed out on growing up in an orphanage.

 “I’ve learned cooking, budgeting, kids’ ministry in church, cleaning, responsibility, washing clothes and being a good scholar,” Isla says, listing some of the things she’s learned living at the ILEA house over the past eight years.

With the support of Holt donors, the scholars receive funds to buy groceries and other essentials. They have to create a menu and a budget and cook for themselves. To track their spending, they return the receipts for what they purchased to KBF. They have chores, and some have part-time jobs. Isla’s first job was at McDonald’s. The first thing she bought herself was a pair of blue Converse sneakers — still her favorite pair of shoes.

Isla shows off her favorite shoes — a pair of Converse sneakers that she bought with money earned from her first job.

But even at 23, with all her life experience and the things she’s learned at ILEA, she is still nervous about leaving when she graduates college. “When adulting hits you, it gives you a headache,” she says, laughing.

Thankfully, at ILEA, she knows she is always welcome back to visit.

“I’m the second oldest in the house,” she says. “[When I leave], I can come back to visit. It’s hard because I don’t have a house to visit because my family lives on the streets.”

Whenever possible, Isla does still visit her family — including her siblings, who she struggled to separate from when she left the streets to live in the care center 13 years ago. “It was hard to leave my siblings, but I kept in touch with them, and I’m trying to help them go to the [child welfare foundation],” she says, referring to Holt’s in-country partner, KBF.

“Even sometimes when I feel the world is against me, I always have a family. They know my story, and they love me.”

Part of the reason she wants to become a teacher is to inspire her younger siblings to follow in her footsteps. “My mother finished only grade 6 and my siblings weren’t able to go to school because we couldn’t afford it,” she says. “I want to be a teacher to be an inspiration to my family.”

Isla also keeps in touch with her mother, but she doesn’t know her father — which she has struggled with at times. “In 2019, I performed poetry in my church about Father’s Day, but it was hard because I don’t have a father,” she says. “I asked my friends about their fathers and what they love about them.”

At ILEA, she’s not only gained sisters and brothers among her fellow scholars — but also caring adults to help guide her. The scholars have four house parents — two for the boys and two for the girls. They also have a social worker, Alba, who advocates for them and supports them as they make important life decisions and pursue their goals. Alba is just 27 and looks as young as the scholars. But for Isla and the others, she plays a role that was missing in their lives before they moved to the ILEA house.

Isla’s fellow ILEA scholars have become like family to her in the eight years she’s lived at ILEA house. “They know my story and they love me,” she says.

“My social worker stands up for me like a mother, like a friend, and supports me to do better,” Isla says.

In addition to emotional support and counseling, the ILEA program staff also network with employers to provide internships and job placement opportunities for the scholars. As a result, more than 90% of youth in the program find jobs and are living successfully on their own six months after graduation.

But even when it comes time for Isla to move out on her own, she will always have a home and a family to return to at ILEA.

“Even sometimes when I feel the world is against me, I always have a family,” Isla says. “They know my story, and they love me.”

Single mother with daughters, Thailand

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