Little by Little, Day by Day

“. . . I understood today that I have amazing friends who have good hearts and that there are amazing strangers and unsung hero volunteers doing this tirelessly with zero recognition. And perhaps that will never be enough to make a big difference in this cruel world we live in. But it will have to be enough for today.”

This is an excerpt from Danie’s Instagram message way back in August. This was after she successfully sponsored and organized a feeding program in partnership with Project Pearls. It was an alternative way of celebrating her husband’s birthday. Danie shared how the entire experience has been simple, organized, and fulfilling—a true celebration of life, of friendship, and of kindness.

It started when she randomly came across iVolunteer on Instagram, and discovered Project Pearls. Project Pearls is one of iVolunteer’s partner organizations dedicated to helping poor children. What was supposed to be the budget for her husband’s birthday became the budget to sponsor a feeding program for 300 kids in Tondo.

Kids sing “Happy Birthday” to Stefano Fois celebrating with Project Pearls volunteer

After contacting Project Pearls and receiving their eager response, Danie asked her friends from TOYO Eatery to provide the food for the event—to which they immediately agreed on. The event itself was attended by Danie’s family, friends, and volunteers.

Friends of the couple with Toyo staff volunteers

But more than sponsoring that one day feeding program, we’d like to share Danie’s story as a volunteer—her beliefs, her advocacy, her inspirations, struggles and future plans—partly, using the strength and the conviction of her own words.

On being privileged: “Until very recently, I had this idea that “everyone” in the Philippines grew up with the same values as I did. That is, I was raised to understand that I was privileged; that this could well have not been the case, and thus, that it was a responsibility and burden to do things for other people.”

For the longest time, Danie thought that helping others—especially if one has the resource for it—comes naturally, something ingrained in humanity. And it was an eye-opener to discover otherwise.

Daniela “Danie” Laurel-Fois came from a well-off, Christian family, and religious schools. Her entire life has been surrounded by social works packaged in different ways from outreach programs, to fundraising activities, to medical missions. Growing up with so much opportunity to help, coupled with her awareness of her status in life, has made her believe that helping is an obligation of those who can—that being blessed comes with responsibilities.

It didn’t mean, of course, that she didn’t enjoy helping. She did, and she still does. In fact, one of her most memorable experiences was when she transformed her baby shower into a relief operations back when typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines.

On what inspires her to help: “I really have a particular sensitivity for the wealth gap in our country…. Growing up, it was difficult for me to place where and who I was compared to society. I was privileged but was raised simply and raised to believe I was not rich . . . I don’t think it’s so much that I want to help the poor per se as it is that I truly want this gap to be reduced.”

Like many of us, Danie feels strongly against a world where luxury is juxtaposed with extreme poverty, where opportunities are available only to the select few. She believes in sparking changes that last, in finding ways that truly improve the quality of life. To her, the most important contributions in society are those that reduce the wealth gap—those that open doors for the marginalized so that they can somehow have the same opportunities as those who are privileged.

On her main advocacy: “I was a PhD student in Milan, had moved for my husband, and knew absolutely no one in the city . . . It was just by chance really that this was the main thing I could contribute to in the situation I was in: I myself was an OFW. Over time, I understood that I could make a difference in my country more by being outside of my country, by inspiring these people, by leading by example. Financial literacy is at the heart of this program and that fell perfectly within my financial background and expertise.”

Although not as active as she was before, Danie still considers the Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (LSE) program of Ateneo for OFWs as her main advocacy. This program aims to teach financial literacy to OFWs in domestic jobs in the hopes that they can effectively manage their finances and establish their own businesses.

During her active years, she contributed by creating modules and teaching in different cities. She organized the first program in Milan with the help of the Philippine Embassy, and established the first batch in Paris. Apart from how life-changing this program has been for its graduates, what truly amazes her is how self-sustaining it is. It has a pay-it-forward approach wherein the graduates would in turn become organizers. They started with only 40 graduates which eventually soared to around 1,500. With so much graduates, Danie barely have to do anything for LSE these days, except for the occasional teaching and curriculum meetings.

On the struggles of volunteering: “First is donor fatigue. It’s easy to volunteer when you have all the time in the world and all the resources in the world . . . Volunteerism needs to be sustainable and it’s always a struggle to have that as a lifestyle and not a ‘when I can, I’ll do it’ thing.”

Danie recounts how she had to temporarily give up participation in the LSE program when she went back to a demanding work schedule and started having young children. This is, of course, something most of us can relate with—the issue of juggling volunteering with all the responsibilities we have in life. But what makes volunteers true heroes is really the fact that volunteering requires sacrifices of different kinds.

“The second struggle is this basic disbelief I have in simply providing hand-outs and aid . . . I want to be able to do work that helps people help themselves. Yet at the same time, the situation of many of our countrymen is so dire that we have no choice but to give aid for them to just make it to the next day, and this unsustainability of it all really bothers me.”

In the book “Dead Aid”, Danie shares how the author, Dambisa Moyo, attributes free aid in reinforcing poverty by making the poor reliant on donations rather than self-reliant. This is the same as the saying “Give a man a fish, and you will feed him a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

With this same belief, Danie is always struggling with the idea that simply giving aid is further aggravating poverty instead of somehow alleviating it. This is particularly why LSE appeals to her since this program aims to really help OFWs help themselves.

Even with that belief constantly afflicting her, it’s undeniable that the traditional social works, just like the feeding program she sponsored, still bring her immeasurable happiness and fulfillment.

On her future plans: “I don’t intend to do grandiose things, I want to just be able to walk the talk . . . I want to use my social media platforms to create awareness. I want whatever job I do in the future to contribute to positive social change. I want my lifestyle and any financial or business investment I make in the future to promote good values: support local, support a sustainable planet, advocate for fair wages and good treatment of labor. I haven’t figured it out at all but: small steps.”

After 11 years abroad, Danie has returned to the Philippines with no concrete plans—just armed with the strong feeling that there is something meaningful she can contribute here. Unlike before, she’s now at a point in her life wherein she can now do something more than just focus on building a career. But in spite of that, Danie doesn’t want to make big and empty promises. She simply wants to help and to inspire in whatever ways she can, because even the smallest of actions can create remarkable change.

With Danie’s desire to help, and countless opportunities out there, she will surely never run out of ways to contribute to society. And while eliminating or substantially reducing the wealth gap in the country is still a far-off dream, our combined small steps will definitely mean a lot.

It was truly a pleasure to have been part of Danie’s “small steps” in making a difference, and to have had the opportunity to know her more than just another volunteer. We find inspiration in all our volunteers’ unique stories, and in knowing that we have somehow been a part of their journey. We hope that in a world filled with inequality and injustice, they would find strength in knowing that there will always be goodness in this world because of people like them.

Cheers to all hero volunteers! Let’s strive to make this a better world—little by little, day by day, one small step at a time.

Lorraine Rañoa, iVolunteer Philippines


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