What could be better than traveling the world? Well, traveling AND doing good infinitely increases the pleasures and joy of travel. Whether it’s building houses for a community, teaching English, or organizing fund drives, volunteering isn’t just fun, but is also a rewarding, fulfilling, and life-changing experience.
Photograph courtesy of I Am HIP’s Facebook Page
For this installment of Hostelfy.me’s Explorer of the World Series, we are excited to feature 31-year-old Kareen “Kakay” Oloroso, a traveler who has not only journeyed to some of the most exciting places in the world, but through her organization I AM HIP (Helping Islets in the Philippines) has paved the way for people from all over the world to volunteer in the Philippines and share their skills and expertise to communities in need.
Read on to learn more about what drives this inspired—and truly inspiring—traveler, what makes life as a volunteer worthwhile, and what YOU can do to help.
Where are you from? What place do you call ‘home’? Questions like “where are you from?” and “where is home?” are in some way confusing for me and for friends. I always say I am from the Philippines. However, at a very young age, I was [already] moving to and living in different places. I have [people I consider as] mom and dads from all-over [the globe]. I can say that my home is the world.
How many places have you traveled to? What do you love most about travel? What is your favorite travel destination and why?
I have traveled to 15 countries; most of which have been in Southeast Asia and Europe. I have covered most of the Philippines since I have been—and am still—jumping to and from different islands. I love feeling the breeze on my face while crossing the seas, the sound of the waves, the smiles from children’s faces, the strange yet familiar food, the simplicity that is the islets, the kiss from the sun when you crawl out of your tent in the morning, the silence of the evenings and the blinking lights of the fireflies. My favorite destination is Negros Island. It has been home for almost half my life and most of my good friends are there. It’s so easy to go around the island. I can always find campsites along the coast and up the mountains. It is a one-stop station for adventure. And the food? Simply amazing.
Tell us about your organization. What is I Am HIP? And how did the idea come about?
(Ed’s note: Typhoon Yolanda, also known as ‘Haiyan’, occurred on November 8, 2013 and is the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record. The typhoon killed over 6,300 people, left countless people homeless and injured. As of this writing, there are still bodies being found and people considered missing.)
Effect of Typhoon Yolanda. Photograph by Arlynn Aquino and posted on ECHO Flickr page. Photograph via Flickr Creative Commons.
Before Yolanda, I regularly organized outreach activities with friends and acquaintances. I do it once or twice a year and do them in remote areas (coastal and mountain communities). When the news about Yolanda broke, lots of my friends started calling and asking [me for advice on] what we could do to help. They were willing to share some money. It was a difficult time for me as I myself was in a bit of a shock. I just missed Yolanda by a day. I managed to take the first flight out of Tacloban a day before the typhoon hit land. I initially collected around 600 Euros from friends when I told them I would like to spend Christmas in a community affected by Yolonda. The main purpose was to keep Christmas going inspite of the disaster. With all the focus in Leyte, there was not much news about the other places. A friend of mine told me to check the situation of the local government of Bantayan. With lots of telephone exchanges and validation with the help of the locals and the municipal government, the first site for HIP was identified – the tiny island of Silagon with 300 residents.
From Makati, I organized everything with the help of my friends in Bacolod who are my constant volunteers for all the outreach that I do. And for the slogan, it just came one night when I was brainstorming with another friend. I was so tired and just wrote her, “what do you think about I am HIP = I am Helping Islets in the Philippines? It is a bit kitschy but it is also simple and catchy.” And that was it. I worked on the blog t (www.help-islets.blogspot.com) all night and a designer from Germany volunteered to make the logo. It’s really is so hip, right?!
How does I am Hip work? Why do you think it stands apart from all the other volunteer organizations out there? HIP gets its funds from friends, family, acquaintances and even strangers. One hundred percent of all the funds go to the communities that we help. As for the overhead, I get it from selling shirts and bags… and my savings. HIP supports the local economy, too, so even in December, even when the markets in Bantayan are not yet back 100%, we managed to get almost 50% of all our needs for the Christmas Party there.
Volunteering with HIP is not complicated. I do the screening of the volunteers and the community have the final say if they want them. I only send volunteers to the area when there is work to be done.
