Their reasons for leaving tend to surprise Philippine immigration officers.
In a country where practically every other household has a relative trying to earn bigger bucks abroad, they chose to go overseas not to seek greener pastures—but instead sow seeds of hope and opportunity where nothing much ever grows.
But then, compassion thrives on stony ground.
Denis Vanguardia, for example, helped a poor community in Indonesia start livelihood programs. Liza Lopez worked with refugees at the border between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), while Lea Acallar attended to HIV/AIDS patients in Nepal.
They are the overseas Filipino volunteers—“OFVs,” if you will—a largely unheralded but growing tribe of mission workers and global adventurers who devote a part of their lives helping other nations, and in the process develop a deeper appreciation of their own.
Since 2000, some 600 Filipinos have fanned out abroad as foot soldiers of VSO-Bahaginan, the Philippine chapter of the 53-year-old British development charity organization Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
“When it first started, people were saying why are we sending Filipinos out of the country? This is brain drain. But what happens is because they come back, they are making a difference in the Philippines because they become committed to the whole idea of fighting poverty,” said VSO International chief executive officer Marg Mayne.
“Actually, it’s brain gain rather than brain drain,” Mayne told the Inquirer during her visit to Manila last week.
At any given time, foreign volunteers—like members of the US Peace Corps or VSO International—are silently at work in various development projects across the Philippines.
Filipinos started to reciprocate, so to speak, about a decade ago by signing up for volunteer programs targeting other developing nations in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Under VSO, opportunities include short-term missions of three to six months, and longer stints of up to two years. Professionals who are at least 25 years old are eligible to apply (see details on www.vsobahaginan.org).
For VSO Bahaginan executive director Marilou Pantua-Juanito, such programs provide a new and more “formal” outlet for the Filipino tradition of bayanihan (Filipino for volunteerism).
“In volunteering overseas, they come to appreciate that what they do has an impact on a wider scale of the population. When they come back, they appreciate and love the Philippines more. There’s more of that nationalistic spirit,” Juanito said.
VSO Bahaginan volunteers include professionals “at the peak of their careers,” said communications chief Rachel Nalus-Quintos. Most of them are between 35 and 45 years old, representing different fields of expertise like community work, business and finance, health care and government, among others.
“They find that volunteering… improves their professional track (record), giving them an edge in their career. Filipinos are much more global in their thinking now. A volunteer assignment provides them with an opportunity to get international experience,” Quintos noted.
Of late, the organization has also seen an increase in the number of older volunteers, those in their 50s or nearing retirement age, Quintos said.
“There’s a lot of time for you to make that decision, but we’re finding out that people who are probably semi-retired are now looking at volunteering as a viable thing they can do after the peak of their careers,” she added.
And once they return to the Philippines, Quintos said, volunteers generally show a renewed appreciation of things Filipino.
“You know, we complain a lot about how bad this country is being run, how bad the state (of affairs) is over here. Then they go to Africa and they realize how much luckier we are,” Quintos said.
“So upon coming back, they are more motivated, they are more passionate. They feel that ‘I can change the world, I can change my community, I can change my country,’” she said.
Established in 1958, VSO has deployed volunteers from around Europe and Asia to fight poverty in developing nations. Its global missions cover human trafficking prevention, peace and development, education and the environment, among other concerns.
With 2011 being declared International Year of the Volunteer, Mayne said VSO had taken on a “people first” strategy as it reached out to more volunteers through flexible programs while tapping more private sector support.
“We really believe that when people talk to each other and work with each other, that’s how people are motivated. And that’s what brings about social progress, what brings about encouraging people to fight poverty,” Mayne said.