April 23, 2015
When a small group of Susquehanna University students left for what is now an annual Global Opportunities (GO) trip to the Philippines in 2010, they had no way of knowing they would change the trajectory of several young lives.
Six students, under the leadership of Jeffrey Mann, associate professor of religious studies, traveled to Manila's Smokey Mountain trash dump, which at the time was home to more than 3,000 people who lived and worked in the dump. The students distributed vitamins, clothing, toiletries and first-aid materials among the community, and spent time getting to know some of the teenagers.
With $750 in their pockets from Susquehanna's Alice Pope Shade Fund, the group discussed the best way to invest the money in a way that would support the university theme that year, which was sustainability.
They chose education.
Two of the Susquehanna students were Karen Ward Telyea, a 2011 graduate, and Katherine Sowers, a 2012 graduate, who had both majored in religious studies.
"I remember saying in the airport during our travels home that one year of school doesn't matter if they can't afford to pay for it next year," Telyea said. "I felt very strongly that if we were going to support their education, then we needed to commit to the full process."
As Mann explained, there are public schools in the Philippines, but there are still basic expenses.
"If your family is living on $1 per person per day or less, you may not be able to meet these costs," he said. "Money went to school uniforms, school supplies, shoes, transportation-as there are no buses and the school is far away-lunch money and medical needs."
The group invested their initial $750 to help three Filipino students, and five of the six continue to assist financially to this day, including Kelly Miller, a 2012 graduate majoring in elementary education; Sarah Johnson, a 2012 graduate majoring in communications; and David Huss, a 2010 graduate majoring in business administration.
And, remarkably, this year an important milestone was reached: The oldest scholar whose education they were funding, Joanna, graduated from high school and has tentative plans to attend the university in her province, Eastern Visayas State University.
"It fills me with such joy to know that not only will Joanna's life be changed through her hard work in high school-but I think about all the other lives that will be changed for the good," Sowers said. "Her education gives her the means to provide for herself and those around her."
In 2014, Smokey Mountain was demolished and the families relocated. As a result, the group lost contact with one charge, Jobie. But they continue to support another student, Roberto, at between $100 and $200 per year per person.
Their advice to Joanna now that she has graduated?
"My wish for Joanna is that she never stop learning and growing," Sowers said. "I hope that she continues to push herself to be the best that she can be and to always remember that no matter what, her life and voice matter."
"I know Joanna will succeed in whatever she does," added Telyea. "I hope that she is able to find a career that gives her joy and fulfillment and that helps her and her family flourish."