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Niamh Kelly, Coral Cay Conservation, Philippines.

Niamh's Photo Taken by Kate

My most recent volunteering experience was in the Philippines working as an Education Officer for a coral reef conservation group. My role was to enhance people’s awareness of the incredible diversity of the coral reefs in their marine environment and to teach them the importance of conservation.

At university I specialised in Zoology and Conservation and my interest in wildlife has also led me to volunteer on environmental projects in Indonesia and Africa. My current profession is teaching but I wanted to return to working on environmental issues in developing countries. Work granted me four months off, I was free to go – another adventure awaited me with Coral Cay Conservation.

Arriving in the Philippines or any unfamiliar culture can be very daunting. Manila was chaotic; traffic jams, haphazard driving, shouting, haggling, and an intense heat that made you gasp for air- but none of this shocked me. Instead, I find something exhilarating about leaving your comfort zone and sharing a motorbike with four people! Little did I know that I would encounter very different things on this trip that would shock me.

Daily I travelled to teach in different schools and rural villages. Daily encountering new challenges, faces, smiles, enthusiasm and a complete show of respect and appreciation for someone who wanted to be part of their community. As a teacher, to leave school at 5pm and be full of life and smiles is a great feeling and to be invited back is even better. On top of that, they were listening, we were reaching them.

One of the greatest things was the complete unpredictability, once, arriving at school to find all classes were cancelled for a parade through the village. The outstanding hospitality of Filipinos meant that I was cordially invited to join and then asked to judge a dance competition- Simon Cowell eat your heart out! Watching the kids perform the amazing routines they had choreographed was emotional. I watched incredibly talented, positive, confident, funny and motivated individuals perform and realised that many may never leave their small villages. In every class I asked ‘Who would like to be a Doctor, a Scientist or a Lawyer?’ Nobody ever raised their hand. They always answered- ‘too expensive’. In front of me were children conditioned not to hope for too much. For all of the wonderful qualities these children possess- ambition is not one of them.

With one month left of my time in the Philippines Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) ripped through our town and devastated a nation. We were two hours south of the areas so profoundly affected. Fortunately everyone that we knew were all safe, but no family was without grief, pain and loss. Without electricity or internet we had no idea of Yolanda’s wrath and I returned to school. Classes were half empty, the sky was grey with grief and the smiles were gone. Everyone was hurting yet they wanted to learn and for life to continue. We prayed, sang and laughed together ending our day with high fives all round. Leaving school I felt joy, but was confused as to how a broken heart could also feel this. They lifted my spirits, they showed me the strength in people, and I was smiling because of them. That day my organisation decided to close our programme, we left the next day without goodbyes.

Although my project ended abruptly I was not prepared to leave the Philippines. On an unaffected island we were safe and military aircrafts started bringing people from the devastated areas to evacuation centres close by. The survivors were given temporary shelter in schools and basketball courts sleeping on cardboard boxes. With friends we travelled to the centres and asked to help, people needed; blankets, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, sanitary pads and diapers. We pooled our money and returned in three hours with the basic items. We spent a week visiting the centres, playing with kids and speaking with people about their experiences. Emails were sent home and in four days we raised €7300 in donations from friends and family for the evacuees.

What had started as a teaching mission suddenly became an aid mission. Being in the Philippines during Yolanda has been an experience and being part of the survivor’s lives has been a humbling one. They may never remember me but I will never forget them. The chaos and the poverty of the Philippines did not shock me. People’s generosity, the victim’s strength, their love and untainted belief in good- that was what shocked me.

Before Yolanda I became certain that teaching environmental awareness and working in communities is my career path. While there I continually thought of Ireland and of ways I could promote global environmental issues throughout the youth in cities. This year I hope to start my own after school programmes and create a website to spread ideas and environmental awareness. Overall I want to work to encourage ambition in people, regardless of age, gender or the society in which a person lives. Ambition I believe is a necessity and right for everyone.

My volunteering experience has shown me that people are not only adaptable to but also capable of change. It is worth questioning if people stay in their comfort zone to protect themselves from the unknown? For me, stepping out of it and shaking it off may be a shocking experience, but it may also be the most liberating experience of your life.