Updated: Aug 11, 2019
Kate Sparks takes time out to go surfing and volunteering in the Philippines.
With winter fast approaching and at a crossroads in life, I wanted to do something helpful for others. So along with the lure of bikini-warm waves and few crowds, I headed to the Philippines and Siargao Island. Siargao Island is the surfing capital of the 7,641 islands that make up the Philippines. It’s the perfect tropical playground for both surfers and their non-surfing partners. However, alongside the palm shrouded, white sand beautiful islands, 21.6 percent of the country's population still live below the national poverty line. So, it felt like a good destination to explore, while volunteering.
After working in a corporate industry for many years, interacting with a narrow margin of society, it was time to use my skills elsewhere and broaden my experiences. And, lucky for me, to engage at a deeper level with the culture I was about to revel in their waves of in the hedonistic sport of surfing.
When I researched charities to volunteer with, I found that there were lots of companies online offering to set everything up - including flights, accommodation and even 24/7 assistance during your stay. This would be a great option if you wanted to save time and simplify your trip, especially if it’s your first time travelling. However, I wanted to keep my trip as flexible as possible and keep to a tight budget. I started contacting charities directly and found that this significantly reduced the cost of volunteering as there were no registration or participation fees, you could find your own accommodation and search for the cheapest flights. Being in contact with the project manager of the charity directly allowed me to ask lots of questions and get a good understanding of the work that I would be doing and how my time would be used to help, this also reduced my nervousness about going abroad to do something new.
After lots of research I chose to fly from London to Cebu city, I spent my first weeks volunteering with The Rise Above Foundation. The charity is situated by a particularly depressed slum area of Cebu and focuses on improving the lives of the families living in these conditions by running food, tooth-brushing and education programmes. I chose this charity due to the variety of programmes to get involved with and the flexibility of whether you wanted to stay for a day or for months at a time. I paid a small amount for my room and this also included breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Together with four other volunteers, I helped children aged 3-12 to read, taught them to make friendship bracelets and took part in the food program, which involved preparing a one pot meal for 400 people. All the volunteers and some of the children at the centre took part in the preparation of chopping the vegetables and chicken. This was all added to a giant cooking pot together with rice, oats, stock and a thickener to make the 'porridge'. We gave out food vouchers to each of the families living in the deprived area, whose homes were wooden boards bound together, tightly packed in with narrow alleyways awash with sewage. The families each came with their own containers and the food voucher to collect the meal, smiles all round.
My heart full and my feet itching for waves I took the short 45-minute flight from Cebu to Siargao Island, where I stayed at a hostel in General Luna I met a local surfer girl working there who was pleased to have a new surf buddy. The beauty of a trip to Siargao is that there are so many breaks to be discovered, and it’s really fun to breeze around the island on a moped seeing what you can find. Travelling north to past Pacifico towards the top of the island, you'll find more remote breaks for escaping onshore winds on the east coast. Or travelling south to Union, an enchanting trip through the jungle you'll find paradise surf spot.
After exploring Siargao Island, I returned to the Rise Above Foundation after surfing on Siargao Island, where the children remembering me and screaming "Ate-Kate!" (Ate, before your name being a sign of respect) and the beat of reggaeton reverberating throughout the slum. There was a salsa class going on! Adults and children dancing, singing, smiling in harrowing living conditions. The next day with the other volunteers we took 15 children swimming to a local pool, most of them never having been to a swimming pool. Offering them bread for breakfast before we left, the children were only eating half the piece of bread and then running back out to the slum area to give the other half of their friends who couldn’t come to the pool that day. That small act conveyed so much that I learnt about Filipino culture, to share in our good fortune and value our friendships and families.
During my time volunteering, what I didn’t anticipate was the depth of friendship that developed with the other volunteers. It was fantastic to meet other people from around the world, all at different stages in life. It gave socialising in the evenings another dimension, a family to discuss burning questions about things you’ve witnessed or other ways you can work together. This experience took my mind totally off my own worries, gave me a greater purpose and infused me with a fresh perspective to view and realign future goals.
Article as seen in issue 67 of SurfGirl Magazine