Unlike in Korea where students have their own school supplies, in the remote and sparsely populated villages of Mindanao Island, school supplies are precious. For families with tight budgets, it is not easy to purchase notebooks, pencils, erasers, ballpoint pens, etc. Therefore, Join Together Society (JTS) has been providing the students with school supplies each year, but there are some changes this year. Amongst the schools that have received school supplies each year since they opened over 5 years ago, there are some where the parents’ financial situations have improved. In order to promote self-reliance in the communities, JTS will not provide school supplies to these schools starting this year.
Instead JTS is focusing on providing school supplies to 17 schools that are less than 5 years old, which includes four schools that have been newly built this year. Damulog teachers whose school has not received uniforms for the last 3 years, made a special request that uniforms be provided. Thus, a total of 23 schools including Damulog, will receive new uniforms. Uniforms are typically provided once every two years.
JTS’s educational support begins with contacting each school’s representative teacher. Based on data created in the previous year, JTS contacts the teachers in May, before the new semester begins in June, in order to confirm whether the teacher will continue to stay at the JTS school instead of transferring to another school.
While 70% of the teachers will stay this year, the rest of the teachers will transfer to schools closer to the city. Unlike Korea where all students go to school when the new semester begins, there is a school registration period in the Philippines before each new semester. Therefore, even though the new semester begins in June the exact number of students cannot be determined until late June or early July. This is also because many students are unable to continue their studies due to family circumstances or because they have to help with farming. JTS contacts the teachers in the beginning of July to obtain information like the students’ grades, names, height, and weight for their uniform. On July 18th, the educational support project was initiated, starting in Catablaran, Cabanglasan.
This year, Mr. Jin-Suk Kim, who came to provide volunteer medical service and Aki, a son of a local community volunteer, Tadoo Mikitai, packed all the school supplies. There are a lot of things to consider before packing. For example, the supplies that must be transported by motorcycle or boat instead of by car need to first be packed in boxes and then wrapped in plastic. The supplies that must be delivered by foot must be packed in smaller boxes. Sometimes, when motorcycles are loaded with too many packages, they can get a flat tire.
This year, JTS provided one additional notebook and an exercise book to the students at the request of the teachers. In additional to the basic school supplies, the Kindergarteners received a sketchbook, and students grade 4 and above received a thin notebook to be used during exams. Like in the previous year, students in grades 4 and above were provided with one color paint set for every six students. The children who received an armful of new school supplies couldn’t stop smiling with happiness.
For the village children, it is difficult to even dream of owning school uniforms. Most of the students attending schools in the city wear uniforms since their families can afford it, but this is not the case for JTS school students. Being aware of this situation, President Wonju Lee who runs a textile business in Manila, personally donated school uniforms to the JTS school students. Unlike Korea where each school has a different uniform, Mindanao school uniforms are almost identical in design.
A typical boy’s uniform consists of a white shirt and navy shorts, while a girl’s uniform consists of a white blouse and a navy skirt. However, JTS uniforms are designed with a special flair. A boy’s uniform consists of a light blue checkered shirt and navy blue shorts, and a girl’s uniform consists of a yellow checkered shirt and a navy skirt. Although, only the uniform tops are different, when the students put on their uniforms, all the boys look handsome and the girls look pretty. The students exclaim to each other “Guapo!” which means “handsome,” and “Guapa! which means “pretty.”
Once news spreads about the distribution of new uniforms, parents come to the school and watch the process. When their children receive the uniform, they help them try them on immediately, looking very happy. Uniforms are not only meaningful as school uniforms but are meaningful in that they are new. As most of the villagers purchase their clothes at a Korean used clothing store called Okai-Okai, new clothes are rare. These uniforms typically become the children’s new best clothes.
The most recently visited school was Mikasili, the poorest in Damulog. Although JTS had last provided uniforms in 2015, two of the students were still wearing the uniforms. When asked if they had inherited the uniform from their older siblings, they answered that they were the same uniforms from 2015. Their growth had been stunted due to malnutrition.
Actually, the information regarding uniform sizes for the students that JTS had received from the Mikasili teachers suggested the students were smaller than the students of the same age in other schools. Thinking that the teachers had made a mistake in their measurements, JTS had taken extra uniforms in larger sizes. However, they weren’t necessary. Typically, students of grades 5 through 6 wear sizes XL to XXXL, but students of Mikasili wore L to XL. There were few tall students, and there were hardly any overweight students.
Generally, the villages in which JTS builds schools become larger and become better connected by roads with other villages. However, Mikasili, which is only accessible by boat and doesn’t have much land for farming, has seen little community development since the school was completed 11 years ago. It was a sad reality.
As of November 2018, JTS completed the delivery of school supplies and uniforms to a total of 20 schools. JTS will visit the two remaining schools, Talagak SPED (a special school for students with disabilities) and Agusan del Sur, which has been hard to get in touch with for the last 2 years, in January of 2019.