Slumming it - and loving it

Ms Sherlyn Khong has always been independent, strong-willed and quite the daredevil, but it was a trip to Payatas, the Philippines' biggest open dumpsite, that changed her life.
Ms Sherlyn Khong has always been independent, strong-willed and quite the daredevil, but it was a trip to Payatas, the Philippines' biggest open dumpsite, that changed her life.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Ms Khong (front row, in black) with young people who have received scholarships from acts29, the charity she started with some friends. The group helps families who make a living scavenging at the Payatas dumpsite.
Ms Khong (front row, in black) with young people who have received scholarships from acts29, the charity she started with some friends. The group helps families who make a living scavenging at the Payatas dumpsite.PHOTO: SHERLYN KHONG

Ex-teacher has made Quezon City landfill her second home, doing charitable work there

In 1997, after she graduated with an IT diploma from Nanyang Polytechnic, Ms Sherlyn Khong went on a humanitarian trip to the Philippines with a Catholic youth group.

Led by a priest, they took bags of clothes they had collected for the poor but had no idea they were headed for Payatas, the country's biggest open dumpsite.

Located in Quezon City on the outskirts of Manila, it is home to 10,000 families who make a living scavenging through the 1.3 million tonnes of garbage for anything that might make them money.

Then 22, she went not because she had a social conscience or a burning desire to help the poor and marginalised. "I went because I was with my friends and I thought it would be exciting," she says.

But as the plane touched down, she had a panic attack. She had visited the city with her parents when she was eight years old and a flood of negative memories from that trip swept over her, especially of chao-tic and traffic-clogged streets.

"It struck me that I didn't know what the next nine days were going to be like. I looked at the priest who was sitting next to me and told him I didn't want to get off the plane.

FINDING HER CALLING

After I came back from my second trip to Payatas, I went to watch Little Women in a cinema. One of the characters was a teacher and I found her very inspiring. That 's what made me decide to go into teaching instead of IT. I'm like that, I can make very quick decisions.

MS SHERLYN KHONG, on why she decided to pursue a diploma in education. She still does curriculum planning for a tuition centre and gives tuition to pay her bills.

"He told me to shut up," she adds with a laugh.

The poverty she saw and experienced over the next few days jolted her; she was pretty certain she would not return. But on the last day, a young boy went up to her.

"He said, 'I never knew you rich people knew that we poor people existed and that you rich people would come to be with us poor people.'" She was taken aback, and it made her pause.

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"It never struck me that I was rich. My parents were average-income earners, we lived in an HDB flat. But in a way, he was right. I had already travelled to a lot of places and done quite a lot of things I wanted to do," says Ms Khong.

Although she did not know what it was, something stirred inside her and told her she had to go back to Payatas.

Fast-forward 18 years. She is now 40, and Payatas is her second home. Together with some friends, she started acts29 to help the denizens of the poverty-stricken landfill. A project to feed children daily has grown to include a tuberculosis campaign, birth certification, a mothers' support group, scholarships and a rehabilitation programme for street children.

That 1997 trip changed her life.

"If someone had told me before the trip that I was stepping out of my comfort zone and I would not come back the same, I would not have gone."

Chatty with a tendency to break into hearty laughter, she is the second of three daughters. Her father is a retired contractor; her mother was an airline employee but now does administrative work at a childcare centre. The couple are divorced but remain good friends.

As a child, Ms Khong was independent, strong-willed and quite the daredevil. "My joy was jumping off buses as they slowed down and opened their doors. I also loved Michael Jordan and his air walk and and would jump off swings and "walk" as far as I could mid-air," she says, referring to the basketballer and his signature dunking move.

Her entrepreneurial spirit surfaced early. "My dad made us read The Straits Times every day. He also told us all about the classified ads and how they worked," says the former pupil of CHIJ Our Lady of Good Counsel. By the time she was nine, she was going to the classifieds for money-making opportunities like selling tissue paper during the holidays.

Her self-sufficiency manifested itself in other ways. When she was 13, she went to hospital to have a lump of flesh in her right upper arm seen to. She did not tell her parents but took her maternal grandmother along. "She didn't know why she was there, and the hospital thought that she was my guardian, saying yes to everything," she laughs.

As it turned out, she was told she needed surgery to determine if the growth was cancerous. Because it was sitting on her nerves and muscles, the operation took more than six hours and required one month's convalescence in hospital. That experience made her even more determined to experience life.

As her mother could get cheap airline tickets, she travelled at every opportunity. By the time she turned 18, she had visited Australia, Europe and the United States.