How many volunteers do you usually have? What countries do they usually come from? What’s their age range?
The biggest group was 20 during the Christmas break but I had volunteers who stayed by themselves on the islets. There are also now homestays where the volunteers live with the foster family, share meals with them and help with some household chores before they head to work. It makes things easier for me and for all and I am really happy that there were no complaints about the volunteers. In my estimate, 50% or more of the volunteers are Germans. Some are interns here in the country, some are doing volunteer work for other organizations, most are my acquaintances and friends. The youngest volunteer would be my 17-year-old nephew (better to start them off early, right?) and the eldest would be a woodwork expert from Germany (50+) who stayed for almost three weeks on Panitugan Islet and helped a lot with the repairs of the elementary school there. The average would be around 25 years old.
Why do you think so many people have participated in your program?
They believe in volunteerism and that they can do something to uplift the community’s spirit. The mere presence of volunteers in these remote areas sends a message that the people of the community have not been forgotten; having volunteers around reminds them that they are not alone. The volunteers, I believe, don’t feel intimidated since they are welcomed as they are. When I first called for volunteers, I asked them to write me about what they can possibly contribute to the community and they have lots of talents and skills to offer. The community accepted them with open arms—volunteers feel like a part of the family immediately upon setting foot on the islets.
What areas / regions does I AM HIP cover? At the moment, we are working with these three islets that belong to Bantayan Town in Cebu Province. We are now on the weaning out phase. We have help repair a daycare center (Silagon Islet), build one (Panitugan Islet) and also help in the repair of the elementary school in Moamboc Islet. The only projects there now are on building up the libraries. So, I am still collecting books.
There is a new site that I am working on at the moment, which is an indigenous people’s community in the south of Palawan.
How does your organization merge travel and volunteer work? Why did you decide to incorporate travel into your organization?
It is more like the traveling off the beaten track. The experience the volunteers gain from it is extremely different from what other travelers experience. You live with the community, so you also have to deal with the same “limitations” or obstacles that the locals face: no electricity, no water source, and waiting for the tide each day so that you can move to the next islet or the main land. But this is something that can keep you in the present moment: there’s no internet, no phone service, and you also learn to become more patient as you wait for the tide to come. I guess this is one of the best ways to understand how living in an archipelago works and it is something most of our tourists won’t be able to experience. I am not saying, though, that I am necessarily promoting voluntourism. I am just more for volunteerism and the organization welcomes tourists who would like to help. Photograph via I Am HIP’s Facebook Page
All my free time and vacation leave from work since Yolanda has been devoted to HIP. However, even before Yolanda hit, I had already been devoting most of my free time to the communities. I don’t see it as work, rather as a homecoming. And I believe it was the same to the people in the barangay and the community who are continuing to assist me even during holidays or weekends.
Why do you think travel is so important? Do you think it has the power to change lives? How so?
Traveling is one way to be wise. As Jostien Gaarder puts it: “There are two ways of becoming wise. One is to travel out into the world and to see as much as possible of God’s creation. The other is to put down roots in one spot and to study everything that happens there in as much detail as you can. The trouble is that it’s impossible to do both at the same time.”
And I am still on the first way and I still am planning to see more of the world before putting down roots. Growing up, I never have thought that I would be able to explore the Philippines or even other countries. Looking back, it was the best thing that has happened to me. Traveling widened my understanding of the world and of people. And it made me gain so many friends and families all over the world. I always send postcards to my nephews and nieces and they are loving it. Every time I visit them, they would ask me about the things I saw and experience in the place that I’ve been and they would start planning their own trips. These are kids who around 6 to 11 year old, and I can’t wait to bring them on their first camping trip.
Want to know more about Kakay and her organization I Am HIP? Check out the official I AM HIP blog or their Facebook page. Interested in becoming a volunteer? Contact Kakay through the I Am HIP Facebook page or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re scouring the globe in search of intrepid travelers to feature on the Hostelfy.me blog! If you love to travel, have a ton of stories, experiences, and advice to share just send us an email at email@example.com with “Traveler Q&A” on the subject line.