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Alison Freemantle - Public Health in Philippines

A Public Health Project outreach

I’m not your ‘typical’ volunteer. I’m not 18 – 25 years old. I’m 42 and been employed ever since I left university many years ago. My journey started when I was made redundant from my job in May 2016. Volunteering abroad was something I’d always thought about doing but didn’t think I had the time – and now I did. I love to travel, so I wanted to volunteer somewhere I had never been before and I certainly ticked that box with the Public Health Project in the Philippines. I’d never heard of Cebu before, let alone Bogo City, and this was where I was going.

I was attracted to Projects Abroad because of the flexibility they provided; I could pick my start date and how long I wanted to volunteer for. Other charities/NGOs I had looked at were fixed and I didn’t want to go for just two weeks or for 13 weeks to one destination.

Before I knew it, it was time to depart. I’d managed to fit some supplies for the project into my bag too (having communicated with the project advisor by email prior to packing), so I felt that if nothing else, I was bringing the team in the Philippines something useful.

My arrival in the Philippines

A volunteer plays with a baby

First impressions – it’s hot and humid! We were 2.5 hours north of the airport at the northern end of the island, and we had an opportunity to sit back and observe the countryside and learn more about the coordinators and the other volunteers ahead of meeting them all the following day. First impressions of my host family were good: its clean, tidy, no mosquitos that I could see and they had a lovely large standing fan – bliss. I obviously looked hot as they sat me directly in front of it (there was another one in my room too). Facilities were basic, but you can learn and adjust to coping with most things, the toilet was flushed using the water from a bucket, the shower was cold, but welcome after the heat and initial shock. I did treat myself at weekends and made sure that wherever I stayed had a western bathroom.

First day on my placement

Day one of working on the project and it was straight into work - my induction would have to wait. We went to a village school outside of Bogo City where they were starting an Early Years Nutrition Program and giving the schools a dried vegetable mix to be cooked up for the younger students. Despite being a very rural area, many children are malnourished due to lack of fruit (expensive for local people to buy) and vegetables. The complete opposite of what I had thought before arriving here, thinking they would grow lots these as it was rural, but this was not the case.

The vegetable mix was cooked up into a soup mix and rice was added (get used to rice, you will get it with every meal in the Philippines) over a wood fire. Then it was back to the office for my induction, orientation around town and my first ride in a trike, their local mode of public transport – I feel sorry for anyone with long legs. The chocolate lava cake after lunch was fantastic too!

Medical outreaches at my placement

Tuesdays were always medical outreach days and the day to wear my Projects Abroad t-shirt. These days are when many of the local Public Health officers, including both the doctor and a dentist, relocate to a Barungay (or area/district) for the morning. It’s a chance for the local people to see a doctor free of charge without having to travel to Bogo City’s health office after getting a referral from the health worker.

We had three large plastic containers with medicines from the health office – this was free and being given to patients once the doctor had seen them. Lots of children and babies were given vitamin drops due to poor nutrition while many adults were in need of medicine for high blood pressure (this may be something to do with high salt usage in their diet). The doctors usually saw upwards of 100 people on these mornings, and it was an opportunity to get people to have their blood pressure measured and their weight recorded (paper records).

Health screenings at my placement

Children in schools receive a meal

As part of the Public Health Project, we also went out to the Barungays to provide health screenings: measuring blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol and blood glucose. Unlike in the UK where people are generally invited to an event or to their doctor’s offices, that doesn’t work in the Philippines. Most days when we were doing screenings, we would be going house to house to perform the tests.

The health workers would help out by trying to round people up for the testing, but I was welcomed inside many homes during these times. Unfortunately, due to lots of salt in their diet and a lot of frying of foods, there are many people with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Diabetes is also prevalent due to the amount of soda people drink!

As part of the project, we were educating people about this and what changes they could make, along with the need to go to the public health office to get regular medicines to keep this all under control.

My weekends in the Philippines

Volunteers and staff in the Philippines

Another good thing is having the weekends off and having a chance to explore further afield. Off the Northern coast of Cebu are some smaller islands easily reached by a bus and a ferry: Bantayan and Malapascua. Both are definitely worth a visit. Bantayan has a regular ferry timetable, and the staff sticks to it pretty well considering the laid back approach to timekeeping. To the island of Malapascua, the boat only leaves once it has enough people. Both islands have sandy beaches and warm welcoming water, a chance to feel like you’re on holiday for a couple of days and relax.

I also did a weekend visit to Cebu City, catching an early bus as it takes three hours to get there. If you need a ‘western fix’, Cebu City has some big shopping malls; one even has a Marks & Spencer in it.

My overall experience

On day one, trying to remember all the coordinators and the names of the other volunteers seemed an impossible task. But leaving after four short weeks in Bogo City, I’m leaving behind friends who have made me so welcome; the time has just disappeared. The Public Health Project was great - there were many different aspects to it, not just the health screening, but the feeding programs at the schools, education and nutrition classes, and the medical outreaches.

I will not forget my time in the Philippines (maybe one day I will go back and help some more), I am so glad I decided to do some volunteering. Thank you to everyone!

Alison Freemantle

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