Charity

Helena Claire A. Canayong – Dedicated Volunteer for the Visayas Community

Volunteer for the Visayans (VFV) endeavours to improve the quality of life of the community by providing responsive and high quality community service through their programs that promote self-efficiency and prosperity to the people all throughout the Visayas Region.

Over the years, Volunteer for the Visayans has offered vital assistance to child care facilities, social welfare institutes, rural health clinics, public nutrition programs, rural elementary schools and special education offering numerous unique programs for anyone looking to volunteer abroad in the Philippines.

Established in 2004, VFV strives to reach out and improve the lives of communities and individuals in a manner that is responsible and sustainable. Helena Claire A. Canayong is the Director of Operations for VFV, now tasked with leading VFV and directing their services, while also promoting the organization’s primary mission and vision.

Human Asia has the following exclusive interview with Helena.

Can you tell us more about Volunteer for the Visayans and how it all started?

Helena: The origins of Volunteer for the Visayans, Inc. (VFV) date back to the early 1990’s when US volunteers from Jacksonville University, Florida traveled to Tacloban City to volunteer in the Philippines on their own initiative. The said volunteers were spearheaded by our founder Troy Peden.

The volunteers continued to return on their own each year, and in 2004 were instrumental in establishing the Volunteer for the Visayans, Inc. as a non-profit and non-stock organization. With every year that passed, our organization strove to reach out and improve the lives of the communities and individuals in a manner that was responsible and sustainable; this led to the creation of the three core programs, along with its respective projects.

The first is our Volunteer Program, which oversees the volunteer projects that we collaborate with our local community partners. Over the years, VFV has offered vital assistance to orphanages, social welfare institutes, rural health clinics, public nutrition programs, rural elementary schools and city high schools, offering numerous programs for anyone looking to volunteer abroad in the Philippines.

The program fee paid by the volunteers is used to cover accommodations with the host family and administrative expenses, as well as partially fund the program and projects we provide.

The Philippines is a developing country, availability of resources is limited either locally and nationality to fund social service program. Without outside help, VFV simply would not be able to operate our current program that will help malnourished children, disenfranchised youths, underfunded schools, and poverty stricken families.

VFV (and other volunteer organizations in developing countries) can only provide these critical services through the contributions of donors and international volunteers. VFV absolutely understands that international volunteers are making a major personal investment in time and money to volunteer with us, and our goal is reciprocate by making their volunteer experience a truly meaningful and enjoyable one. As an organization, we understand that volunteering in the Philippines can sometimes be a challenge to international volunteers, which is why over the years we have tailored a program to offer local staff support and in-depth project orientation.

VFV’s second program is the Child Sponsorship Program, which assists needy children from poverty stricken families to remain in school. The program is supported by the annual donations of international benefactors who annually make the commitment of paying $300 US dollars a year to sponsor a child in the Philippines.

Currently more than 172 children are enrolled in the VFV child sponsorship program (October 2017 figures). About 120 of these children attend our Community Center daily for feeding and enrichment activities. These services are provided by our international volunteers, who in many cases are devoting extra hours of volunteer work beyond their regular commitment.

Finally VFV’s third program is the Community Program which consist of both local community and outreach programs across Eastern Visayas.

Of our various Community Program projects, our Dumpsite Project has probably been our most challenging and rewarding initiative. We have been successful in getting many children to leave the dumpsite and enroll in school. Aside from donations, the project is partly funded on VFV social enterprising model whereby the international volunteers pay a program. Currently there are 43 children under this project.

The Community Program is also responsible for the following projects: the Adopt-A-School project, which enlists sponsors to contribute school supplies to remote rural schools in the Eastern Visayans; the Build-A-School project which renovates or builds school facilities; and the Build-A-Home project; which renovates or builds homes for families who are living in unsafe structures.

Annually, VFV conducts a medical mission in a rural town, where medical services are hard to come by. These clinics generally are conducted during the last week of May, or the last week of April.  Whilst the majority of these projects are augmented financially through VFV’s unique social enterprising model; the existence of such projects also provides a number of options for anyone wishing to fund raise for causes in the Philippines.

In summary, it is the combination of these three core programs that makes Volunteer for the Visayans, Inc. a ­successful, broad-based social welfare program.

As you survey the landscape of education and development especially children in Visayas, what are some of the key challenges we should be paying particular attention to?

Helena: One of the key challenges one should be paying particular attention to is the accessibility of education. We need to think about the distance of the school to the respective homes of the children. It is not enough that there is a presence of the school. When we talk about accessibility of education, we also have to think about the resources of the family and the school itself.

