Rough Starts and Small Steps {Stories of Poverty and Hope}

Sitting here in a comfortable swivel chair in my home office in beautiful Australia, it is almost too tough to think about poverty. How can I – when I can barely see traces of it in my everyday life?

A real far cry compared to where where I came from.

Yet, even though I was surrounded by poverty as I was growing up, my family managed to shield me from its harsh realities. You see, I grew up in a developing country as a ‘privileged upper middle class girl’ – born to parents who both grew up struggling to go past the poverty line.

I never really knew what it was like to be ‘poor’. But, my parents did. And, so did many of our family members.

As a child, I grimaced every time my mom and dad told me stories of how they grew up. Not because I was embarrassed or apathetic. I just didn’t know what was the right way to deal with stories of poverty woes. Or, how to respond to daily reminders of how lucky I was to be living in a decent suburb in a nice home, going to the best private schools.

I was young, naive, and a little silly.

Poverty, Manila by Mike RosalesFrom Rough Beginnings

Both sets of my grandparents never finished college. My paternal grandfather was a kindly farmer who made money from the land. My paternal grandmother was a housewife, who took care of 7 children. My maternal grandfather and grandmother ran small businesses and took care of 9 children.

My mom and dad used to tell me how painful it was just to ask money for school supplies and textbooks. Every year, they wondered if they’d have enough cash to afford going to public schools. They told me of the difficulties of having to find ways to help support their families, even as children – from selling things off the streets to practicing their entrepreneurial skills with classmates.

Child labour laws were not things that you’d consider under those circumstances.

However, my grandparents worked hard to make sure that their kids can go to school and make better lives. They believed that education was one powerful way to fight against poverty. I guess, that’s why most of their kids ended up earning university degrees (and many uncles, aunts, and cousins went on to do really well in their respective lives). My mom earned a Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology and my dad earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. They both practiced in their respective degrees before becoming business owners.

In business, my parents started out a small sweets shop in a public/flea market, just before I – their eldest child – was born. Then, they ventured in to bigger businesses – from a grocery store to a home wares store to a construction supplies shop.

Now, the family owns a few properties – including a multi-level building in a business high street in the outskirts of Manila.

No wonder they have decidedly instilled the importance of education and hard work for all their four kids. They never wanted their family to ever feel what it’s like to be poor again.

Privileged, Not Entitled

Even though money became something that was more readily available in my parents’ lives, the fear of ever going back to where they started became a strong driving force for them. That’s why even though I was living in a nice house in a decent suburb, and went to expensive private schools, I was raised with thoughts of what it was like to be poor. In fact, I got told so much about poverty as a child – and to practice frugal living at all costs – that I actually thought I was poor for a while.

In school, I envied classmates and friends who had the latest gadgets and toys, as well as chauffeurs and maids. They went shopping in malls, buying the latest designer goods – while I learned to grab bargains and knock-offs from flea markets with my mom. And, while some of them rode in Mercedes Benz and Pajero cars, my dad drove me to school for a while in a rusty old pick-up truck.

I felt sorry for myself back then. But, thank goodness reality slapped me right in the face soon enough.

In a country where poverty is very real, it’s good to remember that having a comfortable life is a privilege, not an entitlement.

Poverty, Manila by Simon OostermanPoverty and the Philippines

There are two sides to the country of my birth: A glitzy, glamour side that revels in all developed world luxury – from private schools and massive shopping centres; to top-notch parties and the latest gadget craze. And, there’s a tough, challenging side where poverty doesn’t just mean not having the best things in life – but having to deal with cardboard box homes (or not even having one at all) and all sorts of difficulties that are brought about by the lack of money and opportunities.

Growing up as part of the ‘privileged ones’ and seeing that side is tough. You don’t want to close your eyes and ignore it all, yet at the same time, you have to learn how to protect yourself from it.

You see, it’s that same affliction of poverty that a lot of people I know from Manila have had a brush with muggings/theft either directly or indirectly. I’ve been mugged and abused on the streets. My family had been held at gunpoint in our own property. I’ve even heard stories of people I know who lost their lives or got hurt badly because some people’s approach to poverty is to escape it by forcing the fortunate to ‘share in the riches’.

