Philanthropy in Dumaguete By Expats Who Care
Why Philanthropy when you retire? Do you believe your life experience is predetermined by fate? It’s sometimes difficult, actually impossible, to rationally explain why events happen as they do in our lives. Fate or destiny, call it whatever you wish, can bring people together with the outcome being the greater good of the community. Usually, these people have no self-interest apart from hoping for a successful outcome to their endeavors. Such is the case with Paula Gregg and Margriet Tilstra, whose fate dictated they meet and become involved in an exciting form of philanthropy with a focus on education and community.
Paula’s childhood was spent in New Jersey and Maryland. After graduate school, she worked in a call center then went on to teach preschool. Her husband of 26 years worked in the call center industry for almost 8 years in Manila before retiring. Margriet grew up in Utrecht, The Netherlands. At 18, she moved to Amsterdam where she met Willem. They have now been together for 39 years. Margriet worked as a transition manager with a large telecommunications company in The Netherlands. Willem was a dentist.
Margriet and Paula met as neighbors at a PHILX property in barangay Ajong which is part of Sibulan in Negros Oriental. Their community is called Kalma Bukid which appropriately translates into Calm Mountain. Because of living in the Philippines while Randal worked in Manila, and their familiarity with Philippine culture, it was an easy decision for Paula and Randall to select the Dumaguete area for their retirement years. Margriet and her husband Willem, who were living in The Netherlands, did thorough research, and like so many other foreigners, wisely decided to select the Dumaguete area as their retirement location.
Comfortable in every aspect of their respective lives including long term marriages, Paula and Margriet could have chosen to quietly live out the remainder of their lives in their beautiful homes that look out over the Tannon Strait while enjoying delightful views of Cebu and Apo islands. Fortunately, they decided otherwise and saw that Philanthropy could add to their own level of happiness.
Margriet pointed to a large tree across from her home where their educational project began. It started on a basic level. Because of the C19 issues, local schools had closed down so modules were created by the Department of Education to enable remote education. Because of the demand on parents’ time when working, Margriet and Paula felt they could make a contribution to their community by helping the children with their modules. In August 2020, Margriet and Paula began tutoring children aged from nine to eleven. Shortly after they began, in charming Filipino tradition, children as young as three began to show up along with their mothers and often with their Lola’s. They gathered under what locally is now locally known as The Tree of Knowledge.
The initial plan was simply to assist students aged nine and older with their modules, to clarify any questions regarding how the process worked, and answer general questions. What actually happened was entirely different. The students arrived expecting Paula and Margriet to do all the module work for them! Margriet and Paula politely explained their function was not to do the children’s work for them, but to assist with aspects they found difficult and answer other questions the children might have.
The ladies expanded on assistance with modules. They began to use creative methods to help the students acquire a love of learning stemming from curiosity propelled by creative experiences. The general approach to teaching used by them was to develop a sense of delight about the learning process. Creative simplicity was the cornerstone. They brought Play-Doh and coloring games into the classroom to facilitate the creative process. They carried out field trips that exposed the children to nature. During these trips, the children gathered items found along trails and by the pools where they also swam. They used the collected materials to make self-designed collages.
They introduced the children to life outside of Negros Oriental and the Philippines, to a world they had never heard of until then. They used games such as putting names into a large bowl while having a map of the world on display. That helped the students to first identify continents, then countries, then capitals of those countries. Teams were formed with team leaders responsible for the overall performances and the good conduct of their team. Part of the reasoning was to create an environment in which the leaders could comfortably develop more self-esteem.
They had the barangay captain visit and explain his work while also informing the children about their responsibilities as members of their community and citizens of the The Philippines. Since his visit, the national anthem is sung each morning before classes begin.
Story telling was used as a method to open the children’s’ minds by creating excitement about the joy of learning through an informal process and experiences significantly different from what they did at their regular school. It draws on the imagination of the children and unfolds excitement in the process by enticing them to want to learn rather than having to learn. Paula explained “We wanted the children to experience the lighting of a fire in their spirits and imaginations and, in the process, a curiosity that excites them about learning, giving them a lifetime, positive view of education at a young age.”
A factor that has been important to the overall success of this philanthropy project has been the ongoing generous contributions of the PHILX Group of companies. Paula and Margriet had already had a good relationship with the corporation’s managing partner Gord Mckissock from Canada, whose company PHILX had developed the housing project. According to Margriet “Gord has been a wonderful help. He’s been supportive from the beginning and taken a personal interest in our project.”
