One woman’s transformative journey began with a volunteering experience at an orphanage in another country.

Walking into and volunteering at an orphanage for the first time filled me with both excitement and trepidation. As a half-Filipino, I felt a sense of pride and joy to be returning to the country of my ancestors, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from my time there. Will I be able to connect with the children? Will I be able to make a significant difference? As I walked through the gate, these were the thoughts that ran through my head.

When I arrived, I was met by a group of shy and inquisitive children. They peered out from behind doors and around corners, watching me as I walked through the halls. Their shyness struck me, and I couldn’t help but feel nervous myself.I was a stranger in their home (Bata Ng Calabnugan), and I knew it would take time for me to earn their trust and connect with them.

The orphanage kids posing for a photo on a bridge.

However, as the days passed and I spent more time with the kids, I noticed their defenses crumbling. They began to open up to me, telling me stories and making jokes, and even inviting me to join in on their games. Soon after, they literally welcomed me into their home with open arms. From then on, I had a child with me at all times. When I wasn’t looking, they were always eager to hold hands, give hugs, and jump on my back.

It was difficult to believe that these same children had once been so guarded and distant by the end of my stay. These were children who had been through more adversity and trauma than most people could imagine. Despite this, they found reasons to smile and laugh every day. They were extremely stubborn and strong-willed, which could be difficult at times but also provided them with a strong sense of perseverance.

Volunteering at an orphanage you get to see kids riding a bike etc.

They had lofty ambitions, claiming to be doctors, teachers, engineers, and artists one day. It was inspiring to witness their perseverance and ambition in the face of adversity.My interactions with the children both challenged and transformed my understanding of development work. As someone who had recently graduated from university in this field of study, I came into this experience hoping to apply what I had learned to the organization.

However, I soon realized that the realities on the ground were far more complex and nuanced than anything I had learned in school. I had to admit that volunteering at an orphanage (Bata Ng Calabnugan), especially as a Westerner, can often perpetuate the harmful narrative of the “white savior.” To some extent, my understanding of development had been built around that.

The writer playing with the kids.

The reality is that the orphanage’s children and staff are experts on their own lives, and my role as a volunteer is simply to support and amplify their voices, rather than to impose my own ideas or solutions. While systemic change is necessary and important, I learned that partial solutions can also be effective. The organization has made a tangible difference in the lives of the children by providing them with education, food, and a safe and loving home.

A group photo with the kids and the writer.

I realized that sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective.Finally, I left the orphanage feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunity to learn from the children and make a small difference in their lives.If you’re thinking about getting involved with this or another organization in any capacity, I urge you to do so – you won’t be sorry.

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