It’s not a pretty picture. But, it’s a picture that I hope that we can change one day. I don’t know how. And, I only dream that it can – and will still – happen. One day. Maybe.

Small Steps to Climb a Big Mountain

Whilst living in Manila, I volunteered in various ways – from visiting prisons and shanty towns to helping to take care of abused kids or kids with disabilities. Even back then, what I was doing didn’t seem much. There were so many issues… so many people in need… and I can only do so little. So, I had to tell myself that it was better to do something than nothing at all.

Now that I’ve moved to Australia, and I’ve embraced this as my new home, poverty doesn’t strike me on a daily basis. But, I haven’t really forgotten the land of my birth – and the things that my parents have taught me as I was growing up.

And, I hope that I’d be able to pass on those same lessons and values to my own kids. It’s tough to teach a then-3-year-old boy to part with toys to give to street kids in Manila. But, I wanted him to learn the lesson of giving and caring for others as early as possible. I wish to do the same with my little girl.

My husband and I have also started telling the kids about our sponsored child through World Vision Australia, a cause we’ve decided to support after moving here in this country almost 6 years ago.

We tell the kids about people asking for money on the streets. What being homeless means. And, why we donate to charity.

And, we hope to be able to continue imparting the importance of hard work and education.

Yes, even if both of the little ones are just under 5 years old. Never too early to pass on awareness, right?

It may not seem much, I know. Poverty is a really big mountain to climb. But, I’m hoping that these things will make a difference somehow in helping. No matter how little.

Again and again, I remind myself: It’s better to do something small, than nothing at all.

* This is an entry that I’ve written for Blog Action Day ’08, and was later encouraged by Sighmon to submit to World Vision’s competition at

Image source: Mike Rosales and Simon Oosterman, via Flickr

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  1. says

    I can absolutely relate to growing up privileged. While I was more fortunate than many others, I never forgot it. If I had five dollars, I spent three of it on friends and so on.

    From the time I was a child I participated in food drives and other charitable causes. It never feels like much to me, but I know in my heart it is helping at least one person.

  2. says

    wow! thank you so much for sharing your story shai. you are so lucky.

    i agree with you on this: “It’s better to do something small, than nothing at all.”

  3. Liz says

    We the privileged often forget how blessed we are. I can relate somewhat to struggles of a family living on a small income as my father was a minister and there were six children and we never had much but we all started working very young to help provide for ourselves. My grandparents were immigrants to Canada as teens and had 11 children here and all the family worked to help the family. I think we miss out on that somewhat with our smaller families and our luxurious life.
    To teach my children about sharing with the needy we gave up Saturday morning breakfast, we felt a moment of hunger and we supported a child in Africa.
    I am off to Nicaragua in 18 days and I know I’ll be shocked by the poverty there but I am there with a mission group to share in the women’s struggles down there and teaching them how to help themselves and of course supporting them with donations.
    Thanks for sharing and reminding me I am blessed.

  4. says

    Very nicely written, Shai. This is another moving tale for Blog Action Day that has helped illuminate what the day was all about, and the images you selected are very powerful indeed. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. says

    What you’re doing is very admirable. Think of the difference we can make if everyone did just a small thing to help the needy. In fact, for as little as PhP450.00/month, you can send a child to school in the Philippines, through World Vision. If you think about it, that’s just 3 cups of Starbucks coffee! Every little help counts. And I’m sure it’s greatly appreciated.

    I am saddened by the disparity in the Philippines. Often when I go to the mall, everyone is toting the latest designer bag. Designer labels rule in the malls! And then you go out in the street and you see beggars knocking on your car window.

    I truly believe there’s a lot of wealth in the Philippines, if only the government could curb graft & corruption and spend the billions of pesos on worthwhile projects to uplift the lives of the poor. We’re paying 12% VAT and where does it go?

  6. says

    Thank you so much, everyone. This was tough to share, but your kind comments and feedback really helped to remind me that it’s good to share our stories. :-)

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