Then came that trip to Payatas. She and the 16 young people in the group stayed in a school - School For Humanity, set up by a Filipina to educate street children.

"We just spent nine days observing life and playing with the children," recalls Ms Khong.

The poverty everywhere left a deep impression. "We were sleeping on a mat and bathed only when there was water. Every day, you waited for the water truck to come. Based on the number of pails we were given, we worked out how many scoops of water we could each have," she says.

The month after she returned from Payatas, she travelled through France, Switzerland and London. "But it didn't seem as meaningful as being in Payatas," she says.

After a stint as a relief teacher, she went back to the dumpsite, taking along several friends. There was no intention to do anything noble. Her group taught English at the School for Humanity and did some basic first aid. "Many of the kids came to school with wounds from insect bites. We taught them how to clean their wounds," she says.

"I realised that I didn't have any skills. I thought they had given me more than I could give them. I just wanted to go and discover what made them happy despite their circumstances."

She stayed with the families of some of the students, and worked alongside them at the dumpsite to find out what it was like. "To scavenge, you go out with pants, a long-sleeved shirt, boots and a sickle. You don't talk. If you open your mouth, flies get in," she says. "You don't really know what you will find. They have found body parts, you know." She adds that the back-breaking work earns scavengers just $3 a day.

It was a time of much reflection.

She had made friends with the school owner's son, a young man her age. Unlike many young people in Payatas, he had managed to evade the trap of drugs and make it to university. "He had so much to share, his hopes, his fears and the challenges the community faced."

Back home, she decided not to pursue an IT career. "I told myself I had to do something more meaningful and live my life to the best," she says. She decided to get a diploma in education and continue going to Payatas every year. "I gave myself five years to find out if I wanted to continue helping out in Payatas or devote myself to teaching," says Ms Khong, who taught at CHIJ Toa Payoh for a few years.

But with each passing year, her commitment to Payatas grew. Five years later, in 2003, she left teaching and started acts29 as a registered charity in the Philippines.

The name is an acronym for A Call To Serve and symbolises a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles, a book in the Bible which ends at Chapter 28. Today it comes under Caritas Singapore, the umbrella body for Catholic charities.

She started visiting other non-governmental organisations in the region, especially those working with the young and underprivileged. The new charity's first project was a feeding project in Payatas in 2003. "We realised that the student numbers drop in December because they have to work with Christmas coming. They stop coming to school because they have to work for their food."

To make sure the students completed the school year, the group started feeding 50 children daily with money she and her friends raised in Singapore.

Other initiatives followed. These include Dream Beyond, a programme to expose the kids to life beyond the dumpsite. Trips were organised to zoos, museums, planetariums, ecoparks. "Many of the children grow up surrounded by drugs and crime. When you give them plasticine to express what they want to be when they grow up, they make guns, drugs and babies. That's all they know," she says.

In 2005, acts29 hired its first employee - a Filipina with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in business - who helped them identify issues and problems facing the community.

One of the biggest hurdles? Birth certificates. Many of the children in Payatas were born at home, without a midwife to register the birth. Without a birth certificate, many could not get admitted into schools.

So acts29 trained a group of mothers to apply for and process the document. It also approached the registrar's office and obtained the power of attorney to help register births. "There are many children now who have birth certificates issued by Sherlyn Khong," she says with a laugh. "Working with these people, we realised one thing. They have imaginary boundaries which they think they cannot cross so we have to help them challenge this mindset. We realised we can do this with the youths."

The group has given scholarships to 30 children, including several who have gone on to college to study subjects from architecture to social work. With five full-time staff and six volunteers now, it has started a rehabilitation programme to keep children off the streets and away from a life of crime. Their most recent project is SmallPieces, a social enterprise selling mosaic artwork done by poor families.

The group has expanded beyond Payatas and is now helping the underprivileged in Rodriguez Rizal, another poor settlement.

Ms Khong - who lives in a five-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio with her mother - goes to Payatas about half a dozen times a year and spends more than three months a year there. The rest of her time goes to administrative work and raising funds here. Besides herself, about 20 other Singaporeans are actively involved in acts29.

Ms Khong gives tuition, both at home and at a centre, to feed herself and pay the bills. Doing what she does, she says, is not easy. It has cost her a couple of relationships.

"There are many ups and downs and I've wanted to give up many times," she says. "But there is no stopping now because it has grown so much and there are so many people involved. It means that I'm doing something right."

WATCH THE VIDEO ONLINE

Sherlyn Khong talks about her meeting with a poor boy

http://str.sg/ELD

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Slumming it - and loving it'. Print Edition | Subscribe