You see, despite our government calling it free education, there is the practice of still of collecting fees from the students – the fee is minimal but some still  find it too much, especially for a family who sometimes only eat once a day. The cost of school supplies, doing school projects and school activities, these do not fall within the definition of “free education”. The financial incapability of the family makes education inaccessible because they do not have the means to sustain the school needs of their children.

As for the schools, there is also inadequacy of resources – the lack of rooms, chairs, desks, teaching-aid materials and books. For students who have disability, most of our schools are not equipped to address their special needs. Due to this lack of  adequate resource, the children’s education subsequently lacks quality, which is the aim for every student in the first place.

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What are some of the educational programs and initiatives undertaken by VFV to rectify these issues?

Helena: The educational programs and initiative taken by VFV to help the government and community as a whole are under the Sponsorship Program and Community Program specifically through the Dumpsite Project and Adopt-A-School Project.

Struggling families are challenged most often on whether to spend their earnings on food or school, and the former usually wins. This is a short-term survival decision but in the long run, the lack of education will be a chain that binds them.

This is where VFV comes in. We sponsor a child to be in school by covering most of their needs including giving them one nutritious meal for lunch or dinner. VFV also try to help the need of the family by providing monthly groceries. It is not much but for a family of six, a bowl of rice in every meal for two consecutive days means a lot. For some children, to experience eating a biscuit is a luxury.

VFV do more than just sending them to school. We also create activities that will enrich their values on the importance of education, work ethics, good manners and becoming a responsible member of the community. We steer them in the right direction and teach them that through their own efforts, they can escape from the vicious cycle of poverty that their family is in. We conduct monthly meetings with their parents to make sure that they too understand the objective of the program, so that as parents they can complement the efforts of their children.

As for the school we augment some of their resources, and this is vital for them to be able to teach the children properly. We give teaching aid support, books and school supplies for the students. Most often we adopt schools which are far from the city, or schools where our sponsored children are enrolled in.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you came across along your journey, particularly ones that you did not anticipate?

Helena: There is misconception of the word “help”, and the concept of “we can help you”. Our desire to help is not always embraced with enthusiasm.  Offering help at times can be misconstrued as strange and intervening, no matter how noble the intention is.

“Would you welcome a stranger into your home?” – the answer would be “No”.  Help in certain cases are questioned especially when the beneficiary has to satisfy certain requirements to stay within the program.

The parents are sometimes the problem. While they acknowledge that they and their children need help, most often they could not part with the idea that their children have to stop earning on their behalf while in school. We have cases where it is the parents who put their children in unfavorable situations. Despite the progress the child has made at school, when the child is old enough to work they would encourage them to work instead of letting them continue going to school.

The misconception of seeing foreigners, mainly Caucasians, as walking ATMs. They think that they can simply ask foreigners, mostly our volunteers, for money. This is one misconception that took us years to correct in some individuals and communities that we serve. This also had an adverse effect on how these individuals place value on the donation they receive. Instead of working, they simply wait for the donation. There were also cases where the beneficiary would demand more – instead of saying thank you, they would say : “why only this?”.

The requirement to legally run a non-profit was also an unexpected obstacle for us. We did not start it right, meaning there was a time when the documents that needed to be submitted were outdated and had to updated. Because of this, too much time was consumed on administration, which could have been used to make improvements.

How many volunteers are currently active with VFV?  And is it sufficient to support the entire VFV programs? 

Helena: At present we have 16 volunteers. Over the course of the year however, we have more than a hundred placed in different social welfare facilities, communities, schools or rural health clinics. For the current programs the number of volunteers can be considered sufficient, but with our goal to cover more areas and maintain our social welfare agency license, we would be needing more volunteers to help us with the ground work.

Where do you see VFV in the near future?

Helena: Since creation, VFV have been striving and making progress. Five years from now, we expect the organization to be financially stable and capable of handling operations that are emergency in nature. We also want to be able to accommodate more volunteers who can help support our programs, extend social welfare services to other areas, and set the standards for other social welfare agencies.

Hopefully by that time, we will have our own building that will serve not only as our office headquarters, but also as a community and evacuation center that can cater to families who need immediate emergency assistance or a temporary shelter.

We want to find out more about Helena Canayong


Helena, please tell us more about yourself.

Helena: I am known as Wimwim by most people, a graduate of the University of the Philippines in the Visayans with a Bachelors of Arts in Social Sciences majoring in Economics. I received my Masters in Business Administration at the International Academy for Economics and Management.

