“Child-friendly Spaces in Roxas” AKA a pretty cool idea

By Grant Robertshaw
27 November 2013

A child-friendly day shelter is born inside the Dona Victoria Cortes Memorial Elementary School in the province of Capiz, Philippines. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Grant Robertshaw)

PhilippinesMonday was my fifth day in Roxas as the CCCM Cluster lead for the coordinated humanitarian response to Typhoon Yolanda.

As the dust settled following the safe departure of the Director General back to Manila after a lightning fast visit to Capiz, our thoughts turned to a significant conundrum that was being faced by the Governor of Capiz. There was a great desire to restart elementary and high schools in Capiz on Monday, November 12.

Of course, everyone agrees on the great benefits to be had from getting kids back to the normality of day to day schooling but there was a problem. Three of the evacuation centers that were still active after the destruction wrought by Typhoon Yolanda were also elementary schools.

It was universally agreed that the remaining evacuees at the centers were the most kawawa – Tagalog  for the most in need of help.  By way of context, from the moment we arrived in Roxas it was told to us that people wanted to go home.

Being a very resourceful and resilient people, repairs had started using collected debris very quickly after Yolanda waved her havoc-filled goodbye to the island of Panay.  The desire to go home was also shown by the way that numbers continued to rapidly drop between our regular visits to the centres. But some people stayed – Why?

Well, the answer is that the people who are still living in the shelters are amongst the most vulnerable in Filipino society – they either do not have the resources to rebuild their homes or they have nothing to even return to.

That brings us back to our conundrum. School classes or emergency housing? Which priority was going to win the day with November 12 looming large?

As Raoul from UNICEF and I agonized over this issue whilst wolfing down a serving of Bicol Express, we had a thought. What if we could give the evacuees a safe and dry place to hang out during school hours and allow them back to the classrooms in the evening to go to sleep in the evening?

We began crunching numbers. Let’s see……the dads and older males spend the days repairing their houses if they can. The young kiddies will be in the classrooms attending class. OK, so that leaves mums and toddlers for us to worry about. Ka-ching…….the idea of the Child Friendly Day Shelter (CFDS) was spawned.

We continued our brain-storming. UNICEF has tarps, says Raoul. The DART guys could build a shelter, I suggest. With what though? Oh dah! Bamboo!!! I can arrange that, says Raoul.

So the idea was born and started to grow legs. Raoul added – we can arrange some activities for the mums and toddlers. This idea was getting cooler by the minute.

So back we went to our super heroes from the DART team. We spoke to the guys. As we were used to hearing from them…… “We’ll have to check with the boss but yeah, I’m sure we can get it done.”

So, the boxes were ticked:

  • Tarps –  UNICEF
  • Bamboo – Raoul
  • Manpower to clear debris and build shelters – DART and the Philippine Army
  • Fastening materials – Oops. Before we could finish our thoughts Humanity First were chiming in with “what do you guys need – whatever it is, we’ve got it covered”
  • Cleaning materials for the class room – IOM, we’ve got that
  • Activities for the kids and mums – Save the Children,  come on down

The next step was selling the idea to our counterparts in the Capiz Government. A quick trip down to Governor Tanco’s office and the light was green.  The idea that we could hold classes without evicting vulnerable families was a good one and he was happy to support it.

Then it dawned on us – we’ve sold the idea, now we need to deliver on it. (Oh and by the way, evacuation of areas affected by an oil spillage in nearby Estancia had just been announced.)

The CCCM cluster members pulled together and indeed we delivered.

School classes commenced on schedule at Doña Victoria Elementary School and Kanangkaan Elementary schools on Monday.

Initially our shelters remained empty so we were worried about that. The goal of starting school had been achieved but we still were concerned that our concept of the CFDS had somehow been flawed. Alas, the Filipino tradition of chismis (bush telegraph) soon kicked in. Word had gotten around that we were running activities for the kids and also adding extra tarps to improve the shade.

Before we knew it a steady trickle of mums and toddlers into Kanangkaan Elementary was occurring. Families had gone back to their homes in their entirety but eventually the mums and toddlers came back.

Doña Victoria had a different set of circumstances. Unlike Kanangkaan where the evacuees’ place of origin is very close, the evacuees from Doña Victoria are from much further away. Clearing the classrooms required some persuasion. Going from room to room with the school principal, I was able to experiment with my not-so-fluent Tagalog. The main concern of the people was that they need shelter materials to be able to go home. I assured them that the Governor, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the humanitarian team all had evacuees from the centers as top priority for distribution of shelter kits once we can get them on the ground. Having been heard, they agreed to move to the shelter much to the relief of the principal, Ma’am Edna and yours truly.

But there was another unexpected hiccup to come. For a short period of time there were no IOM staff on site at Doña Victoria. To my horror on my return I came back to a shanty shelter with a Sari Sari store in it and trash everywhere.

Again, my sublime mastery (!) of Tagalog came to the fore – “Bawal sari sari dito” – no convenience store here! –  “Remove the blankets and rusty galvanized sheets”  was a bit beyond me but they got the idea. “Bawal basura dito” – “no trash here”, I could find the words for.

Phew – they were actually listening to me (maybe I should wear an IOM vest and cap when I talk to my kids!).

Anyway, we needed to remain vigilant on the day shelters to make sure they were used correctly and that the tarps were not “liberated” but overall we got the job done. The part I liked most was the teamwork. We were all there for the kids and pulled together to make sure that classes could start on Monday, and they did, without forcing vulnerable families out the gate prematurely. Oh, and the people who know about this stuff tell me what we came up with over Bicol express  was a “strategy for preventing secondary displacement”. Sounds cool to me.