Francesca Villa Mateo, Melissa Villa-Wilcox and Juan Villa of Project PEARLS.
MANILA -- An overseas Filipino family received an award for their exemplary work in providing education and other services for children of poor families.
The Villa-Wilcox family, based in San Jose, California, was given the 2014 Jollibee Family Values Award for Global Pinoy Family of the Year for their Project PEARLS (Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love, Smiles), a registered non-government organization (NGO) which they started in 2010.
According to Melissa Villa-Wilcox, executive director, she started Project PEARLS in 2008 as a mother-daughter project with her daughter, Francesca.
Their first beneficiary were the two children of Melissa's deaf-mute childhood friend who lived in the slums in Caloocan City.
"During one of our vacations in the Philippines, I met my childhood friend, she lives in the squatter's area, sa Caloocan. I found out she have two daughters out of wedlock, so 'yun yung first scholars namin, her two daughters. That was in 2008, and we started giving school supplies in surrounding squatter areas in our neighborhood," Melissa said.
In 2010, Melissa was introduced by a Belgian photojournalist to the children of Ulingan, a poor community in Tondo.
"Ulingan is surrounded by charcoal factories. It sits on a garbage dumpsite. Chidlren as young as 2 years-old, 3 years-old, they're working na sa Ulingan, namamako, kinukuha nila 'yung nails from the burnt wood then kinikilo, ganun," she added.
Melissa and her younger brother, Juan, both born and raised in Caloocan City, are familiar with poverty, but Melissa said she have never seen poverty like in Ulingan.
"I was overcome with grief. I said I'm going to help these kids, I don't know how, I don't know when, but I will. and I don’t want yung handout. My definition of outreach is yung mayroong relationship with the children, with the community, to earn each other’s respect and trust, so that was in 2010."
On the same year, Project PEARLS started with their feeding programs in Ulingan. However, Melissa noticed that the children were hungry for something else.
"I realized these kids are hungry for any type of education. So meron silang daycare (center) na parang makeshift lang, it sits on Manila Bay, puro garbage din. Sobrang liit lang siya, 70 kids attend that daycare center, so that's our first priority, to put up a daycare center," she said.
Aside from the daycare center, Project PEARLS conducts feeding programs every Saturday. The project also has 325 scholars from pre-school to college. They also conduct literacy programs not only for children, but for mothers as well.
Juan Villa with some of the beneficiaries of Project PEARLS. Photo courtesy of Project PEARLS
Project PEARLS became a registered NGO in 2011. They started with around 200 children, and they now support almost 700 children from different communities.
Aside from the different programs, Project PEARLS also built a learning center for the children of Ulingan so they can go to school five days a week.
When the community was relocated to Bulacan, Project PEARLS followed their beneficiaries to ensure that the children's schooling would continue even in a different location.
Project PEARLS adopted its second community, Helping Land, last year. Just like Ulingan, Helping Land is also located in the slums of Tondo. The community is known for its reliance on 'pagpag', or leftover food from fast food chains.
Aside from providing nutritious and healthy food for children, Project PEARLS also conducts weekly Brain-Booster activities. Volunteers help children in their homework, and teach them basic skills like reading and writing.
Melissa added that the feeding programs are just part of their effort to bond with the communities and to make them feel that they are part of society.
"Parang bonding lang namin 'yun, it's more on the educational activities. And for making them feel like hindi sila outcast ng society... You know, for most of us, they're just [part of] statistics, poverty statistics, they have no name, no face, but for us, it's not. So they feel loved and taken care of," she added.
The family, at first, used their own money for their projects. When they started their page on Facebook, people and donors started coming in. Some of their company partners are Century Canning and RFM Foods Corporation.
Project PEARLS founder and executive director with some of the project's beneficiaries. Photo courtesy of Project PEARLS
Some other Filipino families in California have also started volunteering and providing financial assistance for Project PEARLS.
"We have a set of volunteers abroad, but our volunteers are for events, fund-raising projects. Kapag mayroong typhoon relief drive," Melissa said.
Francesca Villa Mateo, Melissa's daughter who is also very active in Project PEARLS, said the project is a venue for Filipino-Americans to connect with their roots.
"We're lucky that we're from the Bay Area, because that where they (Filipinos) all are. There's definitely a lot of support from my age group, high school all the way to people with families. They are very supportive, even if they're third generation, fourth generation (Filipinos), they like to know that they are connected to the homeland somehow, and we give them the opportunity to do so," Francesca said.
Having an active account on Facebook also helped Project PEARLS get volunteers. According to Melissa, they sometimes have a waiting list for all the volunteers who want to help in the feeding and educational programs.
Juan Villa, Melissa's brother and full-time volunteer, oversees the program from the Philippines. He also cooks the food for the feeding program, and manages Project PEARLS in behalf of his sister.
Now that Project PEARLS is getting recognized, Melissa said they feel honored and humbled.
"Siyempre we're very, very honored and humbled. Sabi ko nga sa kanila, when we started it, it never crossed my mind that we're getting this award, we're getting recognition. We just want to put these kids to school, instead of them working as garbage scavengers, or sa charcoal factories, parang surreal pa rin."
The Jollibee Family Values Awards (JFVA), now on its 4th year, seeks to give honor to deserving families who best exemplify positive Filipino family values such as generosity, compassion, creativity, resourcefulness, love for the community, love for the environment, and strong ties, among other traits. They also provide selfless service to their communities and those in need.
Apart from the five JFVA winners and one Global Pinoy Family of the Year, this year’s search will also bestow special citations to families who promote the following advocacies: Environment, Education, Children, Persons with Disabilities, and Minority Groups.