During my final year in college I volunteered as a research and training assistant for an NGO, and after graduation served as the Research and Training Specialist for Micro-Enterprise Development and also worked as an Administrative and Finance Officer, which was the start of my journey with non-profit organizations.

For seven years, I was the Community Program Coordinator and oversaw all programs and offerings in both the local community and outreach projects. I am known for initiating one of VFV’s most successful welfare projects that rehabilitates youths at the garbage dump site north of Tacloban.

In February 2013, I became the Director of Operations for Volunteer for the Visayans; presently tasked with leading Volunteer for the Visayans and directing their services, while promoting the organization’s primary mission and vision.

I am happily married to Dalmacio Canayong Jr, a Jail Officer and have two wonderful sons, Neo Bon, who is now 14 years old and Neo Don who is 8 years old. They are my source of inspiration and the reason why I choose to stay and continue to work in a non-profit organization. I have been with VFV for 14 years.


What are some of the challenges of leading a nonprofit?

Helena: Sustainability. This is one broad concept that encompasses all aspects and challenges in leading a non-profit. It does not only speak about finances for the operation and program implementation, but also of manpower, the core values of the organization, partnerships, and compliance with the law.

A non-profit cannot survive on donations and grants alone, it has to have a social enterprise system that will allow the operations to go on without having to rely constantly on outside donations. Even with donations and grants, we have the challenge on how to keep the donations constantly flowing.

Each project that we undertake requires a minimum number of manpower which includes staff and volunteers. How smooth things will be on the ground depends on the number of capable manpower available at our disposal.  For example, how capable is the coordinator? Capability has many aspects, it is not just about intelligence and skills, it is about having initiative, willingness and patience, and importantly how long will he or she stay in the project? In long term, turnover of coordinators will adversely effect a program. Training and orientating a new coordinator takes time and effort.

How to support the core values of the organization with the changes happening around you is also a challenge for the leader of an NGO. Core values are a fundamental belief which serve as a guiding principle and direction of an organization. It is crucial to do checks and balances for each program to make sure it is still in line with the core values of the organization.

The ability of each program to continue running by itself without our intervention is also one of my challenges.

Finally, how do we ensure that we are compliant with the law.  In the Philippines, all non-profit organization have to comply to a regulatory body that sets the standards for every non-profit. It is more than just submitting reports and complying to the minimum standards. We have to continuously be up to date with the latest laws and regulations.

Creating a non-profit might not be too difficult, sustaining it is another story.

What leadership lessons have you learned?

Helena: Be willing to learn and understand the social issue at hand, and do not be quick to judge those who are affected by it. Know how deeply rooted the issue is.

Be culturally sensitive, what might work in America’s vulnerable sector might not work in the Philippines. Even amongst Filipinos, our norms could vary from one community to another.

Be patient – if you want to come up with a solution, give yourself some time to comprehend the issue including those who will be affected by that solution. Have the time to listen to others, may it be from someone who is knowledgeable or someone whom you think do not have much education because at times, those who possess less knowledge can come up with a simple and doable solution.

Be willing to allow your team or colleague to come up with their own ideas. Working in any organization is usually not a one-man operation, it is composed of many individuals with unique abilities who might be able to give a better solution on the issue at hand.

Do not make promises you cannot keep, giving false hope is tantamount to taking advantage of the people whom you want to help and are already in a vulnerable state.

Never lose your perspective because your attitude in resolving the issue matters. When you listen, weigh things and do not allow difficulties on the ground derail you.

What has been the most rewarding and frustrating experiences so far in this journey?

Helena: The most rewarding thing is if the people we help at the end will have a better life than what they are currently experiencing. It means we did our job right.

The most frustrating would be having to deal with people who have an ulterior motive, and because of that concealed motivation, instead helping they become burdensome as they tend to demand more beyond what is already given.


What would be your advice for other people who want to start a nonprofit?

Helena: Start it right. From the objectives, the resources and its allocation, to the duration of the program, to the identification of your beneficiaries, to manpower identification,  and make sure you operate in accordance with the law.

Focus. Remember your objective. Do not be overwhelmed with the trend. There is always time to expand your services, make sure you have the resources to do so.

Have a vision.  Make it sustainable.  Trustworthiness. Ethical. Make your services be something that is reliable, honest and honorable.

Thank you, Helena.

Visit Volunteer for the Visayans : http://www.visayans.org/

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