By Jemiema Dagadas (YES 2010-11, Philippines, hosted with AFS in Phoenix, AZ)
Picking Up the Pieces is a breakthrough initiative spearheaded by five YES alumni from Davao City, Philippines. This is part of a series of change-making projects being implemented by YES alumni nationwide in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the YES program.
Behind every parent in jail, there are children and other family members who are serving time as well. These children are often prisoners of discrimination, isolation and a sense of detachment from their peers and the people around them. We believe that children should not carry the burden of being held accountable for the mistakes of their parents. Here at Project Picking Up the Pieces, we are working on interventions to help address issues related to the repercussions of having a loved one incarcerated, including social stigmatization and negative effects on mental health. Our team aims to promote inclusivity and help empower families and youth affected by incarceration. We are hoping that we can inspire these youth to use their voice, talent and skills to build a more inclusive society.
Davao City jail for women, also called Ray of Hope Village, was very receptive and accommodating to our team as we worked with them to implement this project. During our first visit, we were surprised to be welcomed by the warm smiles and hospitality of the inmates. Truth be told, it was nothing like what we expected for a jail facility. We were expecting cramped prison cells with loud and unruly detainees just like the ones we see on TV, but we were welcomed into a community of empowered women. And instead of regular prison cells, there were cottages, and everyone in the community is regarded as a family.
To launch our project, we hosted an arts and leadership workshop for 50 children of these inmates with the theme “Empowering the Youth Towards Inclusivity and Expression through Arts”. However, the turnout was beyond what we expected, so we improvised a singing and dance workshop to accommodate the other participants! Some of the detainees belong to the Ray of Hope Village artists guild, so we asked them to help lead the arts workshop while the Ray of Hope Village Movers (dancers) and choir members helped us with the musical workshop.
The initial plan was that only the children would participate in the activity, but since it was only a few days before Christmas and the inmates surely missed their children, it turned into a family bonding activity, which was even better. It was a picture of pure love and happiness. Our small workshop turned out to be something more for the inmates and their children. We witnessed mothers who were seeing their children for the first time since being incarcerated. We witnessed forgiveness happen and we felt the love of the mothers towards their children.
While the children were busy with their artwork, some inmates started sharing stories with us. One story that really tugged at my heart was when this bubbly inmate started telling me how our activity has helped strengthen her relationship with her son. She had a misunderstanding with him, so her son had stopped visiting her for more than a year. She said that if not for our activity, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see her son for a long time.
Stories like this and the amazing smiles from the people whose lives we have touched are what fuels us to keep working for a more inclusive society so that children will have room to dream and make a reality for themselves.
At the end of our activity, the participants presented their artwork. It was delightful to see the pride on the faces of the inmates as they walked on stage with their children presenting their masterpieces. We were also entertained by the performances from the children who had participated in the singing and dance workshop. Overall, it was a successful activity.
As we are gearing towards the sustainability of this project, we are currently working on fundraising activities so that we can make this a regular event. In fact, we are preparing for a Picking Up the Pieces Grand Coffee House sometime in March. Coffeehouse activities will include an auction of paintings from the workshop and a night full of amazing performances from esteemed volunteers and the children of the detainees. All the proceeds generated from the coffeehouse will be used towards the creation and refurbishment of a permanent, child-friendly visiting room within the prison facility. If given the opportunity, we are also hoping to replicate this project in other jail facilities as well.
It has been such a great opportunity to become a part of this wonderful cause of making change happen. Years after our exchange year, we are happy that we are somehow able to do something for our community. And in the tradition of paying forward, we will keep the spirit of volunteerism burning so that we will be able to touch more lives in the process. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful YES community for helping us see the world from a multitude of perspectives. Our exchange year has shaped us into becoming global citizens with a compassionate heart. We will always be proud of being a part of a program that’s effecting transformative changes in the world.
We couldn’t have implemented this project without the support of the US Embassy Manila, AFS Philippines and of course the US State Department. Thank you!