As one door closes, many others will open. Such is the case of VSO Philippines, a program office of VSO International, which recently shuttered its operations in the country after more than four decades.
VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) is recognized as the largest nongovernment volunteer-sending organization in the world.
The story of VSO in the Philippines started in 1964 when Bernard Waddingham, a British national, started his stint as a volunteer teacher assigned to a small school outside Manila. Many other British volunteers would later arrive, most of them teachers lending a hand towards improving the quality of education in rural schools.
In the mid-1970s, with the declaration of martial law and mounting civil unrest, VSO set new directions in the Philippines by focusing on social work in local communities, deploying volunteers to underdeveloped areas, taking up advocacies to raise public awareness on urgent social issues, and establishing partnerships with relevant agencies to achieve development goals.
This was also the time when VSO International recognized the Philippines as a pilot recruitment base for Filipinos to be sent as volunteers to other developing countries. In 2000, VSO Bahaginan was organized, mainly to tap the rich pool of skills and expertise of Filipino volunteers. It was the start of a new era?a new door was opened.
As part of a so-called south-to-south initiative, volunteers from developing countries were regarded as more effective in reaching out to people from other developing countries simply because they could easily understand the needs and expectations of their host communities. Such was the case for Mary Grace Bangoy, a volunteer assigned to India. Coming from a developing country like the Philippines has made her a better volunteer, she says, because she can ?relate more to people of similar poverty.?
VSO Bahaginan volunteers come from different walks of life, and with a wide variety of specialization. Their contribution to their foster communities are as varied?giving advice in business management, training health workers, bolstering education, maximizing natural resources, teaching community development skills, and many more.
At the turn of the century, new directions from VSO International were cascaded, this time with emphasis on building a reputation as a development agency working through volunteers. More than half of all volunteer placements thus were allocated to livelihood programs including natural resource management.
Locally, in response to the pressing need of many communities in Mindanao affected by strife, the Philippine VSO office initiated its own peace-building work. But security considerations discouraged international volunteer placements. For program work to proceed, a call for local volunteers was made.
Another door had been opened.
For VSO Bahaginan, it was a chance to further develop local volunteerism and to pursue the program as an embodiment of a vision to have proactive and socially responsible citizens working for community building and development. To strengthen national volunteering, VSOB established KaBahagi as a training-centered program reaching out to other local volunteer organizations not only in the Philippines but also in the Asia-Pacific region.
KaBahagi has since grown to become a multi-sectoral volunteer program assisting nongovernment organizations, companies, government agencies, and academic institutions in developing their own volunteer programs and volunteer management policies and procedures.
Even as more Filipino volunteers were being sent abroad, others were returning home to share what they had learned or to continue their volunteer work in other far-flung and needy communities in the country. Their experience had not only meant new skills, but a better understanding of burdens and concerns that people across continents share.
Dr. Allan Sande, for example, was sent to Uganda in Africa to serve as one of four doctors at an impoverished public hospital. When he returned to the Philippines, he accepted an assignment at the remote Itbayat District Hospital in Batanes. His volunteer work in Africa had prepared him to be more resilient when addressing the medical needs of an isolated and backward community, he says.
A few years ago, following a global review of resources, VSO International decided that the Philippine office was to graduate. The decision to phase out the office by March 2010 was met with mixed emotions, not just because a whole lifetime of volunteer work started by the British was coming to an end, but because it also meant that VSO Bahaginan as a uniquely Filipino organization had earned its stripes in the global world of volunteerism.
?The Philippines has been a major area of VSO?s development work,? says VSO Bahaginan executive director Malou Juanito. ?VSO Bahaginan will continue and build on the work done by VSO all these years through national volunteering and capacity building support.
The Filipino will never forget?and forever be grateful for?the countless volunteers that came to our shores to unselfishly share their lives, knowledge and expertise with our people. It had been an amazing journey, one that VSO Bahaginan vows to keep alive, this time through Filipino volunteerism.