PROJECT PEARLS… Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love and Smiles

by Marie Young

My parents always taught me, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”   Sometime in 2011 … a photo popped up on my facebook page and it tugged at my heart.  It was a photo by Sidney a photo journalist of a child covered in soot in an area filled with smoke from ulingan ‘factories.’

I met Melissa Villa, a balikbayan Filipina who was introduced to the community of Ulingan by Manila-based Belgian photo journalist, Sidney Snoeck, through his photos posted online. Upon seeing pictures of children covered in black soot and dirt, Melissa was so touched and she knew that she had to do something for those children. Together with her daughter and her husband, they established Project PEARLS in California as a 501c3 non-profit organization. It’s mission was to help the poorest of the poor children to have a better life by giving through education, literacy, empowerment, nutrition, and health care. 

Melissa together with her brother, Juan, Sidney and a handful of volunteers and friends from Photo Kalye set up a small learning center in Ulingan.  Project was later organized in the Philippines as an Non-profit organization… to give PEARLS: Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love and Smiles.

Ulingan is a Filipino word for “charcoal factory”, located in a reclaimed area near the breakwaters of Manila North Harbor. The  main source of livelihood is production of charcoal. This community sits on top of a garbage dump.  The families, mostly women and little children contend all day with the heat, fumes, dust, stench, flies and mosquitoes and work all day to earn around Php 100.00 a day selling the uling that is produced from scrap wood scavenged by the men and older boys in the garbage dump.   Once the charcoal was removed the children would scavenge and pick up the nails to sell and help bring in some money for the family.  

Learning about this I decided to spend my birthday and do an outreach in Ulingan, Tondo.  I had no idea what to expect.  Since August was typhoon season we could not have the outreach in Ulingan as it was ‘under water’ and moved the venue to a covered area close by that was on higher ground.  However I was determined to go see the place.

Despite all that poverty and inhumane living conditions, the children welcomed us volunteers with open arms and they were so hungry not only for food but wanting to learn.  Every Saturday I would find myself with a scarf over my mouth and nose as the smoke from the charcoal pits was so thick and it was hard to breathe.  Imagine these children and families breathing this all day and night long.  It was hard to breathe and even harder to walk through the wet garbage, sea water and human waste.  We would have to carry everything and the children would run to help.  The rest of the morning would be spent with the children teaching them basic hygiene, reading them stories, drawing or simply just talking and listening to them, their worries and their dreams.   I would spend my whole Saturday morning with the other volunteers, tired but with our  heart so full.  I was hooked.

In 2013, the National Housing Authority relocated the families from Ulingan to a newly developed community in Brgy. Batia, Bocaue, Bulacan where the children can now run and play freely and the air is fresh.  Fast forward 11 years later, I continue to be very involved with Project Pearls and currently chair the Philippine organization.  We continued our various programs for the relocated children and youth to ensure that they will not drop out of school. Currently, we have more than 700 scholars, from preschool to college, and we also conduct different Community Learning Activities. In 2019, a livelihood and empowerment program called GROW (Giving Resources and Opportunities to Women) to uplift the lives of women and their families in the community.

Project Pearls adopted  ‘Helping Land’ a temporary Housing in one of the poorest communities in Tondo. The main source of livelihood of the families is scavenging from garbage and selling recyclable materials. Due to extreme poverty, many families are left with no choice but to eat “pagpag”, which is leftover food from restaurants. Since 2013, we have conducted various programs to address their urgent needs, including daily feeding for the children and elderly, Community Learning Activities, Saturday feeding and brain boosting activities with the children, Sunday tutorial with the scholars, Scholarship Program, Health Clinic, and Medical, Emergency & Social Services.

The mission to give every child an opportunity to education project pearls now supports 4 communities.  

The youngest  community of project pearls is in Erika Louise Ville, Brgy. Malainen, Naic, Cavite.  This is the relocation site for more than 700 families from the community of Temporary Housing, Tondo Manila. We adopted this community in 2018 by continuing the Scholarship Program for more than 30 scholars and set up a learning hub and equipped it with computers that the scholars can use to help with their school work. 

Another community in Kabasalan, Zamboanga  in partnership with the Yellow boat foundation we formed the first LitClub in Mindanao which gave a unique learning opportunity for girls and boys in this remote town.  We also established a Scholarship Program to help high school and college scholars.

We set up a Brain Booster Program with an aim to hone the artistic and creative skills of children in the preschool to elementary levels.  We would do art and crafts activities focused on lessons highlighting Filipino culture and values.  The Brain Booster program is done after the Hunger Relief Program every

Saturday in our communities in Tondo, Bulacan, and Cavite.  All these programs are basically run by volunteers. The activity is from 8:00 to 11:00 am and you can sign up with and search “Project PEARLS”.

Most children and youth living in poverty lack the resources and supportive environment that they need to excel in school. Because of this, they have a higher chance of dropping out of school or engaging in manual labor at an early age. To fill this gap, our After School Program (ASP) provides free tutorials and mentorship for students in grade school and high school. The lessons are focused on three core subjects: English, Math, and Science. The program also instills discipline and teamwork through various group activities. ASP is done every Sunday.

12 years ago, I joined project pearls as a volunteer, like many others we continue to volunteer… I go back to what my father taught me…it is not merely writing a check or fund raising but the experience and learning that one receives.  So I keep going back and giving more because I have received so much more from the children and nanays I engage with.  To date we have over 700 scholars in preschool, elementary, high school and college.  6 of our ulingan babies have graduated with 1 working towards to becoming a dentist and another a lawyer.  There is hope and that hope is brought forth by love.

*Photo credits:  Project Pearls, Sindney Sneock, Rita dela Cruz

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