I’ve known my cousin Chemari almost all my life; back when our families were close, we spent summers and holidays fooling around together with our siblings and other cousins. Chemari the Joker, the one that makes us laugh, and the one that does not mind being laughed at. The guy with a perpetual grin that no one can erase from his face. In growing up, we sought our own paths…his path was to move to Thailand and eventually become a teacher.

Chem had a way with kids; even as we were growing up – although not a typical “role-model type” (i.e. follow-your-parents-excel-in-school-or-else!), he was the one that did not shy away from new experiences, and I believe this attitude has allowed him to find a happy balance between work, life, and giving back to society.

He has always been kind-hearted, and thoughtful in his own funny way. He once gave me some fake cacti to take back to the UK, saying “See, I got these because I thought it’s better when you don’t have to worry too much about keeping them alive!” That made me laugh.

I look forward to our family reunions and catching up with him; he always has interesting stories to tell. My recent trip to Manila gave me the opportunity to join him for a day…I was curious about his on-going project.

Free EnglishEvery year, he makes several trips back to Manila. Recently, as part of these trips, he started teaching English to children in a nearby community FOR FREE. This community is, what they tend to call, “illegal settlers” – but they have been there in that area of Muntinlupa for decades. They live under rusting roof sheets, in the midst of the hubub of commuters, noisy traffic, and uncollected waste; separated from the affluent villages of Alabang merely by roads and enterprise parks. The contrast is almost shocking.

However, one’s perception changes when you see small ‘sari-sari’  stores, where families sell a variety of goods to make a living; a concreted road in, and a small but clean, municipal hall. Moreover, the people smile, the energy around the area is flowing. As we entered the community, the children gathered around Chemari, greeting him happily, repeatedly calling him “Teacher Chem!”. He gives some of them high-fives saying their names, “See! I remember you!” His girlfriend, Anne, also an English teacher in Thailand, is with him to teach over the week.

The moment we step up into the Municipal Hall, several of the children rush to the toilets, because they are clean and they flush. Chemari calls for everyone to sit down and requires them to only speak English. A candid silence follows…for a while.

These children have the opportunity of subsidised education until 6th grade, yet some of them do not go to school. Their parents might not be able to afford uniforms, the commute, or school meals. Hopefully since the introduction of the K-12 curriculum (in 2012), and the implementation of compulsory education, the situation is turning for the better. The age range of the class is 4-7 years old, and some older children attended to help out. A loving community spirit filtered through the air like the scrumptious smell of fresh baked goods. Most of the children in the room are fairly educated, and know how to read and write – but there is a distinct difference between those that do go to school and those that don’t.

The lesson for the week is “Parts of Our Body”, and this was the first day. The teaching aids are simple, but effective…pictures and drawings on a small blackboard, barely a meter across by a meter high, matched with worksheets with words and distributed pictures. The children are excited throughout, shouting out answers following prompts from their two teachers. The lesson goes by quickly, and I enjoy every minute of it as much as the children. Although some of the younger ones struggled, it only goes to show that these children are eager to learn.

As Chemari himself put it, “What better way to give them a better shot at the future, than to teach them English?”

It proved a point – when I travelled to Coron, Palawan, the following week. Walking on the dockside, as I prepared for my dive, I spoke to some children who were selling dark glasses for pocket money over the summer break. I asked them if they knew how to speak English, and they all shook their heads. Theoretically speaking, I asked, if they were given the chance to free English lessons, would they like that? Their faces lit up and they eagerly nodded, looking at each others’ reactions, but not believing that they would be given English lessons for free. On the dive boat itself, my dive guides thought I was Korean and were nervous that they would not be able to communicate with me properly because their English was so basic. When I told them I was Filipino, they relaxed a bit, grateful they did not have to feel uncomfortable about communication…jokingly adding that they had spent the previous night practicing their English.

Although often regarded as a form of American colonialism, knowledge of English is what has always given the Filipinos an edge over other countries, both in finding work or studying abroad, and in local tourism. Most Filipinos embrace this ability as part of their culture. Chemari’s goal is to start teaching regularly, throughout the nation, similar to a missionary exercise.

He wants to get a group of like-minded individuals together, to help him give another option to these children – who may have not chosen to grow up where they are, yet have not lost their capacity to dream.

I have no doubt that he will succeed, and I would like to be with him on this journey, and help in any way possible.


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