Ethical Holiday blog

How Volunteering On Holiday Changed My Life

Posted By Celeste Turner Lewis, 25th November, 2018

A few years ago I could never have imagined I'd be mixing concrete in the blazing heat during my holiday.  In fact if you'd dared to suggest that's what I'd be doing on my holiday you'd probably be met with my famous blank stare before laughing hard in your face. But this is exactly what I did and I LOVED it, I loved it so much I kept going back to do it again and again. Because volunteering to help rebuild homes lost in a fire gave me the most memorable and rewarding holiday I've ever had and probably ever will have.

When I arrived in Manila the contrast between rich and poor was immediately evident, the tall skyscrapers and sprawling malls of the Makati district are just a few streets away from evident poverty.  Manila is a great city to explore and in many ways the experience you will have here can be very much down to what you want to see.  You can visit some of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in the world, explore the history, get lost in shopping malls the size of towns and have a sunset beer overlooking the marina but for me I was able to see a different side to the city that most tourists do not venture to. And in it I found some of the most welcoming, positive and kind hearted people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. 


The skyscrapers of Makati provide a startling contrast to the poverty just a few streets away

After a few days here the city is already filling me with a deep sense of gratitude for everything I have and everything I've ever taken for granted. With this in mind I'm keen to find out how I can get involved in helping out so I ask around if there's anywhere I can volunteer and I'm told to look for True Manila on Facebook.  Straight away I see that they have put out a call for volunteers to rebuild houses that have recently been destroyed by fire. I’m eager to go and lend a hand so I immediately hail a taxi and get down to the meeting point.

The taxi drops me off at the arranged point by a 7-11 and after a warning from the taxi driver that this isn't an area tourists should be in I am feeling slightly apprehensive to say the least, I have no idea where I am or what to expect. I am in an area that I do not know and the poverty is palpable.  It is not far from the Makati District, whose skyscrapers provide a startlingly contrasting backdrop to the street where I am stood. It is hot, there isn’t a millimeter of shade and the road is dusty and busy with jeepneys and taxis. I am the proverbial sore thumb, people stare as they go past and I feel very out of place.  A couple of children approach me to say hello and ask me my name - although I am getting lots of attention here it all seems quite friendly and I am surprised to find that after the initial feeling of foreboding I feel more relaxed here than I would be waiting in a London street. It looks like I am the first one here so I stand by the door and wait patiently for others that I hope will arrive soon.  As I wait my mind is filled with questions - I wonder how many people will come, where will I be taken and what exactly I will be doing.

I have been waiting for some time now and I still do not see any sign of True Manila or anyone who looks like they might also be volunteers.  I’m debating whether I am in the right place and how long I should wait when a Filipino girl comes out of the shop and asks me if I’m also waiting to volunteer.  I am so relieved not to be alone anymore I could hug her and never let go, she introduces herself as Sarah and we wait in the cool air conditioned haven of 7-11 chatting together.

Eventually two girls arrive and take us around the corner to where we will be working. Children are everywhere and the street is lined with makeshift homes made from plywood and tarpaulin. I am told about the fire which raged through the street and destroyed over 50 homes, most of which housed over 20 people each.  Luckily nobody was injured in the fire, however the community lost everything and are having to rely on donations for clothing, hygiene products, food and building materials. The first job for me to do is to help mix the cement.  Ed Win, the founder of True Manila, patiently shows me how to do this.  It is hard work in the blazing heat but it feels great to be involved in something so worthwhile. Everyone is pitching in to help, there is a real community spirit here and we all have fun whilst working.

Mixing Concrete in 35 degree heat, once it's mixed it needs to be hauled up to the the second floor using buckets, it takes a long time and many many bucketfuls but we get there with team work

After a couple of hours of mixing and relaying buckets of cement it is time for a break.  The women have cooked huge amounts of spaghetti “Filipino style” which has a very sweet tomato sauce and frankfurter sausages in. I am told it is sweet because it is mixed with banana ketchup as a cheap way of making it go further.  I am conscious that I have the luxury of eating when I return back to my hotel so I decline the offer of food but bowls are repeatedly passed to me and I realise that it is rude not to accept.  Once again I am touched by the friendliness and generosity here.

We feed as many hungry children as is possible with the food that we have, sadly there is never enough for the vast amount of people who come bowl in hand, but thanks to Ed Win and his True Manila at least 100 children have been fed today.

Feeding the hungry with Filipino style spaghetti  / Meet Ed Win, the kindest and most inspirational person who has dedicated his life to helping those in need

Later that evening Ed Win and the volunteers meet for a drink and he tells me the story of how True Manila was started.  Ed Win is an inspiring man; he has a big heart and has dedicated his life to helping others within his community as well as providing safe homes and education for street children, many of whom have been abandoned by their parents due to poverty.  Ed Win tells me his aim is to share culture and friendship and to help tourists realise that these communities are safe and welcoming, just because they are poor does not mean that they are criminals.

I return to the True Manila community to help out again and bring with me some notebooks and colouring pens for the kids as well as several packs of pasta and sauce, which are all very gratefully received.  The kids are excited to draw in their books as I hand them out to everyone who wants one. They all ask me to write my name in the book and I am impressed when I am shown many artistic drawings of my name. 

Some supplies for the community, notebook and pens for the kids and pasta and sauces for the hungry

Ed Win takes me to visit a man who has a fever in order to give him some medication.  As we enter their temporary shelter I see him lying on a raised plywood board, he is clearly very poorly and is accompanied by a young baby lying next to him, both are covered in flies.  I worry for them as there is no sanitation or space in their tiny shelter and I am certain the baby will fall ill too, if she isn’t already.  

I try my hand at bricklaying, which I find incredibly satisfying to do.  The houses are really coming along now and we are working on the second floor as well as helping the other neighbours mix cement.

Bricklaying is incredibly satisfying and the building is coming along nicely now, we're up to the second floor! 

I have a great time with the children.  Elaine clings on to me and takes every opportunity to show me various drawings or teach me Tagalog – my terrible pronunciation of which causes much laughter.  Wakida, gives me a beaded bracelet that she has made, I am touched to be given such a special gift. Charles, the youngest child in a family of 12 is such a shy boy but I have never known a harder worker, he always has a shovel or trowel in his hand and helps me throughout the day.

At the end of each day here I am exhausted but have such a great feeling of accomplishment.  I have been truly humbled by my experiences with True Manila and have so many happy memories and new friends that I will never forget.  Volunteering gave me the chance to experience the people behind a destination, and not only to see the culture but to be welcomed in and treated as part of the community.

What happens when you leave your phone unattended in the Barangays of Manila? You get it back with thousands of selfies of course!

It can be difficult to find volunteering on a short term basis like my experiences above, but not everyone can take time out from their lives to volunteer on a gap year, or have the funds to be able to do this.  That's why my trip helped inspire the vision for Ethical Holiday, to bring together people like me that want to help out on a more casual basis and give them the opportunity to find volunteering activities that will actively help improve lives or protect our planet during their holiday.

If you'd like to experience new cultures or volunteering during your next trip check out some of our cultural homestays or volunteering opportunities or just keep an eye out for the purple volunteering icon on's listings for life changing activities offered with your accommodation.

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