Arnel Alipao, a 17-year-old World Vision sponsored child, recently completed an amazing 17,000-mile journey from the Philippines to New York City and back, where he spoke at the United Nations Thematic Debate on Disaster Risk Reduction.
Speaking at the UN, in the company of a Senator from his country, would have terrified Arnel had he been asked to do this when he was first enrolled in the Sponsorship program while in grade 3. Arnel describes himself then as a very shy and bashful boy, timid before an audience and inarticulate in speech.
But Arnel’s participation in World Vision activities taught him not just to mingle with other children, but to become assertive. By the time of his opportunity to address the United Nations, he had become driven and resolute – prepared to assert not just his own perspective, but a position representing the youth of the Philippines.
Arnel’s journey to the United Nations didn’t have a storybook beginning, however. A native of Mainit, a town in Surigao del Norte, Arnel personally experienced the subject matter of his UN speech just getting to his nation’s capital city – disaster. His hometown, along with several communities in Surigao, was flooded from heavy monsoon rains. More than 38,000 people were affected, and World Vision’s local relief was under way. Along with his adult companion, Anita Entuna, Arnel braved these floodwaters… at one point fording a river on a balsa, a makeshift raft built from banana tree trunks, skewered together by a wooden pole.
Arnel shared, “Our town is prone to disasters. Lengthy rains lead us to expect landslides. We’re fortunate Surigao del Norte is a pilot area for Disaster Risk Reduction initiatives.” His community is now properly advised of what conditions require evacuation. They’ve coordinated safe assembly points on high ground where they meet, and children remind their parents to carry only the essentials.
Arnel says that properly advising children and youth is important because of their unique capability at disseminating information. “The youth are more up-to-date, because of school and the internet. This is why I recommended Disaster Risk Reduction be included in the academic curriculum starting in the elementary grades, so that kids may be aware of issues and behaviors,” he adds, describing the thesis of his speech at the UN on February 10.
Youth Disaster Response Relief advocates like Arnel were hard at work before the rains came. Their presence at quorums held with the local government added credence to their advocacy, linking the youth to the authorities and other stakeholders. On top of information dissemination, Arnel invested in two sizeable initiatives before the rains came:
1. Pulot-Kalat [rubbish cleanup] campaign. Supported by the village children’s association and other youth associations, Pulot-Kalat worked to mitigate flooding by clearing rubbish from canals and drainage systems. “Flood levels are lower this year,” says Arnel, noting the need to maintain this activity monthly.
2. Environment and Tree-Planting campaign. Arnel and his peers have mobilized to plant trees in support of reforestation initiatives in Mount San Fransisco, where the community says mining activities have affected the balance of their ecosystem. Arnel says, “We appreciate people [mobilizing against mining] but we encourage them to refrain from violent action. We made many placards and signs expressing our position against destructive mining.” They also moved village officials, schools, the local government and police to initiate discussions to prevent environmental damage.
Arnel describes his journey to the UN as a series of miracles. Arnel’s papers had to be faxed ahead to the World Vision staff in Manila to enable them to secure his passport and visa, but it took wading through waist-deep floodwaters to get to a fax machine; small landslides caused by the heavy rains had prevented them from taking the most convenient route. The nearest airport was also flooded, so Arnel and Anita were forced to take a boat to another province, where they could catch a plane to Manila. World Vision assisted Arnel in securing a passport in just four days, and a US Visa was obtained on the same day of his application. Flying to New York on the day his visa was issued, Arnel’s plane had to abort the flight two hours after takeoff, returning to Manila. Despite having to take a later flight, Arnel arrived in New York just in time, a mere hour-and-a-half before his scheduled address.
Having now returned from his amazing journey, Arnel paused to reflect on all that sustained him: “I’m very glad to have represented the Filipino youth. I’m thankful to God for the opportunity. God wants us to address such issues [as disasters and disaster preparedness]. I never expected I’d attend this. I’m thankful to the World Vision staff who did everything they could to help facilitate this… I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my Australian sponsor for having such a good heart [in sponsoring me]. You encourage us [children] that despite adversity, a bright future awaits us,” Arnel says.
Those 17,000 miles saw the fruition of many of Arnel’s ambitions. He knows that this journey, along with his renewed and continuing work for his community, will enable his hopes and dreams for his nation to continue to become a reality.