Shortly after they began, Gord offered them the use of the unoccupied, sleeping quarters on the site. That allowed them to have a space for creative workshops and the basis for their slowly expanding library. He has also confirmed his company’s commitment to developing that building so it can be used as a teaching room, a library from where the local children can borrow books, and for workshops to be done. When the community center is up and running, it will add a significantly new dimension to what Paula and Margriet currently provide. Sometimes for Philanthropy to take off all it takes is a good beginning by peopel with heart who will attract more people to help out.
There are limitations on what can presently be done. For example, Willem, who is Margriet’s husband, gave an instruction class while explaining to the local children and their mothers the correct method for brushing their teeth. That was done under the Tree of Knowledge. A better structure is required for other projects and the community center is the solution. Plans are in place to hold medical and general health education meetings there, create workshops that open the possibility for local women, in particular, to earn extra money from crafts, making soaps, and other products that are commercially viable. The additional income could dramatically transform the quality of their lives while also benefiting the community.
What had begun as a basic concept helping five young students in the community with their modules has, in the space of five months, morphed into a significantly larger philanthrophy project with fifty students. Because of that and their new development plans, Paula and Margret will soon form a non-profit corporation. Apart from other advantages, the new corporation will allow favorable tax treatment for donors sending donations primarily, but not exclusively, from Europe and North America.
While not yet decided on, as the corporation’s structure is still a work in progress, Paula and Margriet are considering the possibility of providing college education funds for some of their current students. According to Paula “Philippine children are exceptionally bright and have an instinctive sense of curiosity. It’s unfortunate many will never have the opportunity to fulfill their unquestioned ability.”
Soon the children will return to a strictly regimented, formal educational process where they will have a formal learning system. Both Paula and Margriet believe if a love of learning can be positively introduced to all children at a young age it opens them up to view learning as not only necessary but also an enjoyable experience. They firmly believe it can help them be better prepared for education as their lives progress.
“Another important fact we need to always remember is that we, as foreigners, when creating our plans or dealing with local schools, must always remember to respect the values and cultural norms of this society where we are guests. We were recently reminded of this when I (Paula) was talking to the grandmother of one of our students. I enthusiastically explained how intelligent her grandson was and that he probably had the ability to graduate from college and open up a new life of opportunity for himself. His Lola looked at me and said “His father was a fisherman as was his grandfather. He will be a fisherman.” Still full of enthusiasm, I again repeated the point about the wonderful opportunities that would open for her grandson after he had a university education. “He will be a fisherman.” Responded his Lola with polite but steely conviction. “This interaction was important for me to experience.” Smiled Paula. “There I was, being well-intentioned with what I believed was the best road for this child to take, but I never gave consideration that perhaps life as a fisherman would be better for him, would keep him as part of his community, and that would be important for everybody in a collective sense. I was well-intentioned, but you know the expression that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“When Margriet and I discussed the conversation, we became painfully conscious of the need for us to exercise caution in general approaches to our project. We wanted to have a positive impact while not being intrusive or unaware of local sensibilities.”
They were again reminded of that factor only a week after Paula’s interaction. Margriet is an advocate. She learned about one student who is in a class where he cannot understand much of the content. It’s far beyond his level of comprehension. He obviously was in the wrong class and should move to a lower level. She met with the school manager and explained the situation to her. Margriet was politely thanked for the information but nothing ever subsequently happened. Three months later, the student still remained in the same class.
These learning experiences have helped Paula and Margriet to better understand and effortlessly become part of the community and be accepted and respected by the understandably cautious locals who have not always had positive experiences with foreigners. Paula says the experience gives her a sense of purpose and, having previously been a pre-school teacher, she has an instinctive affinity towards the young children. Margriet beamed when asked what she got from her efforts. “It’s such fun! Seeing the children being so receptive to creative ideas, seeing their self-esteem grow, observing them develop critical thinking skills is more reward than one could ever hope for.”
This philanthropy has also brought them closer to their community. The local ladies are helping them become accustomed to local cooking and baking, while Margriet and Paula also exchange cooking ideas and methods from their respective cultures. Because of their reaching out and their desire to help the children, Margriet and Paula have now become respected and appreciated members of the local community. Not many foreigners have that experience.
So, what about the future of this project? Keep in mind it only began five months ago with the idea of helping local students with their school modules. Already it has dramatically expanded to include the creation of a multi-purpose community center with many important programs involved.
Who knows what next year will bring? We will check back with Paula and Margriet in mid-2021 and update you with developments. No doubt they will be significant and meaningful to everybody involved in this important Philanthropy project.
To know more about Philanthropy in our area, please also visit this link
Do you want to get involved in Philanthropy? If Philanthropy is in your blood, there is no shortage of good you can do for the locals of Dumaguete and surrounding Negros Oriental